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We asked 13 rabbis: How should we process 500,000 American COVID deaths?

This post is part of our Rabbi Roundtable series.

This week, the United States recorded its 500,000th death from COVID-19.

It’s a staggering number, one many of us have struggled to wrap our heads around. For thoughts on how to process the milestone we turned to rabbis across the country for their wisdom, both on how we should mourn those lost to the pandemic and on how we should move forward.

Image by Anya Ulinich

They wrote about the value of turning to community, the importance of ritual in guiding us along the path of grief ahead and the coexistence of extraordinary miracles and extraordinary loss — and more.

Here’s what they had to say.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, Ikar, Los Angeles, Calif.:

Rabbi Sharon Brous

Rabbi Sharon Brous

This week we reached an unimaginable marker: more than half a million Americans dead from a virus that has ravaged the world, devastating families and communities, leaving dread and sorrow in its wake.

All around us is loss: lost lives, lost time, lost opportunities.

Our challenge is to resist the inclination toward denialism. The danger here is that we play-act that we’re ok when we’re not. Willful amnesia is not a reflection of resilience. It is a sign of weakness.

We need to create more spaces for public mourning, a moral imperative after catastrophic loss. Grief is one of the most powerful expressions of love. It is an act of rebellion against the world as it is, a refusal to let people disappear.

I pray every day that we remain open and loving even in the midst of so much sorrow. I pray that our tears flow today, so that tomorrow we might find the strength, compassion and moral clarity we need to begin to heal.

Chloe Zelkha, rabbinical student, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, Ohio:

Chloe Zelkha

Chloe Zelkha

In my work with the COVID Grief Network, which offers free grief support to young adults who’ve lost someone to COVID-19, I have the privilege of sitting with people who are grieving right now. Theirs is a multifaceted grief: the grief of not being able to say goodbye in person; of not being able to sit shiva or mark loss in familiar ways; of having mixed feelings about a vaccine that is too late to save their loved one; of righteous rage at a society and government that cast some of us as disposable.

It is impossible for us to fully feel the weight of 500,000 lives lost all at once. Often, our hearts crack open best when we grieve one life at a time. When I allow myself to touch what it was like to lose my dad four years ago, and the magic of him — his laugh, his gait — my heart is more able to open to the mass loss that this last year has brought.

May we find ways — individually and together, in private and in public — to open our hearts to grief, and not turn away.

Rabbi Jaymee Alpert, Congregation Beth David, Saratoga, Calif. and Rabbi Darby Leigh, Kerem Shalom, Concord, Mass.:

Rabbi Jaymee Alpert and Rabbi Darby Leigh

Rabbi Darby Leigh (L) and Rabbi Jaymee Alpert (R)

We created a ritual that we will share with our congregations on opposite coasts to mark the one year anniversary of the country shutting down: We will light a yahrzeit candle and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of the more than 500,000 lives lost to Covid and other loved ones who passed away during the last year who were not able to be fully mourned, and to acknowledge the many losses we have endured.

We will recite prayers of healing for those who are sick. We will blow shofar to echo the sobbing of our souls and to herald a new and hopefully better year. Rabbi Alpert will conclude with Havdalah at the end of this yahrzeit-Shabbat. As we sip wine, we will bless the sweet alongside the bitter. We will breathe in the scent of the spices to remind us to hold onto what we have learned over the last year. And we will bless the light of the multi-wicked candle — a flame that burns brightly as community comes together, whether in person or online.

Rabbi David Lerner, Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass.:

Rabbi David Lerner

Rabbi David Lerner

There are no words to express the pain of this pandemic. Before my father got COVID in January, I had already officiated at 75 funerals, virtually and in-person.

Having my father die so quickly and alone has been devastating. That said, my shul has supported us on every level. That outreach has made the pain more bearable.

I am trying to find a balance of leading my community and my own mourning. Saying Kaddish on Zoom is oddly moving, although bizarre. I look around at the other Zoom boxes and see so many others who have experienced loss. I find myself in tears and in a fog. But as I move slowly forward — as we all move forward, after all these deaths — I am comforted by the shared community of mourners and all those who make up our minyan.

Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg, Shir Tikvah, Minneapolis, Minn.:

Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg

Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg

There are two types of miracles: those miracles that are obvious and those that are hidden. Our springtime holidays embody each paradigm. The Pesach miracle is obvious: The darkness of slavery is transformed by Divine will. In the Purim story, the miracle is hidden. The call to action comes in the form of a question delivered in a message from Mordechai to Esther: “Mi yodea im la’et kazot higa’at la’malkhut?” — “Who knows if it wasn’t for just such a moment that you are here?”

As we confront the tragedy of the global pandemic and the more than 500,000 deaths of U.S. family members, friends and neighbors, we must remember the core lesson of Purim: inside the heart of each trembling, grieving, disoriented soul is the potential for malkhut — for dignity and agency, for healing and change.

We must dedicate our resources to support those in our communities most impacted, to push against the isolation and self-focus that this last year has reinforced. May we, through our action, prayer and care for each other, embody the miracles we need.

Rabbi Mira Rivera, Romemu, New York, N.Y.:

Rabbi Mira Rivera

Rabbi Mira Rivera

The 500,000 — and counting — lives lost in this pandemic cannot be adequately honored in one ritual.

We acknowledge the sorrow not just in our own lives, but in our neighborhood. After the pandemic first closed our doors, while we entered the social media landscape in full force and rediscovered old-fashioned pastoral support by phone, we began returning to our neighborhood twice a week with a clothing distribution and community kitchen initiative. Masked and distanced, and with windows open, we prepare meals for distribution to bypassers, community refrigerators across Manhattan and those we encounter in the subways.

By supporting those facing difficulty, we honor the more than half million lives lost in this pandemic.

Rabbi Barry Gelman, United Orthodox Synagogues, Houston, Tex.:

Rabbi Barry Gelman

Rabbi Barry Gelman

I do not know how to commemorate the death toll of more than 500,000 souls in the United States. Nevertheless, we must try.

We must remember that each of those people was important in someone’s life, and that their death has left a hole of darkness and sadness. S.Y. Agnon writes that each person is so unique, so special, that their death actually diminishes the glory of God.

This is what I hope to teach my community as we discuss the 500,000 dead. We will use Torah to remind us of the special impact that each of us can have on this world. We will pray for healing of the sick, and in memory of those who perished.

Kendell Pinkney, rabbinical student, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, N.Y.:

Kendell R. Pinkney

Kendell R. Pinkney

As a rabbinical student working with arts and culture and educational organizations, my work this past year has been different from that of the many rabbis providing critical leadership to single communities.

I have had a front row seat in seeing the devastating effects of the pandemic on Jewish artists and Jews of color. There is no simple way to serve each of these communities in such a time of profound loss. My aim has been to be present with individual community members in hopes of providing some sense of connection in a time where it is sorely needed, especially now, as we pass half a million deaths.

The past year has been a humbling time for learning more how to show up for people in the various ways that they need.

Rabbi Lisa S. Greene, North Shore Congregation Israel, Glencoe, Illi.:

Rabbi Lisa Greene

Rabbi Lisa Greene

This loss is beyond imagine. Our role is to help our community to live with responsibility, respect and kindness as we look at the numbers, and to focus on individuals within those totals.

We must name loss and grief, but not only loss and grief — also gratitude, awe and joy, even as the backdrop is profound loss.

Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, Temple Beth Zion, Brookline, Mass.:

Rabbi Claudia Kreiman

Rabbi Claudia Kreiman

One year ago, one Purim ago, was the last time we were physically together. As we commemorate 12 months since that celebration, and as we mark more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S., our community continues to move forward by seeking new ways to support one another. We ended this Shabbat with a community Havdalah, marking the one year anniversary since COVID required us to close our physical doors.

It has been a year of grief and pain, but also of joyous moments of connection and celebration. Together we will pray for healing. We will remember those who have died and those who are in mourning. We must recommit ourselves to building a world with love and from love. We can’t wait for the day, G-d willing, soon, that we can be together again in body as well as in spirit.

Rabbi Andy Bachman, executive director, Jewish Community Project Lower Manhattan, New York, N.Y.:

Rabbi Andy Bachman

Rabbi Andy Bachman

Who among us can comprehend the enormity of more than 500,000 Americans dead from COVID?

The scale is beyond human capacity for an appropriate expression of empathy. But we cannot let this obscure the demand for the manifestation of a shared grief, and offerings of support and love — each a critical element in our shared confrontation with this pandemic.

The Talmud reminds us that “she who saves one life is considered to have saved the whole world.” Perhaps this is our meditation: If we meditate on those we know and take responsibility in our own circles of family, friendship and community, the effect will be both collective mourning and recovery into the blessing of life that has the potential to heal the world.

Rabbi Nora Feinstein, director of organizing, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Calls for Human Rights, Princeton, N.J.:

Rabbi Nora Feinstein

Rabbi Nora Feinstein

Purim is a milestone for many of our communities: it was the last holiday many observed together in person. On Purim, we read Megillat Esther, a story of unexpected heroes, worlds turning upside down and the finding of “light, joy and honor” in the midst of danger and uncertainty.

Each and every week of this long year, rabbis and cantors offered light, joy and honor to their communities. They made space for joys and simchas amidst unprecedented loss; they honored the lives and memories of community members; they supported all the mourners grieving loved ones.

500,000 souls is a staggering, incomprehensible figure. And yet, here we are: mourning half a million citizens lost to COVID, each a person whose life and memory deserves honor. A year in, we’re still in the thick of the pandemic, and we must keep turning to our sources of light.


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