Attending a shiva call (comforting a Jewish mourner) is one of the most meaningful acts of condolence. In Judaism, we are taught that when a member of our community feels the pain of loss, we are obligated to be there to provide comfort and solace. Each shiva is different, depending on the traditions and beliefs of the mourning family and the nature of the loss. The primary purpose of entering the home of Shiva is to be a menachem avel (a comforter of the bereaved). This is a wonderful mitzvah for the person leading the service, and also gives the mourner the feeling of support and comfort.
It is for this reason a Minyan of Comfort program is being held in Dix Hills, NY. A joint project of the FJMC (Federation of Jewish Men’s Club) and the Cantors Assembly, the program is designed to provide volunteers with the needed ritual and social skills to lead a shiva service in a meaningful and comforting manner. The program addresses the different comfort levels of mourners, desired logistics to create the appropriate mood, and customs that take place at the conclusion of shiva.
I am currently teaching a program that involves attending five 1-hour classes. The course involves a discussion of customs, including students’ own experiences and understanding of the shiva experience. It is necessary to know Hebrew, as the students will be learning the prayer service. They also learn the difference between a shiva prayer service and a regular prayer service. In order to gain a better understanding of the prayers, students learn and chant nusach (proper motifs for the specific service) specifically written for the shiva minyan prayers.
I believe practice really helps in this class. It gives the student more confidence in their own ability to be a leader and to bring comfort to mourners in a meaningful way. To gain practical experience, all students are asked to stay after class for the evening prayer service so that they can practice their newly developed skills. At first they observe and listen, but the goal is by the end of the program that the student feels comfortable enough to lead. At the end of the course, the students receive a certificate of completion signed by both the president of the FJMC and the Cantors Assembly.
The program was first developed in Chicago. The idea was taken from the book “A Minyan of Comfort” by Sidney Greenburg, published in 1996. The program was piloted in the Midwest Region of the FJMC in November 2014 by the Men’s Club of Congregation Beth Shalom under the direction of Hazzan Steven Stoehr and the Men’s Club of Congregation Beth Judea under the direction of Hazzan Roger Weisberg.
I was first approached about the program by Rabbi Chuck Simon of the FJMC at a NY Region Meeting. After speaking with Rabbi Simon and current president Aaron Altman of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, I contacted Hazzan Steven Stoehr to find out more about the program and what was needed to implement it at the Dix Hills Jewish Center.
There are wonderful booklets provided for the program which are available at the FJMC Website called “Creating a Minyan of Comfort”. These booklets provide a step-by-step tool to aid the student towards the goal of becoming a lay shiva leader. At the Dix Hills Jewish Center both men and women take part in the class. Currently there are 6 participants.