Losing a parent is always difficult, especially as important financial and religious arrangements must be made during a time of intense grief. A global pandemic doesn’t help. But when my mother died on March 3, my family still had no idea how difficult it would be to stay safe while still honoring her in the Jewish tradition.
The Jewish response to death is communal. The local community comes together to support the mourners, who open up their home for a week of shiva. During this time the kaddish, or Jewish prayer for the dead, is recited at services three times a day. The mourner then may leave the home but remains obligated to say the kaddish three times daily for 11 months. According to Jewish law, these obligations must be fulfilled in the presence of a minyan, or prayer quorum of 10 men over the age of 13.
The current coronavirus crisis creates a challenge for those wishing to adhere to these Jewish mourning customs, especially in light of Judaism’s prioritization of public and individual health over ritual obligation. In Maryland, where I live, synagogues closed their doors last weekend to services and other community activities. In New Jersey, communities could not have communal prayer services in the home or even outdoors. In the interest of safety, similar changes are occurring throughout the country.
During normal times, when one is home and lives in a Jewish community, meeting the kaddish obligation is relatively simple. Synagogues post minyan times on their websites. In heavily Jewish areas, there are plenty of options that make planning manageable. Elsewhere, every one of the approximately 1,000 minyanim over the course of 11 months can present a challenge. I knew a rabbi in Tacoma, Wash., who spent nearly two hours each day driving to and from a Seattle-area synagogue for the 35-minute morning service.
Even if you are from a robust Jewish community, the faithful can face difficulties in finding a minyan while traveling. Resourceful travelers have held minyanim in airports, on planes, in streetcars or in theme parks. Some have had to “Uber in” eligible Jews to get the 10 needed for a minyan.
On this most recent Sabbath, before even stricter protocols went into effect, I fulfilled the obligations to my mother by praying at outdoor minyanim, including two that took place in my driveway. At the conclusion of the Sabbath, 15 of us gathered around a streetlight, as the prayer ending the Sabbath takes place after it turned dark but before we were allowed to turn on lights. No one said anything, but everyone knew to keep a safe distance. Everyone had his own prayer book to minimize the chances of spreading disease through shared surfaces.
Even that option is gone now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines against gatherings of 10 or more people, and our rabbis have suspended minyanim. From my previous service as a public-health official, I fully support the need for social distancing and I am adhering to the stricter guidelines, as is my community. My rabbi ruled that in the absence of my own kaddish, I should if possible designate someone else, in an area not under the same public-health constraints, to say the prayer for me. I must also study a Jewish text, the Mishna, during the periods in which the prayers would typically be said. The reason that Jews study this written collection of oral law during mourning is that the Hebrew word mishna is an anagram for neshama, or soul. The kaddish is said to protect the souls of the dead during the period of heavenly judgment.
Kaddish proxies and study are only backup plans, and I am discomfited at missing out on my primary obligation. This past weekend, in one of my last recitations of kaddish for the foreseeable future, I thought of past generations of Jews who encountered even more difficulties gathering together—during pogroms, wars or the Holocaust. The nearby friends, still at a safe distance, comforted me and joined me in prayer.
As American society unites to protect against the virus in the days ahead, it will be hard not to feel alone as I join other Jewish mourners in trying to meet my sacred obligation to the departed.
Read in the Wall Street Journal.