Life-Cycle Events for a Rabbi During COVID-19
JNS.org – There have been countless times I’ve officiated at funeral and burial services since August 1984, when I came to Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The most recent two funerals were unlike all that preceded them. They bespeak our new reality during this COVID-19 pandemic.
In both cases, the deceased persons — one woman and one man — were over 94 years of age. Their children acknowledged that they had lived long and valuable lives. Through their tears, and their very personal and heartfelt words of grief, they marked the end of their parents’ lives and the beginning of their formal period of bereavement. In those general ways, these services were unremarkable. But under the strict limitations that now prevail, I could not console these mourners as I wanted.
At a funeral at King David Memorial Gardens, the casket was brought to the grave and quickly lowered. That was the way we always proceed. I read Psalm 16, shared a few personal thoughts, and then invited the 11 other people assembled to speak. Almost everyone contributed, adding meaningful stories that captured the essence of this woman’s life. In addition, three people spoke from California. Each of us then pulled on a pair of latex gloves, shoveled some earth onto the coffin, and then added a few blades of grass to the earth. Those steps were common to our Ohr Kodesh practice.
After we read Psalm 23, the three daughters standing at appropriate distances from one another were joined by their brother from California in reciting the Mourners’ Kaddish. We all then walked away from the grave and stood far from one another. At the end of every other burial service, I would approach the mourners with quiet words of consolation and hugs that I hope would let them know that they were not alone. On this day, I could only indicate with my eyes and with my very audible good wishes that I shared their sadness. I had not been able to comfort them sufficiently. They needed personal closeness and the healing that comes from human touch. I walked away hoping that they would remain healthy.
At Mount Lebanon Cemetery, we numbered exactly 10. Again, I read the same psalm and spoke briefly about a man I davened with and taught over several decades. His son spoke movingly and his daughter added her loving thoughts from a great distance. Again, each of us donned latex gloves before we carefully placed earth on the coffin. In an awkward yet sincere way, we spread out in two makeshift lines on the grounds of the cemetery. As the two mourners walked from the grave and through our lines, I thought of the many hours that the deceased and his wife and I had spent together. My words of comfort sounded hollow in my ears.
At Ohr Kodesh, with only one level of clergy — one rabbi and one cantor — and a generally tight-knit community, congregants and clergy have the opportunity to get very close. Yet years of friendship and shared Jewish experience could not overcome the distance imposed on us as we moved from the grave.
And now, these two families face the daunting challenge to mourn almost alone. I as their rabbi and we as their virtual family of comforters are stripped of many of our familiar tools to assist them. We can call them and text them. We cannot hold their hands and stroke their shoulders to support them. None of us can fulfill the mitzvah of comforting mourners in the desired way.
In these two cases and in so many more, we cannot activate the power of interpersonal caring that distinguishes us as a Jewish community. During this public health emergency, we have all been advised to practice social distancing. To my mind, the policy is important, but the words themselves are unhelpful because this is precisely the time that we need social closeness. Deaths impose emotional distance, even isolation. In normal times, gestures of loving kindness help to restore mourners and reintegrate them into their community. I am deeply saddened by these constraints.
And it is not only mourners who are experiencing emotional distancing. There are many big moments occurring that bring both joy and tug at our hearts. My wife and I were blessed with the birth of a granddaughter the other day. Her parents named her while we watched through a Zoom connection. While we are so thankful that she, her mother, her father, and her two older siblings are healthy, we remain apart from her, unable to embrace her and the other members of her family. Our daily electronic visits are helpful, but not satisfying.
And what about elderly and isolated parents whose adult children cannot comfort them if they are ill and/or emotionally at risk? How impoverished are they, and how much are their children weakened in the face of this virus? The basic honor and respect that children extend to parents is short-circuited by COVID-19.
I pray that we can soon resume our loving and healing ways. In the meantime, though, I also pray that we all rely on our different religious traditions and rituals, as well as the decades of friendships we have built to remain mentally resilient and psychologically bonded. I pray that we all keep the most needy among us in mind. And I pray that while it’s necessary to physically distance, we remain spiritually supportive.
The truth is that the core of our strength comes from our inner-connectedness — our brains, our souls, our spirits. Deepening that connectedness is both an opportunity and the sustenance we need during this unprecedented time.
Rabbi Lyle Fishman has served as the rabbi of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland for 36 years.