Just a few weeks ago, Denver’s Jewish community planned for Bar-Bat Mitzvahs and weddings under an illusion of normality. Torah portions came together. Invitations had arrived; RSVPs returned.
COVID-19 has disrupted Jewish lifecycle events like a Biblical whirlwind. Exclamation points leading up to the big day have been replaced by question marks on calendars.
“So much is unknown,” says Rabbi Rick Rheins of Temple Sinai, who just participated in a conference call between area rabbis and medical experts from a major health facility.
“One rabbi asked about holding small minyans. The experts said no,” he relates.
Sanctuaries are shuttered, classes suspended. The only activity they recommend, within reason, “is going outside, where you’re relatively safe. Coronavirus does not linger in the air.”
Like other synagogues, Sinai utilizes hora’at sha’ah (the law of the hour), a halachic provision referring to doing what is necessary during a crisis or an emergency. “You don’t set a precedent,” Rheins says, “but we are in a crisis — you do what you’ve got to do.”
No Bar or Bat Mitzvahs are scheduled for the rest of March at the temple. While the rabbi is confident that these simchas will be rescheduled in upcoming months, the exact timing is a fluctuating enigma.
“Some parents are looking at May,” Rheins says. “But in another week, people will learn more about predictions for the coronavirus spread. Maybe June? Many families just haven’t chosen another date at this point.
“One girl who just learned her Torah portion asked, ‘What’s going to happen to me? Will I have to learn a new Torah portion?’ The Reform Jewish answer is, we’ll work with you.”
Similar to double Torah portions like this week’s Vayakhel-Pekudei, Rheins suggests that at some future date the Bar or Bat Mitzvah might add their portion to the regular one and chant their originally prepared text.
“We don’t normally do this,” he adds. “It’s an accommodation, because it’s an emergency.”
Couples poised on entering into the most profound relationship of their lives are reviewing options such as restricting nuptials to the immediate family and postponing the reception.
“One of our brides and grooms were committed to a specific date,” Rheins says, “but decided to limit the wedding to a gathering of the immediate family. ‘Our party will come later.’
“Others say, ‘You know what? We are going to delay the wedding. It’s putting way too much anxiety on people, especially those who must travel here.’”
Rheins says that rabbinic flexibility and sensitivity are crucial in helping communities maintain spiritual and social connection to one another.
“We’re ramping up our live streaming, which we’ve offered for a long time at Sinai,” he says. “It might be Rabbi Jordy or my wife Susan (Miller Rheins) or myself speaking to an empty sanctuary — but at least our congregants won’t feel alone.
“Sinai is also thinking of conferancing Lunch and Learn over Zoom, and we’re looking at ways that Rabbi Ray Zwerin can do the same thing with Torah study.
“We’re exploring all online venues that will enable us to meet, connect, see and hear one another during this time.”
Rheins is concerned about Passover, which begins the night of Wednesday, April 8. “What do we do! I think if someone is symptomatic, they should politely tell their host, ‘I’m coughing and sneezing, I don’t think I have coronavirus but I think I should stay home.’
“Stay tuned,” he says. “We’ll know more as we go forward. No one has a clue when the coronavirus will end right now.
“It’s as if we’re casting about in the wind.”
Jim Cohen, president and CEO of Feldman Mortuary, finished moving his daughter out of her university dorm before breaking to discuss Jewish rituals and burial logistics during a pandemic.
“We’re taking the lead of our community rabbis who will only officiate at graveside services and recommend private graveside services limited to healthy family members,” Cohen says.
“We just lost a gentleman who is well known in our community. Rabbi Black of Temple Emanuel will hold a private service now and a public service at a later date.”
Cohen says that Feldman, which monitors information from the CDC and is in constant contact with Jewish funeral homes throughout the US, will ultimately be tasked with burying individuals who died from COVID-19. Then what?
“If the deceased tests positive for COVID-19, immediate survivors must self-quarantine for 14 days,” Cohen says.
“It’s up to the family whether we bury the deceased without them or hold their loved one for two weeks, which is contrary to Jewish tradition and very hard on the family.”
The CDC and affiliated health organizations have not yet issued any mandates to funeral directors.
“Whenever we care for a deceased loved one, we use universal precautions” such as personal protective equipment. You never know what communicable diseases a body might have.
“This would be no different. Nothing would change our policies except the public gathering piece, which affects the number of mourners allowed at the gravesite service.”
Family members who have experienced a death are encouraged to make service arrangements online, by phone or email to reduce physical visits to the mortuary that might put the staff at risk.
Volunteers performing taharah, the ritual of washing the body, will continue following universal precautions involving masks, gowns, foot covers, gloves and face shields.
Cohen says that Feldman Mortuary, founded by his great-grandfather Sam Feldman in 1936, has never experienced anything like this pandemic.
“My greatest hope is that we’ll get through this together, that we’ll be stronger and healthier,” he says. “It is our obligation to care for our Jewish loved ones with respect and kindness. This won’t change now.”
<em>Shiva, the seven-day ritual set aside to mourn the loss of a loved one and find comfort in visitors’ gentle words, is undergoing dramatic changes intended to curtail COVID-19.
“We had a service yesterday for a 104-year-old person who led a stellar life,” says Rabbi Yaakov Chaitovsky of BMH-BJ. “Twenty people attended a graveside service. Normally, hundreds of mourners would have filled the sanctuary.”
It is not just the sanctuaries that are empty. Some mourners’ homes are empty due to their decision to hold private shivas or limit the number of visitors. Email condolences or phone calls are encouraged. Some request that no food be delivered due to possible contagion.
Jewish law supports these measures during threats to human life, such as a pandemic.
Chaitovsky says that phone calls should ideally mirror shiva etiquette in the home. “Typically, conversations at the house should be guided by the mourner. If he or she chooses to speak about the loved one, you should listen.
“Callers should introduce themselves and express their condolences. If the mourner chooses not to engage, just say you’re sorry for their loss. One of the potentially worst things you can do is try to fill the silence with well-intentioned platitudes that may fall the wrong way.”
Chaitovsky does not visit the shiva home. Instead he phones the mourner and checks in regularly. “The effect of this disruption to routine is very unsettling.”
Traditionally, Mishnah is studied in the house of a mourner by those who visit to comfort them. This is because the letters of the word “Mishna” are the same as the Hebrew word for soul, “neshama.” “We think of the soul of the loved one,” Chaitovsky says.
“I think any study and memorial prayer in English or Hebrew that mentions the person’s Hebrew name is worthwhile.”
Chaitovsky says that Judaism has withstood the test of time and invariably finds ways to respond appropriately in crisis situations, “including this one, which has disrupted every aspect of our lives to an extent I’ve never experienced.”
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