Pesach 5780/April 2020

Pesach 5780/April 2020

As we embark on the final days of the Passover holiday, I am reflecting upon the reality that saying the Yizkor memorial prayers on the final day of the festival will look and feel differently this year. Some synagogues will livestream or Zoom their Yizkor memorial prayers. Others, such as Ansche Chesed on New York’s Upper West Side will recite them prior to the start of the festival late Tuesday afternoon. 

None of this is surprising, after all, these are unprecedented times and nearly everything related to death and grieving in the era of Covid-19 has compelled us all to think and act in new ways. 

The moment of death itself has been transformed for Covid-19 patients and their loved ones. Most, if not all, die alone, for strict quarantine protocols now keep all but a handful of doctors and nurses from close contact with the patient. Heartbroken for the dying and their families, Dr. Ee Tay, Director of the Pediatric ER at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, launched a fundraising initiative tied to her birthday that enabled her to secure 650 iPads, a tech tool preferred for having the video capability most conducive to serving patients who are intubated. Dr. Tay told People Magazine that “even though the patients can’t necessarily speak to the family members, the family members [can] perhaps bid them goodbye and [send] well wishes and words of comfort during that time.”

Covid-19 has disrupted the way funeral homes operate, with some unable to take more dead. With so many travel restrictions, even close family and next of kin cannot always make it in person, and when they do, only a small number are permitted to gather. My friend and colleague Rabbi Rachel Ain of the Sutton Place Synagogue in New York, at the epicenter of the outbreak here in the U.S., shared with me that she has done multiple funerals from her NYC apartment via Zoom. Clergy in the NY area are often unable to be present at the burial though some like my friend and colleague Rabbi Micah Peltz, from Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, NJ officiated at several graveside funerals this week, noting that the number of participants was limited to well under 10 including the Rabbi and funeral director. 

Some in the tri-state area who die without the money, family or identity required to get a proper funeral are destined for Hart Island, 101 acres of wind-swept sand and trees half a mile off the New York City borough of the Bronx. More than 1 million people have been buried on Hart Island over a 141 year period (according to Adam Geller of the Associated Press), with images of mass burials making headline news each day. 

The sadness these stories evoke stem from the realization that death and dying are so much more difficult to respond to from a social distance. Our sacred moments of viduy (confessional prior to death), kevurah (burial), seudat havra’ah (meal after a burial), shiva, kaddish and so many other rituals related to death and mourning that derive much of their power from the interpersonal connections and communal support have devolved as a result of the exigencies of the moment into mostly solitary experiences. 


Yet, creativity borne of necessity has led to new rituals to forge community and new networks to comfort the dying and the mourner. Former Krieger Schechter student, friend and spouse of a rabbinic colleague, Jane-Rachel (Sanow) Schonbrun has modeled this for us as she, her sister Lieba and their families will begin the shiva period for their beloved mother Joan Sanow z”l, immediately following the holiday. Their shiva includes “virtual hours,” special “rooms” dedicated to each family member, a comprehensive online Zoom minyan schedule (password protected of course), as well as instructions on where to make donations and how to donate meals for each family. There is also a form one can fill out to submit stories and memories and to upload pictures. 

[click here]

This year will be the first time I will not recite Yizkor for my father Rabbi Gershon Schwartz z”l (full disclosure, I did not recite Yizkor for my brother Eliezer z”l in 2004 as my father died suddenly on the 6th day of Pesach and therefore I was of  the status called an onen, one in the process of burying the dead and thus not obligated in positive, time-bound mitzvot). 

Yet, I marked his yahrzeit through a Zoom minyan with friends and family from all over the northeast. In some ways this format brought me closer to others who continue to remember and miss my father, something I would not have experienced had my family and I each gone to our own synagogue minyanim to recite kaddish.

So our sadness and sense of disorientation is tempered by the new ways that we are developing to hold on to the core values of our rituals. This year, more than ever let us reaffirm life as we find ways to honor those we love and to keep their memories alive. And may we celebrate the adaptability of our Jewish traditions which enables us to find meaningful new ways to do so.