The Challenge Posed by Social Distancing to Jewish Mourning

March 23, 2020 | Tevi Troy
About the author: Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide. In 2001, he served as the first director of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives at the Department of Labor. His latest book is Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump

Following the death of a close relative, observant Jews follow a series of practices that serve to allay the isolation inherent in grief. Immediately after the funeral, a mourner remains at home for seven days—known as “sitting shiva”—while friends, relatives, and community members come to express their condolences. For the next eleven months, the mourner must attend synagogue thrice daily to recite kaddish, which can only be said in a quorum (minyan) of ten men. Tevi Troy, recently bereaved of his mother, explains what COVID-19 has meant for his own grieving:

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.

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, fifteen of us gathered around a streetlight, as the prayer ending the Sabbath takes place after [sunset] but before we are 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 ten 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.

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.

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