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Accepting the ‘empty chair': Jewish leaders offer support to the bereaved as Rosh Hashana celebrations near

Sol Levinson & Bros., Inc. Funeral Home has an outdoor chapel in response to coronavirus.

The Jewish New Year is such a festive occasion that leaders of the faith blow a ram’s horn, or shofar, repeatedly in celebration. One source of joy is the coming together of families.

But when families have lost a loved one during the outgoing year, that person’s absence can be especially painful during Rosh Hashana, his or her empty chair serving as a reminder of the loss.

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Baltimore-area Jewish leaders say they’re always concerned about those who are bereaved as major holidays loom. But they’re focusing their attention even more sharply now on those community members, given the extraordinary circumstances of the past six months.

Restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic have made it impossible for rabbis and funeral homes to hold services in their customary forms since March. That may intensify the pain grieving individuals are trying to process as their families reconnect around holiday rituals.

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Rosh Hashana, a two-day holiday that begins at sundown next Friday, brings in the year 5781 on the Jewish calendar. It also marks the onset of the Jewish High Holy Days.

The confluence of circumstances makes it a good time for those in mourning and those who care about them to think about grieving, says Donna Kane, a grief clinician with Jewish Community Services in Pikesville. She is a behavioral therapist who has specialized in the subject for years.

“Grief is not an illness, but it’s an excruciatingly painful process mentally, emotionally, spiritually and even physically," Kane said. “A lot of people I speak to are having a very hard time right now because the traditional methods that have worked for thousands of years are not available. But there are strategies for managing some of that loneliness and isolation."

Donna Kane, grief clinician at Jewish Community Services, says that as the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur near, people in mourning don't have to take part in all of their usual holiday activities.
Donna Kane, grief clinician at Jewish Community Services, says that as the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur near, people in mourning don't have to take part in all of their usual holiday activities. (Kenneth K. Lam)

During the 10-day period of the High Holy Days, Jews are to face and repent any wrongs they might have committed, determine how to improve, and prepare for the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, when God is said to decide whether their atonement is sufficient to grant them life for another year.

Unlike Passover, which is usually celebrated at home, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur call for lengthy services in synagogues. The events traditionally bring families and community members together for music, recitations and prayers, all of which become touchstones of the participants’ lives.

This year, the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox rabbis in the area will hold services via Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms, not in person, says Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, as they continue to be careful regarding the risks posed by the pandemic.

Some plan to supplement the experience by lending prayer books for use at home during streaming services. At least one synagogue, Chabad of Hunt Valley, is offering “Rosh Hashana at Home” kits, including candles, a holiday guide and seasonal treats such as apples, honey and challah, a traditional bread.

“The Jewish holidays are a time when people are used to being with others, whether it’s at services or at festival meals,” Busch says. “The inability to attend [these events] with loved ones is obviously a crucial missing piece. I expect this to be a deeply meaningful holiday, a time that will draw people together. But it will be different.”

Baltimore’s Jewish community has also spent the past six months adapting when it comes to grieving the dead.

Jewish custom has always called for extensive and particular mourning practices, an outgrowth of the belief that death — a natural part of life and of God’s plan — is to be commemorated and humanely grieved, but not feared.

“I expect this to be a deeply meaningful holiday, a time that will draw people together. But it will be different.”


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Judaism requires the body of a deceased person to be buried within two days, for example, and for guardians, or shomerim, to sit with the body from the time of death through the time of burial as a sign of respect.

Many traditions around death then center on comforting survivors, typically in ways that involve just the kinds of in-person contact that remain under restriction.

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Matt Levinson is president of Sol Levinson & Bros. Inc. Funeral Home in Pikesville, which has served the Jewish community in the Baltimore area since the late 19th century.

When Jewish funerals draw hundreds of mourners, as they often do at his firm, it’s an expression of the tradition of relieving suffering through physical company, says Levinson, a fifth-generation leader of the family business.

And the ancient practice of sitting shiva, first alluded to in the Book of Job, calls for friends and loved ones to visit the home of a grieving person or family to offer comfort in the form of prayer, food or simple conversation during a period of up to seven days.

After Gov. Larry Hogan issued a directive limiting the size of indoor gatherings to 10 in March, Sol Levinson & Bros. began offering only small graveside services, and two of the attendees had to be the rabbi and the funeral director.

Over the months, the company responded to eased restrictions by turning its carport into a makeshift covered chapel, where it holds funerals with a limit of 20 attendees.

"You don’t necessarily have to go to your daughter’s house or make that fish your grandmother always made. The traditions can wait until next year.”


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Sol Levinson & Bros. was already livestreaming funerals as a convenience to faraway relatives, and demand for that service skyrocketed with the pandemic.

So has demand for a new service: virtual shivas. The company helps clients set up webcams and computer links to make those happen, with rabbis, hosts and visitors signing in via videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet.

Levinson says clients are thankful for the services, even if they’re far from ideal.

“We’ve seen firsthand over the decades the importance of the community being there for the family,” he says. “I mean, nothing compares to your best friend coming over and giving you a hug. But people are coming on the website, writing stories and leaving messages. That helps. We’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

To Kane, the old traditions serve a crucial function, helping mourners engage in tasks that help remove typical obstacles to healthy grieving

For one thing, they create opportunities for people in bereavement to “tell their story” again and again, a process that can help them gradually integrate their sense of loss. And trading memories or hearing fresh stories can reduce the all-too-human tendency to cling to an idealized view of the deceased, a tendency Kane says can slow recovery.

Perhaps most important as the holidays near, Kane says, is remembering that as tempting it will be for many in mourning to take part in their usual holiday activities, it might be healthier if they decline, at least for now.

"You don’t necessarily have to go to your daughter’s house or make that fish your grandmother always made,” Kane says. “The traditions can wait until next year.”

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If people in mourning do take part, Kane suggests that everyone present feel free to talk about the person who once “filled that chair,” even to place a photo of him or her at the table, as it will keep that person present and release the pressure many will be feeling.

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“Especially during holidays, people can forget that grief is exhausting,” she says.

Kane and other Jewish leaders shared such insights Thursday night in a livestreamed memorial service in honor of those in the community who have died in recent months.

A roster of rabbis read aloud the names of more than 400 people, granting them the public acknowledgment most had been denied.

Busch recited the Kaddish prayer of mourning, Kane and Rabbi Jessy Dressin of Repair the World Baltimore offered recommendations on combating isolation, and Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation shared somber yet hopeful reflections.

In Jewish tradition, Schwartz said, grieving a loved one, however painful, means appreciating what has gone before as a way of embracing a new and different future.

The idea seemed as relevant to celebrating a new year as to any process of letting go.

“The past is only meaningful when it informs our lives in the present and guides us into the future with greater meaning and faith," he said. "In that way, the memories of those we recall today will truly be a blessing.”

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