Jewish Death and Mourning Rituals in Philly Adjust to Epidemic

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Jewish graves
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On March 18, Lisa Leff went to a shiva. She didn’t bring food, and she didn’t pin a kriyah ribbon to her clothing. She was in sweatpants, she was barefoot and she was sitting at her desk, at home.

The shiva service was taking place on her computer screen.

Leff didn’t know the man who had died particularly well, nor the bereaved. She knew only that he was a member of the Beth Israel of Chester County community of which she is a part, and that his family still wanted people to share in their grief and their celebration of their loved one’s life.


It was an emotional experience, Leff said. Her tears came in sadness for the man’s family and friends, deprived of the typical comforts of a warm, enveloping shiva, but also for what she was taking part in.

“I cried with the emotion I felt seeing what we Jews are capable of,” she said. “We take care of each other.”

Leff’s experience with a digitally mediated death ritual has quickly become the norm for those whose daily work brings them into contact with the dead and the bereaved. Funeral homes, cemeteries and chevrot kadisha are adapting their practices, ancient and contemporary, for the new social distancing restrictions.

For example, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia released a set of guidelines on March 20 for shivas, funerals and chevrot kadisha, complete with a citation from the Shulchan Aruch. The board emphasized that practices such as reception lines and sign-in books at funerals are not necessary for the fulfillment of one’s religious duties, among other answers to FAQs.

Brian Levine, an owner/partner at Joseph Levine & Sons, said that he and his employees are “ahead of the curve on the precautions we’re taking.” On a typical day, his employees could end up sharing a building with three or four chapel services worth of people, which usually range from 50 to 500 in attendance. Of course, these are not typical days.

The funeral home company, adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, is allowing no more than 10 people to attend the in-person chapel services, with the option of a livestream provided by the staff. Graveside services, too, are capped at 10. Limousine services are being discouraged, and the shiva materials — prayer books and folding chairs — are being kept in storage. Employees are doing as much work from home as they can.

Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks is taking similar precautions, according to Supervisor Director Carl Goldstein. Goldstein’s is recommending graveside services, though will certainly keep chapel services available for as long as they can. Employees are doing everything they can to keep contact with the bereaved to a minimum, though they are still making themselves available for in-person meetings when it comes to making burial arrangements, should they request it. Though it isn’t easy for the families who are dealing with the loss of a loved one, Goldstein said, they’ve been understanding.

“As far as our families are concerned, we haven’t had anybody that has complained about the new guidelines,” he added.

Pat Quigley, a funeral director at West Laurel Hill Cemetery and Funeral Home, has been a part of the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha of Philadelphia for almost 30 years. A chevra kadisha, a sacred society, is a small group of trained men and women who ensure that the bodies of Jews who have died are properly cleaned and prepared for burial.

“It’s a very beautiful thing,” Quigley said. “It’s a very holy act.”

At West Laurel Hill, the washing rituals of all religions have been temporarily suspended. The chevra kadisha, too, has suspended its ritual washing. However, one important practice — shemira, watching over the body — remains.

“Life at Forest Hills/Shalom Memorial Park has entered a very unique and unprecedented period,” General Manager Samuel Domsky said. Leadership at the Huntingdon Valley cemetery, which largely serves Jewish people, is encouraging families to stick to graveside services and to keep them as small as possible.

“The safety and well-being of all who work and enter our grounds is of the utmost concern while performing our obligation of burial to our community,” Domsky added.

Everyone agreed that the new restrictions have saddled families with difficult decisions at their most vulnerable. But Leff sees the obstacles as chance for Jewish ritual to bring people together in a new way.

“Some might say a virtual minyan was an example of social distancing,” she said. “I say it was an example of social in-gathering. Without hesitation, we’re making life continue.”

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