Rituals Remain Despite COVID Death Surge

Three white men wearing dark suits are standing outside, smiling. Adam Levine, on the left, has a beard and kippah. His brothers to the right of him and clean-shaven and both have short, buzzed hair.
Adam Levine (left), Brian Levine and Jon Levine of Joseph Levine & Sons Memorial Chapel | Courtesy of Adam Levine

Joseph Levine & Sons Memorial Chapel in Trevose buried many more people this past year than previously. And Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks funeral home had its busiest 12-month period ever from March 2020-’21.

But despite working earlier days and later nights and holding more funerals, Adam Levine, a partner at Joseph Levine & Sons and supervisor at Haym Salomon Memorial Park in Malvern, hasn’t wavered.

“COVID got tiring, got upsetting, got personal. It was not easy for everyone to make it through COVID,” Levine said. “But we put a lot of ourselves into taking care of our families, and we only put more into it during the height of COVID.”

Though the pandemic has resulted in changes to the logistics of Jewish rituals surrounding death, the job of Jewish spiritual leaders and funeral homes hasn’t changed, as they work to provide dignity for the dead and comfort to their loved ones in a time of profound and widespread grief.

Two Yahrzeit candles are lit and glowing on a table.
Though the pandemic has resulted in changes to the logistics of Jewish rituals surrounding death, the job of Jewish spiritual leaders and funeral homes hasn’t changed. | Courtesy of Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks

“Our main goal is to help these families who have lost their loved ones, try to help them through this whole process and give them the type of funeral service that their loved one deserves,” said Seth Goldstein, a vice president at Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks.

The host of Jewish rituals performed from when a person is dying to when they’re buried is meant to retain that person’s dignity.

“It makes me feel good that we are bringing comfort to the families and the loved ones that they left behind,” said David Kushner, a member of the burial society Chevra Kadisha B’nei Moshe. “It’s a very good feeling to know that we’re playing whatever small role we’re playing in the continuity of sacred Jewish rituals that go back thousands of years.”

Still, the pandemic has added challenges to completing this role. 

The pandemic delayed funeral homes receiving necessary burial permits for timely funerals. Some families had to delay funerals or give up on traditions they wanted to take part in, such as viewing their loved one’s body or the ritual cleansing of tehara.

“In this day and age, you kind of have to be a little bit more flexible,” Goldstein said.

Chevra kadisha members who complete tehara donned full personal protective equipment — disposable gowns, face shields, masks, booties, gloves and hoods — during the height of COVID, Kushner said.

At the beginning of COVID, when it was unclear how COVID was transmitted, Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks had trouble arranging tehara for deceased who had died of COVID complications.

The Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha is just now resuming teharas, having suspended operation during most of COVID, feeling unable to make appropriate safety accommodations.

“We were getting in a small room all together,” said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, member and founder of the chevra kadisha. “There’s no windows; there’s no anything. We’re there for about an hour, and it just felt uncomfortable.”

Yet burials over COVID continued, tehara or no, and Joseph Levine & Sons has long been prepared for adapting funeral services, having used digital streaming services for the past 15 years, following a trend of many other funeral homes.

“When kids, grandkids were in college, or when people were overseas — especially in Israel — they could log on to [Zoom]. It was really the way that our world was moving,” Levine said, “and we’ve had some big services where we’ve had hundreds of people logging on.”

Though sometimes funerals felt palpably different — at times, only Levine and a rabbi would be present — Zoom has some added benefits. When loved ones are speaking at a funeral over Zoom, Levine has found it easier to focus on the speakers.

But the presence of technology has not made all rituals easier.

For Rabbi Tsurah August, the staff chaplain at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, adapting the intimate practice of counseling a hospice patient before their death to a virtual space was hard.

Rabbi Tsurah August is an older white woman with dark eyes, collar-bone length brown hair wearing a red shawl around her shoulders. She is smiling.
Rabbi Tsurah August, the staff chaplain at the Jewish Family And Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia | Courtesy of Tsurah August

“I was a mess,” August said. “The most important thing is just showing up, being present: holding someone’s hand, looking in their eyes, breathing with them … And it was gone.”

August, who works primarily with patients at Abington Hospice in Warminster and Nazareth Hospice in Philadelphia, adapted anyway, conducting the vidui, confessions also completed on Yom Kippur, over the phone, asking a nurse to hold up their phone to the patient.

August incorporates more sensory exercises into her time with patients, asking what they can smell, hear and look at, trying to recreate the feeling of a physical presence.

Having created new rituals to honor patients’ specific needs, August is no stranger to making changes. She once held a Havdalah for a patient, bringing the braided candle, wine and spices to a patient before the pandemic, adjusting the end-of-Shabbat customs to an end-of-life ritual.

“We just keep incorporating ancient ways into what we have available to us now,” August said.

But even with the myriad logistic differences in the jobs of those who work with dying and deceased Jews, additional rituals or liturgies that address COVID aren’t a part of their routines. 

“There’s been people that went through the Spanish flu in 1919. There’s been people that were Holocaust survivors, and there’s been tragedy, but we’ve made it through,” Levine said. “The sadness is part of who we are, and it makes us stronger, or at least that’s the hope.”

Jews have always had to weather tragedy and strife, with COVID being no exception, Levine said. Jewish ritual and liturgy already accounts for Jewish strife and resilience.

Though the pandemic has exposed more people to more death, questions and complicated feelings about death are no more clear, August said. The mystery of death remains a focal point of the Jewish tradition. 

“Sometimes [patients] will ask me about Jewish beliefs about death,” August said. “It’s so varied; ask any Jew you’ll get a different answer.”

August’s job isn’t to provide the answer.

“People just want affirmation of what they hope,” she said. “I am there to help lift what’s on their heart.”

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