Zoom Shiva: The New Normal
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a disruptive force in all our lives, but it also has provided us with tremendous opportunities. The pandemic has challenged me, as I believe it has most rabbis, to question limiting assumptions and to think differently about nearly every aspect of synagogue life—and death.
As the rabbi of an aging Conservative congregation in Springfield, Mass., I usually officiate at about 40 funerals per year. Until Covid, at most shiva houses, my congregants were the hosts and hostesses, cleaning their homes before shiva, taking coats to a bedroom, serving coffee and baked goods and making sure their guests felt welcomed.
This phenomenon is not new. A few days before my grandfather died in 1975, my mother sent my sister and me to the department store to buy nice tablecloths and to the grocery store to procure drinks and snacks for his anticipated shiva. Thus, from a young age, I learned that shiva meant mourners preparing for and welcoming others into their homes, so that they, the mourners, wouldn’t have to be alone.
But in that scenario, mourners often got lost in their own over-crowded homes, which became so noisy it was nearly impossible to conduct a meaningful conversation, let alone offer—or receive—comfort. Well-intentioned guests were frequently afraid to speak to the mourners and, if they did, they didn’t always feel comfortable speaking about the deceased.
As the rabbi, I tried to guide the conversations by orchestrating the evening. I led services that allowed for prayerful moments, asked attendees to share memories and gently reminded everyone what kinds of conversations were appropriate for a house of mourning. At times, we, as a community, hit the mark, but usually the house became noisy and we missed the chance to perform the mitzvah of nihum avelim, comforting the mourners.
Everything changed on March 12, 2020, when we became a virtual community. No more entertaining, no more overcrowded homes, no more hostess with the mostess. My congregation suffered more than its share of deaths—and Covid-related deaths at that. Zoom shivas quickly became the new normal.
Initially, I was nervous about the platform and the format. I worried that my congregants would have difficulty navigating the technology. Leading a service via Zoom from my home study? Sharing a screen to display the prayers? Muting attendees? All this was new.
Much to my surprise, I soon realized that a Zoom shiva can be remarkably effective. I am able to structure the shiva so that all participants are muted most of the time. Thus, in lieu of multiple conversations, there is one directed conversation. We unmute at the right times, allowing for stories, tears and condolences. We often hear meaningful reminiscences and reflections from friends and family all over the country. The former party-like atmosphere has yielded to a more focused and supportive shiva.
While there is the occasional disruption, technical glitch or story that maybe should have stayed untold, our community has supported each other in mourning in a more substantive way than previously. My congregants’ own words confirm this.
Consider Miriam. Her 103-year-old sister, Sarah, died in April. There was much angst about a Zoom shiva. Finally, the family agreed. Days after her sister’s death, Miriam, who is in her late 90s, told me, “It was so nice to hear so many stories about Sarah. I actually saw the faces of everyone who came. Sarah wasn’t always an easy sister. But her nieces and nephews spoke about how generous she was and how welcome they felt in her home.”
Similarly, Dave, who is in his late 60s, was not going to have shiva for his father, who died in August. He reasoned that if people couldn’t come to his home, why bother? I prevailed upon him to reconsider. Weeks after the shiva, Dave wrote to me: “You listened to my memories of my dad and expressed so many of them, and they all made me cry and smile. This Zoom shiva was just wonderful. So many people spoke about my father as a wise, gentle, good man. It was soothing to hear each and every comment. I am so glad that I recorded the service. I have listened to the recording many times.”
Without question, we miss being in each other’s presence. Mourners ache for a hug, and friends and family long for each other. But via Zoom, mourning has been able to happen. We have looked into each other’s eyes, heard stories and shared tears and laughs. We have brought genuine spiritual and emotional support.
Technology has enabled us to honor the dead and comfort the mourners. I hope we will find a way to use Zoom in our shiva rituals—and maybe much more—even after the pandemic is a distant memory.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz is the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Springfield, Mass.