Rabbi Bruce Kahn of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase has known the Katz family for at least 40 years. He watched the three children grow up, shared the family’s joys and sorrows.
So it was particularly difficult last week when Linda Katz died on March 17, and it became apparent that the family would not be able to mourn in the traditional Jewish way. In the days of COVID-19, her three children couldn’t be comforted by friends and family gathered at a synagogue, funeral home or even their own house.
But thanks to the internet, and in particular Zoom, many people virtually participated both in the graveside service and shivah.
“At first, they were sad, so alone,” Kahn said. But with the digital connections, “they felt strangely supported and not alone. It was a great relief for them.”
Still, only the three adult children were at the graveside service while Kahn was seated in his home study.
Because the children came from Israel, San Francisco and New York, they forbade Kahn from officiating in person for fear they might infect him. “They did not want me or the family members at risk,” said Kahn.
Instead, he led the service as the siblings stood six feet apart and stared at their phone screens.
Zoom conferencing also was used during the evening’s shivah. About 130 people “joined” fellow mourners, Kahn said.
This time, there were two conference calls going on. One was so the mourners could send their condolences and retell favorite memories. One person even shared a video of a family Thanksgiving meal.
The other displayed the siddur, enabling mourners to follow along with the prayers and even turn pages, Kahn said.
“The family felt the presence,” Kahn said. “It was remarkable. It was just astounding.”
Kahn has been a rabbi since 1974, and this was all new to him. “I never imagined something like this,” he said.
At the funeral, there was no procession to the graveside, and no tossing a shovelful of dirt and then passing the shovel to the next mourner at Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park in Clarksburg.
“Business is still going on except with slight differences,” explained Glenn Easton, executive director at Garden of Remembrance.
With most synagogues and funeral homes having shuttered their doors, graveside services are pretty much the only choice for mourners. And even that is limited.
Besides limiting the number of mourners to 10 and only allowing shovels that were brought by the grievers themselves, the memorial park began the service by lowering the casket immediately “so our staff can do their work and then separate,” Easton explained.
It is sad, “but we can at least help people in a small way,” he said. “We Jews, to be separated, really is sad.”
Easton said that at some funeral services, mourners have donned gloves and taken a handful of earth to toss, he said.
“In a sense, it is more tactile.”
During one recent graveside service, a woman was shivering, partly from cold and partly from sadness. Normally, Easton would have handed out blankets, but he could not.
“It was so hard to resist putting an arm around her or giving her a blanket,” he recalled.
And any kippah given out was not collected at the end.
“At a time when we are present for and embrace the bereaved, it saddens us that we cannot extend our arms of comfort but heartens us that technology enables our presence to be felt,” Easton said.
Al Bloomfeld, co-owner of Sagel, Bloomfeld, Danzansky Goldberg Funeral Home in Rockville, also is adapting his rituals. They also are only conducting graveside services.
“We are just being careful,” he said, explaining how often they clean and how all his staff wears some protective gear.
By far, the biggest hurdle is the 10-person limit, but this funeral home also has become adept with the internet.
One son of a deceased person who was not able to fly here from China participated in the funeral on his IPad, Bloomfeld said.
A few weeks ago, families and friends could mourn together, because the regulations called for a limit of 250 and then 50 people in one place, Bloomfeld said.
“When the governor reduced us and reduced us again,” his funeral home had to become more creative.
But families are very cooperative, he said, especially when they realize it is mandated by the government and not just his funeral home’s rules.
Suzanne Pollak is a Washington-area writer.