Sol Levinson & Bros., Inc., a Pikesville-based funeral home, held an online memorial service for the community, May 19. The service came at a time when social distancing measures due to the coronavirus pandemic have been disrupting the manner in which Jewish funerals are traditionally held.
The service featured Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Rabbi Chai Posner of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Rabbi Jessy Dressin of Repair the World Baltimore, and Cantor Ben Ellerin of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
“Maryland state only allows us to have no more than 10 people gathering at the cemetery, so we have to abide by that,” said Greg King, director of grief support and community education at Sol Levinson. “So funerals are very small, at most 10 people, and it makes for a different experience. The Jewish experience has often been gathering together as a community, especially afterward with shiva, and families are not able to do that right now.
“We have circumstances where grandchildren, and even immediate mourners, are not able to come to the burials because of various reasons,” King explained, such as “if they live out of state, are not able to travel right now, or they don’t feel safe to travel or safe to come to the service, because they may be at risk. So it has proved very challenging.”
According to King, the idea for the memorial service emerged from the sense that the bereaved required a greater sense that their community was with them during their time of grief.
“We wanted to try to come up with a way that we can come together as a community but still be able to be at home, and stay social distanced and separate,” he said. “And so we thought that if we could bring together … a memorial service, to honor those people who have lost, who have passed away in the last several months, who maybe whose families have not been able to mourn, not been able to sit shiva in a traditional way. … We thought that maybe we can help that in some way, and create that sense of community.”
Jewish Community Services supported the service, and “was proud to co-sponsor this community event which was an important step in the grieving process for people who experienced the death of a loved one during the pandemic,” said Donna Kane, M.A., JCS Grief Clinician. “The community received acknowledgement that their loss is different, and their grief may have more layers than those who were able to mourn their loss with their family, friends, and community in a traditional way. We wanted to offer strategies, resources and support to help them begin healing from their loved one’s death during this very challenging time.”
Between travel restrictions and limits to the number of attendees at funerals and shivas, the support system the Jewish community normally provides has been constrained, Gruenberg explained.
“It’s a really hard time to lose somebody,” said Gruenberg. “A lot of the sort of beautiful communal aspects that shiva, and the Jewish mourning process, are supposed to invoke have really sort of been taken out of play.
“I believe the Baltimore Jewish community is a really close community, in a lot of beautiful ways, and they’re rallying, and they’re figuring out ways to be there for people who are facing loss,” Gruenberg continued. “But it’s still really hard, it still doesn’t replace, you know, in-person presence, in-person hugs, and in -person gestures.”
According to Gruenberg, making meaning out of grief is “something I would say that we’re pretty well versed in, in the Jewish community, at doing. Taking things, even amidst our grief, finding a way to make meaning out of even the most challenging situations. So I think it’s something that we’ve always done as a Jewish community. And now, it’s something that we really sort of need to do on a grand level.
“So, help them make meaning by celebrating a loved one’s life, help them make meaning by understanding that they have a community around them,” Gruenberg explained. “And just help them to see, even in this kind of challenging time, that the sort of hallmarks of the Jewish mourning process, and the dying process, of how we deal with it, that people can still, on a significant level, connect to that and be a part of community when they need it most.”
Gruenberg said he hopes the memorial service would help people in the community know they’re not going through this alone.
“When you lose a loved one, whether it’s the middle of a pandemic or not, it can be a very lonely process,” he said. “Even if you sit shiva, even if you have family around, eventually everybody goes to their own place. And I always sort of say that it’s that week after shiva that’s really challenging because you don’t have all of the natural support system in place. And I think that we want to be able to say to the community, especially to those people who have lost loved ones during this, that your support system is here. It’s not going to end, it’s here for as long as you need it, and whenever you need it.”