Editor’s Note: The author of this essay, Helene Zipkin, originally wrote it as a letter to her rabbis. She has graciously given JewishSacredAging.com permission to share it here.
I attend a daily minyan at which we recite the Prayer in Place of the Mourner’s Kaddish. I like this substitute prayer. At each service the each participants who is reciting this prayer takes a turn saying out loud the name of their loved one. It helps me hear the names of the deceased and individually acknowledge the mourners. Perhaps this practice could be incorporated into future services.
Reciting the Prayer in Place of the Mourner’s Kaddish also allows us to hear at each service how these are unusual times and how much we desire our circumstances to return to normal. Each of us, including the non-mourners, can appreciate these sentiments.
On Thursday morning, March 12, 2020, I attended my last in-person minyan. I hesitantly went to Temple Gates of Prayer that Thursday morning so my friend would have a minyan to say Kaddish for her father.
Then the world, as I knew it, changed. No in-person minyanim. No in-person classes. Friends became ill with Covid. Friends and parents of friends were hospitalized. Some recovered, facing long indefinite recovery paths. Some died.
My mother’s yahrzeit , March 19, was the week after TGP and most New York synagogues shut down. How was I to say Kaddish?
Hollis Hills Bayside Jewish Center started broadcasting their daily minyanim online. With the help of Rabbi David Wise, HHBJC and the Rabbinical Assembly’s Alternate Kaddish, I was able to mark my mother’s yahrzeit. HHBJC counts a minyan only when 10 people are physically gathered in the same room. Other synagogues count a minyan by having 10 people visible on Zoom. By reciting the Alternate Kaddish, I was not only able to honor my mother, but to also acknowledge that our world was not a safe place to gather. For me, this was the most meaningful marking of my mother’s yahrzeit since her death in 2008.
My husband Norman and I joined the virtual daily services at HHBJC and Hillcrest Jewish Center. TGP started having virtual weekday services in April. By the end of the April, several TGP congregants were saying Kaddish, for a spouse, for a parent.
Several congregants felt the strong desire to recite the Mourners Kaddish, not an alternate Kaddish. Rabbi Mark Biller of TGP decided to include the Mourner’s Kaddish in the virtual service, as long as there were at least 10 people attending online. However, the remainder of the service was not treated as if there were a minyan — no Torah reading, no Barchu, no Kedushah, no Reader’s Kaddish. The Rabbinical Assembly allows, only during this extreme period of the COVID pandemic , many variations on counting a minyan — only when ten people are physically present, when 10 people are connected virtually and combinations of the two.
Although deemed acceptable by the Rabbinical Assembly and by Rabbi Biller, I was not comfortable with this decision. I wanted a full minyan or no minyan. Either include all parts of the service , or exclude the parts requiring a minyan. I was not comfortable with a hybrid. I attended minyan online with HHBJC and with Hillcrest Jewish Center. Early on, Rabbi Manes Kogan gathered a physical minyan of 10 people and live-streamed services so that a complete service could be conducted…with Kaddish Yatom, Torah Service, Kedushah.
Then, in July, my world again changed. My father died. I knew shiva would be different. I did not expect it to be as comforting as it turned out to be. There were many emails, cards, and phone calls from the people who cared about me. Several synagogues and friends arranged for shiva meals. It was the quiet times, for reflecting, reading and remembering that I appreciated most. Socially distanced visits with my sister and my children were comforting.
We had a virtual shiva minyan in my home on Sunday evening. Norman led the davening. It was most touching for me to use the Alternate Kaddish and hear my friends and cousin each, individually, recall their loved one’s names. My father, Francis David Rebhun, Favel David Ben Asher Zalka haLevi v’ Shleima, had many names: Dan, Dad, Daddy, Dan-Dan, Grandpa. During our Shiva minyan I read the poem “Each of us has a Name” by the Israeli poet Zelda. Little did I then know that names would become even more significant to me in my daily recitation of Kaddish.
I like the Prayer in Place of Mourner’s Kaddish. It helps me say that circumstances prevent me from reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish in the physical presence of a minyan. It permits me to say aloud my beloved father’s name, Favel David ben Asher Zalka H’Levi v’Shleima. As we go around the virtual online squares of our praying community, it allows me to hear the other mourners individually acknowledge their loved ones: the husband, the son, the sister, the mother, the father. The names are poignantly proclaimed. Prior to the COVID pandemic, prior to the use of the Alternate Kaddish, I could see the mourners who stood for Kaddish Yatom, I could acknowledge their loss, but I did not know the name of the deceased, the mourner’s loved one. Now I know the names of each lost soul. I hear their names daily.
We often hear talk of silver linings during this current pandemic. For me, it has been the serenity of Shiva and the poignant remembrance of names recited during the Prayer in Place of Mourner’s Kaddish.