BY DEBORAH MOON
In our new reality, flexibility, creativity and compromise are the guiding forces in crafting life-cycle events. These events now follow tradition as much as possible while adhering firmly to pikuach nefesh – preserving life – a core principle that overrides almost every Jewish law.
(PHOTO: Most life-cycle events have gone virtual or been delayed. Above, a "Torah cam" view of Ben Korngold reading his portion at home while family and friends watch on Zoom. Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Michael and Cantor Ida Rae Cahana donned masks and gloves to deliver the scroll to his home before his bar mitzvah.)
“I don’t know if there are any best practices,” says Rabbi David Kosak of Congregation Neveh Shalom. “There are a lot of different good and competing compromises we need to make as we schedule life-cycle events.”
Rabbi Ariel Stone of Congregation Shir Tikvah concurs. “So we make our way carefully and yet aware that our people need community in whatever ways we can find that are authentically Jewish.”
Rabbi Benjamin Barnett of Havurah Shalom says, “Amidst these challenges, I think often about all the Jews of past generations who have celebrated life cycles and holidays in much more precarious and even dangerous times. While this is difficult and there is even a sense of grief for what is lost, whether in a simcha or in the added complexities of separation during dying and mourning, within Havurah we are doing everything we can to step into this moment and embrace the power of community and ritual as means of navigating through this time together.”
Rabbi Kosak mentions an added complexity. “All of this is a little bit of a moving target. The virus is in charge.”
Mohel Rabbi Tzvi Fischer says bris ceremonies are proceeding essentially normally – though he now wears a mask and glove to enter the home with an extra set of gloves for the procedure. Only the immediate family is present, with another rabbi, family and friends attending on Zoom.
Bruce Birk, M.D. and mohel, has performed five brit milah from mid-March to April 6.
“As brit milah has been deemed essential during the quarantine, I have continued to perform this service for our community,” says Dr. Birk. “Although the service is essentially the same, the mood is very different. Where before we were celebrating the welcoming of a new baby to our community, now it feels more like a testament to togetherness and Jewish ingenuity in finding a safe way to continue our traditions. They are, as expected, only attended in person by myself (wearing mask and gloves) and immediate family (parents, child, maybe a grandparent if considered safe). The honorary roles are being filled by myself or the parents rather than close family or friends. Most of the attendees are attending virtually. … But life goes on! Prayers are stated. Wine is blessed and drunk. Bread is broken. Songs are sung. So the quarantine bris is different but equal.”
Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer of Religion-Outside-The-Box had planned to fly to San Jose for a baby naming. “COVID made that an impossibility,” he says. “So I officiated via distance technology. What it allowed was for more family members to attend – not everyone can drop plans to get to San Jose within a week and a day’s notice. But, to click a link, that they could do.”
“So far we have celebrated four b’nai mitzvah, all remotely,” says Rabbi Barnett. “While of course there have been challenges, and it is not the same as physically being together, they have each been meaningful and beautiful in their own right. We have used Zoom for all of them, allowing for interaction rather than simply live-streaming, so that we can work to create a sense of community and connection in the moment as much as possible. … We also make it a point a few times during the service to invite the family and everyone else to scroll through and appreciate everyone who is there. Many of our families in the b’nai mitzvah cohort and also other family and friends have been making signs and doing other fun things they hold up to show their love for the bar or bat mitzvah, which has been very sweet.”
Neveh Shalom offered b’nai mitzvah families a variety of options to accommodate the family and be as safe as possible. Some b’nai mitzvah have chosen to record their Torah reading, which is then broadcast during the streamed service. Most families have chosen to reschedule in hopes of being able to celebrate with family and friends.
“We will reschedule once, then move ahead with whatever model is available at that time,” says Rabbi Kosak.
For Lily Crow, being in the sanctuary was very important, so in consultation with an infectious disease specialist, Neveh Shalom allowed Lily and her parents, Debra and David Anchel, to join clergy in the Stampfer Chapel. When it was time for Lily to read her parshah, or Torah verses, the cantor stepped away from the bimah (taking off a covering on the surface) and Lily stepped up. The entire service was streamed.
“It was a unique experience and Lily will certainly have a story to tell,” says Debra.” We are very proud of her and her accomplishment. She advocated for what she wanted her bat mitzvah to be during this extraordinary time and when the time is right, we will reschedule her party, so we can celebrate with family and friends.”
“We are welcoming them (the b’nai mitzvah) into the Jewish community, so you want to uphold Jewish traditions as much as possible,” says Rabbi Kosak.
That thought is also the driving force at Congregation Beth Israel. “They are part of the community, and that is what bar/bat mitzvah is supposed to be about,” says Rabbi Michael Cahana.
Many Beth Israel families have also chosen to reschedule for the future. Two families have chosen a Zoom b’nai mitzvah. Rabbi and Cantor Ida Rae Cahana deliver the Torah scroll to the b’nai mitzvah’s home the week before the ceremony. They wear masks and gloves and give the family guidance on caring for the Torah.
“The cantor and I lead from our home and the bar/bat mitzvah from their home,” says Rabbi Cahana. “Afterwards we unmute so everyone can wish Mazel Tov. One boy’s great grandma, who was watching from Florida – she wouldn’t have been able to fly out – said ‘Mazel Tov! Am I doing this right?’ ” After the service, friends drove by his house honking and shouting. One held a chair up through the sun roof to simulate the chair dance at the typical party.At Congregation Shir Tikvah, bat/bar/brit mitzvah rituals are left up to the family. “Some have chosen a non-minyan Zoom event in which the Torah is chanted from a Humash, the Torah printed in book form, with a promise that we look forward to calling them up to the Torah when it is again possible,” says Rabbi Stone. Others are choosing to reschedule; we will give them any available date to chant what they’ve learned and call it ‘flashback Shabbat.’ Others are holding off for an entire year until that parashah rolls around again.”
Most planned weddings are being rescheduled.
“I have been trying to get a definitive answer whether it is legal to conduct weddings over Zoom,” says Rabbi Cahana, adding the requirement to get a marriage license in person is also an issue.
“COVID-19 restrictions have created significant hurdles. Conventional funerals are not possible,” says Community Chaplain Rabbi Barry Cohen.
Funerals are now limited to a maximum of 10 people at outdoor graveside services; additional mourners are able to attend by Zoom for most services. Havurah Shalom, whose cemetery is under Metro governance, is limited to five vehicles near the grave, with no one permitted to go to the grave until it has been filled.
Havurah has had one funeral since the stay-at-home orders took effect. After the grave had been filled and workers left the cemetery, Rabbi Barnett says he and the family held a graveside ceremony. “We brought a shovel and each placed shovelfuls of earth onto the plot. It was difficult, but we made it as meaningful as we could and were still able to honor the life of the deceased and comfort the mourners in ways that honored the tradition.”
Neveh Shalom and Beth Israel are both offering Zoom streaming for the graveside services with immediate family and clergy only in attendance.
Shir Tikvah also offers only graveside services. “I officiated at a funeral last week ... all wore masks and respected social distancing, and we brought our own shovels to the burial,” says Rabbi Stone.
“Because of the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, clergy of all faiths are struggling to provide personal, face-to-face pastoral care to those who are grieving,” says Rabbi Cohen. “I now realize the incredible power of simply touching a shoulder or clasping a hand to offer compassion and strength.”
Cohen adds, “The community cannot gather in mourners’ homes for an in-person shiva minyan. Their support network cannot easily pay personal visits. For now, mourners cannot attend synagogue in person and recite Kaddish with their community in remembrance of their loved one.”
Many movements and congregations are counting Zoom participants for a minyan to say the mourner’s Kaddish. But in the Orthodox community, the lack of a physical minyan has meant not saying the mourner’s Kaddish.
Rabbi Fischer has turned to an alternative found in many old prayer books that can by said by individuals. It includes many of the same verses from the Tanach and sections from the Talmud as the Kaddish.
“The protection of life is of paramount importance,” says Rabbi Fischer, adding that it is important to find virtual ways that are meaningful for mourners. “We value life and we honor those who passed because of the life lived and the value of life. … That is what honoring life is – preserving and protecting it – our own and others.”
“Shiva minyans are very effective,” says Rabbi Kosak. “It allows many people to speak and see each other.”
Rabbi Cahana says he has relied on personal conversation and video conversations to comfort mourners. “It’s nothing like physical presence,” he says. “It’s hard not being able to hold hands.”
“I imagine some of these changes are going to remain permanently – some for the better and some not,” says Rabbi Kosak.
Rabbi Cahana expanded on that thought. “We’ve learned a lot, and undoubtedly it will affect what we do in the future. If we can be more inclusive, fantastic.”
As Oregon Gov. Kate Brown begins to share steps for slowly and carefully reopening the state, congregations are examining what that will mean. Large gatherings are banned until at least the end of September.
Rabbi Cahana says that Congregation Beth Israel is developing its own reopening plan. “It starts with our principles first guided by science and the advice of politicians. … The decision is anchored in the principle of pikuach nefesh, protecting life.”
MIKVAOT DURING COVID PANDEMIC
Rachel’s Well Community Mikvah is closed until further notice for all immersions during this time of pandemic. This decision was made based on the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh, the belief that preserving human life takes precedence over most all other religious mandates. The Mikvah will follow state guidelines for salons and similar institutions when Multnomah County meets state criteria for reopening. For updates, visit: jewishportland.org/mikvah
Mikvah Shoshana-Portland’s Women’s Mikvah remains open for immersions for Taharat Hamishpacha (family purity) and brides.
In consultation, the mikvah has made “unprecedented modifications to our religious practices in order to slow the spread of COVID-19,” says Mikvah Director Simi Mishulovin. “We have incorporated the highest standards and are regularly in touch with medical and rabbinical experts to ensure that we are doing everything humanly possible to keep the mikvah users and attendants at least exposure.” For complete rules and an appointment, contact Mishulovin at 503-309-4185.
NATURAL BODIES OF WATER
When no official mikvah is available, one may immerse in another body of water if it conforms to halachic requirements. Oceans and some rivers may be used as a mikvah; consult your rabbi.
Rabbi Ariel Stone of Congregation Shir Tikvah plans to use this resource: “I will soon be present at a conversion immersion in a park along the Columbia River, with social distancing observed.”
TAHARA DURING COVID PANDEMIC
Tahara, the ritual cleansing of the body for burial, has faced serious challenges to both honor the dead and protect the living. The two Portland hevra kadisha (burial societies) have adapted to meet those needs.
HEVRA KADISHA OF PORTLAND
The Hevra Kadisha of Portland has expanded the use of personal protective equipment and social distance between hevra team members.
Michael Rosenberg, who chairs the Hevra, praises Holman’s Funeral Home for working with hevra authorities to incorporate all the guidelines. The changes were also in consultation with epidemiologists in the New York area “who unfortunately have done too many of these.”
CHEVRA KAVOD HAMET
Chevra Kavod HaMet decided to suspend traditional tahara in response to the COVID-19 virus and instead offer “tahara from a distance,” says Chevra co-chair Donna Erbs.
“The ritual of tahara is, in part, about comforting the soul of the deceased, and we feel strongly that with the assistance of technology ... (we) can do that from afar. The team members, via video conferencing, recite all of the traditional ritual prayers. … Team members ritually wash their hands and simulate the pouring of water over the deceased by pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl. … It is our intention that the soul of the deceased be honored and comforted at all times.”
Erbs says the decision was reached based on consideration of pikuach nefesh: “We believe the requisite personal protective equipment needed by our volunteers to safely perform tahara is more critically needed ... for care of the living." Additionally, "most of our volunteers are in the more susceptible age groups for COVID-19.”