Confronting life as a religious widow

MALI FINNISH, 49 from Ofakim, has six children from the ages of 10 to 30, as well as four grandchildren. She lost her husband, Asher, eight years ago to cancer and has not remarried.

Confronting life as  a religious widow (photo credit: Courtesy)
Confronting life as a religious widow
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When a person becomes widowed, they lose their most precious loved one and their whole world is turned upside down. They lose their life partner, their best friend and lover.
“When my husband died suddenly, I was left on my own with my children. It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me,” says Einat Noked, 48, who lives in the Jewish neighborhood of Hebron. She has nine children, ranging in age from nine to 28, along with seven grandchildren. Nine years ago she lost her husband, Eyal, who died from cancer at the age of 40. She has not remarried.
Noked is one of the cofounders of a support group geared toward religious widows and widowers. The Facebook group, Almandos (“religious widows” in Hebrew), currently has 95 members. Their first meeting, which took place last month in Yad Binyamin, included an icebreaker program so they could get to know each other, and then followed with a humorous and moving performance.
The group includes Natan Meir, whose wife, Dafna, was murdered by a terrorist in 2016, as well as Mali Finnish and Einat Miyuchas, whose husbands died of cancer. In addition, two members of the group are mental health professionals: Vered Arnon, a family and couples therapist, and Rafi Vartzman, a social worker.
“There was a real need for religious men and women who’d lost their spouse to have a place where they could feel comfortable sharing,” explains Noked. “There were already widow/widower groups around, but it wasn’t a perfect fit for the religious community. People there would talk about different topics, since their way of life is so different. For example, the way we hold parties is so completely far removed from the way secular Israelis do. We have a few members who have remarried, since this gives people hope that it’s possible to move on.”
What’s the goal of the support group?
“First of all, it’s a place where we can be open and share about our hardships, and receive support. If members end up forming a relationship with each other, that’s wonderful, but it’s not at all our main goal. We talk about how to move on and get our lives back. We’ve been very happy with the number of people joining recently.”
“Simhat Torah is the most difficult holiday to experience without a husband when you’re religious,” continues Noked, “since all the fathers lift their children up on their shoulders and dance with the Sefer Torah. I would just stand there watching my children all on their own as my insides churned with such intense sadness. So this year I went to spend the holiday with my brother and my son-in-law, so that they could lift the kids up and give them lots of attention. Holidays are the hardest.”
Vered Arnon explains, “The group is open to anyone who puts themselves anywhere on the religious spectrum, although we do operate as a pretty strictly religious group so that even the most stringent members of the group will feel comfortable. This affects issues such as which hashgacha [kosher supervision] is acceptable for refreshments and if we’re willing to watch performances in which women are acting. Everything is very closely monitored. Many times, religious people don’t feel so comfortable in the general widow support groups, such as shows with women singers who are scantily dressed, or when they hold dance parties. Some of the movies or stand-up comedy shows aren’t so appropriate. And sometimes they hold swim parties.
“In addition, it’s also easier for widows and widowers to find new partners when the members are all from the religious sector and have a similar outlook on life. Almandos is open to widows and widowers between the ages of 30-55, but there definitely are younger and older people who’ve asked to join, and so we’re looking into opening additional groups to provide for the other age groups, as well.”
One of the newest members is Yael Shevach, the widow of Rabbi Raziel Shevach, who was murdered last year in a shooting attack when he was just 32. Shevach has six children and lives in Havat Gilad.
“Being a religious widow is a little different,” Shevach says. “For example, last Sukkot, I realized that my son is old enough to begin saying some of the prayers in the synagogue on his own, and I feel that it is my responsibility to guide him in the world of mitzvot and teach him how to follow the rules of Judaism.
“I never thought that this responsibility would fall to me. So I showed him how to take the arba minim [four species] and shake them in all the different directions. I asked a friend of my husband’s to sit next to him in the davening [praying] so that he’d feel like he belongs. I always feel Raziel’s absence more intensely on holidays. I realized that I can’t just trick myself into thinking that the children will learn on their own. I need to take responsibility and teach them all the things that normally a father would teach his son.”
Shevah adds, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a group with secular widows, I think, since they have a lot of their get-togethers on Friday nights.”
“It’s human nature for people to prefer to spend time with others who are similar to them, and who share things in common,” explains Harel Eckstein, 33, whose children are seven and three, and whose wife, Ayelet, passed away last year. He’s also a member of the general widow Facebook group.
“I’ve met quite a few religious widows online in the general widows group, but I’m glad that I can be a member of both groups, since there are issues that affect only religious people.”
Can you give me an example?
“Well, the way religious people celebrate Shabbat and chagim [holidays] involves lots of rituals, and so when divorced parents eat alone with their kids, they need to decide if they will take over the other’s role, such as lighting Shabbat candles, which is usually done by women, or saying Kiddush, which is traditionally said by men. You don’t always know how the kids will react. And what if the kids are used to sitting with the father or mother in the synagogue? It’s great to have other religious widows to speak with about these kinds of issues.”
“It’s much more complicated to be a widow in religious circles,” says Einat Miyuchas, 45, from Kfar Maimon, a mother of three. Her husband, Dror, died eight years ago from cancer.
“Everything in the religious community revolves around the family unit. It’s really hard socially to be a single parent. Every day is a struggle, but Shabbatot and chagim are especially challenging. Fathers play a specific role – saying Kiddush, Havdalah, a dvar Torah, leading the Seder, building the sukkah, etc. Even if I can get someone to help me build my sukkah, it’s still a very emotional issue for me not having a husband around to put it together. And seeing my son sit by himself in the synagogue breaks my heart.”
MALI FINNISH, 49 from Ofakim, has six children from the ages of 10 to 30, as well as four grandchildren. She lost her husband, Asher, eight years ago to cancer and has not remarried.
“For religious widows or widowers to remarry, the relationship must fit within the community too," she said. "I’ve gone out on a few dates, and I can tell you that secular and traditional widows are more interested in having a new friendship, someone to go out with and have a good time, and less interested in becoming part of the family or connecting with the community. That’s why I prefer to restrict my potential partners to those in the religious community. Having this group is very helpful for me.”
Did you go to any of the events held by the general widows’ group?
“Yes, but it was very difficult for me emotionally. I encountered lots of disappointment and disillusionment. My children and sons-in-law learn in yeshivot, so there’s no way I could bring someone home who wouldn’t fit in this type of community. I need to set a good example for them, and not casually bring a man home who does not respect these ideals.
“I also think that rabbis need to help their community members who’ve lost spouses to find someone compatible for a second marriage. There’s so much talk about helping singles find a shidduch [match], but no one is worrying about the difficulties we as widows face. In the meantime, this group is very helpful, and it’s nice to know that everyone who joins is a more serious person.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.