Coronavirus lockdown is denying people the chance to mourn properly

The Jewish mechanisms which allow people to emerge whole from soul-destroying grief are absent to nearly all who have lost a loved one during the pandemic.

IF YOU’RE stuck for a Slihot minyan, you’re sure to find one at the Katamon Shtiblach on Hakhish St. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IF YOU’RE stuck for a Slihot minyan, you’re sure to find one at the Katamon Shtiblach on Hakhish St.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Three months ago my new life as a 53-year-old man orphaned of his father began. I am one of many who have joined the terrible and unfortunate club of having lost a parent during the coronavirus.
Judaism is often and rightly lauded for its genius at bereavement. Perhaps a nation that has had to contend with tragedy for so many millennia has developed a highly evolved practice at processing grief. Even Seth Rogen, who recently said such stupid comments about how Israel is not needed to protect the Jewish people, said in the same interview, that although he considers religion silly, he regards the Jewish laws of mourning as brilliant.
But those same mechanisms which allow people to emerge whole from soul-destroying grief are absent to nearly all who have lost a loved one during the pandemic. What has most haunted me in the three months since my father’s passing is my inability to properly mourn. This is especially true of finding solace in saying kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. I have, miraculously, not yet missed a single kaddish for my father. But the challenges of saying this most fundamental of Jewish mourner’s prayers during the coronavirus comes at a terrible cost to those who attempt it.
When we buried my father in Israel I was distraught that could not pay my father the respect of saying kaddish, since we were in quarantine. I was staying at a family apartment only a 10-minute walk from the Western Wall, but I could not go there. I could not pray with a quorum of 10. My inability to honor my father with kaddish, especially while I was in the heart of Jerusalem was driving me insane.
I alighted on a plan. It was Shavuot, and thousands of Jews were walking past our apartment on the way to the Wall. So I stood at the doorway of the apartment and yelled out to passersby: “I am an American who buried his father yesterday. I am in quarantine so I cannot leave my apartment. Can you all just stop where you are?” I counted. Ten men stopped. I began, “Yisgadalv’yiskadash shmei Rabba... ”
Several times a day, I stopped the wayfarers so I got in my three kaddish times. My brother Chaim stood alongside me, reciting it as well.
Shavuot ended and I told my wife that for the first time in my life I could not wait to leave Israel. It killed me that I couldn’t say kaddish properly with a prayer group. The law in Israel is that you either quarantine for 14 days or you can leave whenever you want. Israel doesn’t want you there, so you’re free to go.
I thought to myself of the irony that a Jew must leave Israel in order to pray.
We passed a temperature check at the airport, I found a minyan of travelers at a hauntingly empty Ben-Gurion Airport, and I said kaddish for my father.
I arrived in New York and the hard work began. Because most synagogues are shuttered or operating at tiny capacity – with all kinds of restrictions for entry in place – I had to organize my own minyanim.
I started a WhatsApp group. Poor, unsuspecting friends, whose only crime is to have made my acquaintance, became my targets. The text and phone calls began. “Can you come to a minyan tomorrow morning? This evening?” 
At the beginning, many obliged. The guy lost his father. We should help out. As time went on, I became a pain in the behind. The minyan became more challenging. Sympathy and goodwill began to erode. People saw me calling and hit “Ignore.”
I started staggering my minyanim between Englewood, New Jersey, and our organization’s townhouse in Manhattan, so I was only calling on the people half the time. Maybe that would work, I thought. 
IF ON A given morning only eight or nine turned up, the feverish calls began. I was begging people to take taxis, ride their bikes, drive over, walk − whatever it took to be the 10th man. And every day, there was some miracle. 
But how long would this last, especially as people became more reluctant to attend even the outdoor, masked minyanim that we stage as the spread of the coronavirus intensifies and the news in Florida, Texas and California becomes grimmer?
Oh, the stories I can tell. One morning we only had six men. I wasn’t going to miss a kaddish. So we put everyone in the car and drove to a kosher supermarket in Teaneck, New Jersey. I stood outside and begged four guys to stop so I could say kaddish. The manager came out to complain. Perfect. Now only three more. I said the complement of morning kaddish, went home, and immediately began working on the afternoon Mincha minyan.
On a Friday night in Manhattan – and it’s really said to see what how empty and derelict New York City is becoming – we had only seven men. With the sun setting and mincha about to be lost, I rushed out, our faithful congregants in tow, to the 72nd Street Subway station and starting asking men if they were Jewish. 
It took 20 minutes, but we got four men who respected my desire to honor my father’s memory. I prayed the Shabbat prayers like a bullet. Suddenly, as we completed the last kaddish, a woman came over to us outside the train station and stripped off completely, asking if we want some. 
We politely declined and I told the fine men who joined us, “See, prayer and synagogue is not as boring as you all thought.” And yes, Manhattan is becoming that bizarre during the coronavirus, as more and more families give up on the city and move to the suburbs.
And yet another occasion, with only eight men turning up to weekday morning prayers in New York City, I took my posse of eight down the road outside a kosher butcher shop. The owner was very nice about it and joined the minyan. We still needed one. I asked a man if he’s Jewish, he said yes, he indicated he was happy to join our minyan and allow me to say kaddish – until he saw that we’re an Orthodox minyan and we don’t count women. 
He told me he would not join. I asked him not to boycott a minyan because it’s Orthodox, and we all had to respect each other’s beliefs. He told me my beliefs were sexist. I told him that I had spent my life explaining the position of Orthodoxy vis-a-vis women, especially in public debates, but that I simply didn’t have time to discuss it now since I had to say kaddish this moment or the other nine men would disperse. He left. We found a replacement. I said kaddish.
Later, when I recounted my conversation with him (I did not name him) to my one million followers on Facebook, he wrote to contest my rendering of our discussion. I told him it wasn’t cool to boycott a kaddish minyan. He maintained his position. 
But we’re all Jews, and I do not begrudge his stance, and the responsibility to say kaddish is not his but mine. Still, it just shows that kaddish, sad as it is, can be the great unifier of the Jewish people, if only we can create viable, safe and regular minyanim during the challenging times of the coronavirus pandemic.
The writer’s Holocaust memoir, Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, written with historical contributions by Mitchell Bard, will be published later this year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.