Nearly four weeks ago, on Friday night, February 28, my father, Sol  E. Gerstman, of blessed memory, passed away.

The following week or so was a whirlwind. There was the funeral in Baltimore, the burial in Israel and finally shiva (the customary seven day mourning period) back in Baltimore.

The mourning was comforting. It reminded me of my father’s life, his accomplishments and pride. But, of course, there was still a void. I would never see him again.

In addition to shiva mourner say a special prayer — the Kaddish — for the departed relative. For parents, the children generally say Kaddish for eleven months. From the first year, they say Kaddish on the anniversary of the parent’s death, called the Yahrzeit.

One of the requirements for saying Kaddish is to have a minyan, a quorum of ten men, present to recite the prayer. As concern over the spread of the coronavirus spread, it became increasingly clear that I would no longer be able to honor my father in the prescribed manner.

I found it difficult as I led the prayers one Sunday morning — just a week after we completed shiva — realizing that that morning was the last time I would be saying the mourner’s Kaddish for the foreseeable future. It is particularly difficult as this occurred in during the first 30 days after my father’s burial — a period called shloshim — when stricter mourning protocols are in force.

As it happens, my brothers and I are not the only ones in this position. Former Acting Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy Tevi Troy lost his mother a few days after our father passed away and he wrote an op-ed, A Minyan in the Time of Social Distancing, about his experience last Friday in the Wall Street Journal.

On this most recent Sabbath, before even stricter protocols went into effect, I fulfilled the obligations to my mother by praying at outdoor minyanim, including two that took place in my driveway. At the conclusion of the Sabbath, 15 of us gathered around a streetlight, as the prayer ending the Sabbath takes place after it turned dark but before we were allowed to turn on lights. No one said anything, but everyone knew to keep a safe distance. Everyone had his own prayer book to minimize the chances of spreading disease through shared surfaces.

Even that option is gone now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines against gatherings of 10 or more people, and our rabbis have suspended minyanim. From my previous service as a public-health official, I fully support the need for social distancing and I am adhering to the stricter guidelines, as is my community. My rabbi ruled that in the absence of my own kaddish, I should if possible designate someone else, in an area not under the same public-health constraints, to say the prayer for me. I must also study a Jewish text, the Mishna, during the periods in which the prayers would typically be said. The reason that Jews study this written collection of oral law during mourning is that the Hebrew word mishna is an anagram for neshama, or soul. The kaddish is said to protect the souls of the dead during the period of heavenly judgment.

This was my experience too, for the most part. My synagogue has arranged for prayer groups — a minyan requires the quorum to be physically in the same place — to convene through Zoom. It’s a substitute, but not an entirely satisfying one, as there is no opportunity to say Kaddish.

Troy added:

Kaddish proxies and study are only backup plans, and I am discomfited at missing out on my primary obligation. This past weekend, in one of my last recitations of kaddish for the foreseeable future, I thought of past generations of Jews who encountered even more difficulties gathering together — during pogroms, wars or the Holocaust. The nearby friends, still at a safe distance, comforted me and joined me in prayer.

What I reflect on is that my father used to pray at home. But when his father passed away in 1972, my father faithfully attended minyan as frequently as he could (until his health failed). No other activity would deter him from praying in synagogue, he rarely missed an opportunity to participate in public prayer.

 

Though matters are out of my control, it does bother me that I can’t honor my father as he honored his father. Prayer in general was very important to my father. In his later years he would purchase prayer books (see the featured image) and place tabs on the pages to make various prayer easier to find. He would also highlight words to enhance his understanding of the prayers.

During shiva, we found a story written by one of my nephews in Israel. The nephew had been with my father during prayers one day, when he saw my father take out his highlighter and mark a word. My nephew asked what he was doing. My father explained that he had just learned the meaning of the word and he highlighted it to make sure that he’d remember it for the future.

I may not be able to say Kaddish right now, but at least I have prayers with which to remember my father.

 

 
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