“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” (Isaiah 40:1)
For many local Jews, one of the most heartbreaking and agonizing aspects of the coronavirus pandemic has been the inability to hold a proper communal funeral service and observe a traditional shiva period in honor of their recently deceased loved ones.
The absence of this crucial element of Jewish life and ritual has impacted not only those who lost their loved ones to COVID-19 but also individuals and families mourning the loss of family members and friends to other causes of death.
As a result, Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home is teaming up with Jewish Community Services, the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Baltimore Board of Rabbis for a virtual community-wide memorial service on Tuesday, May 19, at 7 p.m. for all mourners who lost loved ones over the past two months.
With permission from families, the names of the deceased will be read during the program, titled “Mourning Together: A Virtual Community Gathering,” as well as the lighting of virtual memorial candles. The program will be held on Zoom and Facebook Live.
“Unfortunately since the pandemic started, everybody has not been able to have a proper funeral that, as a community, people can come together at in our chapel, or observe a traditional shiva,” said Matt Levinson, president of Sol Levinson & Bros. “This is a service to acknowledge and honor everybody. …
“This is something we want to do for the community,” he said. “We understand that this is a stressful and difficult time for grieving members of the community, so we want do do everything we can.”
The officiants at the service will include Rabbi Jessy Dressin, president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and director of Repair the World Baltimore; Cantor Ben Ellerin of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation; Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg of Chizuk Amuno Congregation; and Rabbi Chai Posner of Beth Tfiloh Synagogue.
“This gathering is an effort of creativity and compassion,” said Rabbi Dressin. “We recognize the tension between Jewish values around mourning — i.e., being in community — and the limitations imposed upon us during this time of physical distancing. In creating this, we are hoping to create an opportunity for prayer, ritual and gathering that will offer comfort to anyone who has lost a loved one during this time.
“In this way, we hope that the wisdom of our tradition can still inform ways we can come together, despite not being able to do so in ways we usually rely on,” she said.
The latter segment of the program will feature JCS grief specialist Donna Kane, M.A., who will discuss the process of mourning during a period in which a normative funeral and shiva process is not possible. The community education segment will also offer insights into self-care for mourners.
For several years, JCS and Levinson’s have teamed up for an array of grief support programs and seminars for the local Jewish community, including an eight-week support group led by Kane.
In a letter to the community posted on the company’s website in March, Levinson’s wrote that it was temporarily suspending all funeral services at its Pikesville facility based on Gov. Larry Hogan’s COVID-19 executive order regarding the operations of businesses and stay-at-home order during the pandemic.
Levinson’s actually suspended operations on its premises before the governor’s mandate. The last funeral service held there took place on Mar. 12.
All Levinson’s funerals are now limited to 10 people, including clergy and funeral director, and conducted graveside, for immediate family members only.
In addition, social distancing measures are strongly advised at burials, and an opportunity to gather for a memorial service at a later date at Levinson’s is offered to each family.
Also, virtual shivas and condolence calls are encouraged, and an online memorial book and shiva pages are available as well.
Matt Levinson said observing the emotional strain on families and community members from his staff’s vantage point during the pandemic has been difficult and disheartening. “Our team has been absolutely amazing,” he said. “It has been a challenging time for us. But we’re here to serve.”
Levinson said more virtual memorial services may be held in the future, depending on the length of the pandemic.
Zoom links and information about Facebook Live for the May 19 service will be available on the Levinson’s website (sollevinson.com) and through local Jewish organizational and congregational e-letters. To register, visit http://www.jcsbalt.org/events/mourning-together or https://jcfb.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_BKCA3Mq0QZScHgfybw6ssA
The service will be live-streamed on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jcsbaltimore.