‘Shiva probably the hardest.’ Pandemic sparks change to age-old practices

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CHARLOTTE, NC (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – In most synagogues, you’ll find yahrzeit boards or plaques honoring loved ones no longer with us. But since the pandemic started, the traditions associated with saying goodbye in the Jewish religion had to change.

“Shiva was probably the hardest part for people because that’s the ritual most people are familiar with,” said Rabbi Michael Wolk, the senior rabbi at Temple Israel.

As Rabbi Wolk explains ‘shiva’ is the weeklong mourning period usually held at the family’s home where people come together to mourn, pray, eat and share stories. During the pandemic, those gatherings had to change especially for one member of his congregation, Michael Abadi, whose mother and sister passed away in Columbia roughly a year ago. Separated from his congregation Abadi did what most of us did during the early stages of covid, he went online.

“We put together a service over zoom where you would normally do the same things that you would do at a memorial service meaning that the family would share some memories about the loved ones and people would pay their respects,” Abadi said.

To some that may not seem like a big deal, but in Judaism, you can’t say the mourner’s prayer, known as the mourner’s kaddish without a minyan, a group of at least 10 Jewish adults. Prior to the pandemic doing that online wouldn’t have counted, but Jewish leaders made an exception during covid which allowed Abadi to mourn his losses not only with his family but also with his congregation back in Charlotte.

“It was important to try to stick to the rituals but at the same time observe the safety of the people,” Abadi said. “For me, the important thing was to be able to participate even if was virtually.”

 But shiva wasn’t the only tradition that had to change.

“We have in the Jewish tradition what is called the chevra kadisha or the holy society, a group of people who pick up the body from the hospital or the home and they ritually clean the body in a process called tahara and dress the body in shrouds and prepare the body for burial,” Rabbi Wolk said.

With no option to go virtual there, Rabbi Wolk says they put the health of those living over the care of the body and made changes.

Thankfully now, over a year and a half into the pandemic with more people vaccinated some traditions are coming back.

“It’s gone back slowly, it is much closer to normal at this point. not every case will have a full tahara, but we’re trying as much as possible to act a normal,” Rabbi Wolk said.

 Allowing for Jewish people to get closer to saying goodbye to loved ones the way they have for generations and generations.

“The Jewish community is always about community. it’s about seeing the people who care for you and you care for them and there’s nothing like face-to-face contact and just seeing the people and talking to them which somehow zoom cannot capture.”

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