A family takes part in a shiva call, a Jewish mourning period, in a Zoom videoconference.
A family takes part in a shiva call, a Jewish mourning period, in a Zoom videoconference. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images via JTA)

Those far away are not an afterthought but rather equal participants.

By Sharrona Pearl

PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — The pandemic and social distancing have ironically made physical distance matter less than ever.

Today we are all a voice on the phone or a face on the screen. Those far away are not an afterthought but rather equal participants. When it comes to supporting those who have lost loved ones, I am so grateful to be able to be there on that screen. And I’ve learned that it’s not just something we should use as a temporary measure: The Zoom shiva call should be an important and sustaining part of the post-pandemic Jewish future rather than a temporary solution to the current crisis.

So much of Jewish community is built around being together. We are adjusting: balcony minyanim, Zoom bar mitzvahs and virtual challah bakes. These are beautiful and important and powerful adaptations. They are also, without a doubt, temporary. As soon as it is safe, we will go back to the much more satisfying and halachically robust in-person options. But the Zoom shiva call should remain.

While halacha requires an in-person minyan for those sitting shiva to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish (when there’s not a pandemic going on), there is much comfort an additional friendly face can bring, whether in-person or on the screen.

The ability to sit with our mourners when they most need our support should not be limited by physical proximity. We have discovered a model that works. In the midst of all the loss and death and mourning, I am grateful to have been able to be present for my friends across the world even as we all remain in our own homes. As someone who is always far away from extended family and childhood friends, the Zoom shiva call is a way to be present among others when our mere presence is what’s most needed.

A traditional approach to sitting shiva relieves the primary mourners (parents, siblings, children and spouses of those who have died) of all hosting and social obligations. They are proscribed from greeting visitors, from managing meals for themselves and others, from dealing with the logistics of hosting during this week.

A close friend typically takes on the role of organizing all the physical details, from who will cook what and deliver it when to making sure the community knows when they can visit the mourners. Going forward, we should also have someone taking care of all things virtual: someone who will be in charge of setting up the tech and monitoring it, disseminating the call-in information and helping moderate the Zoom shiva rooms themselves.

It is not just distance or health that has historically limited one’s ability to pay a shiva call. There are family and child care obligations, work schedules and access issues for people with disabilities. The Zoom shiva call offers a tool to create a more inclusive and sustaining community for both the mourners and those coming to support them, who may also be finding ways to process their own sense of sadness and loss.

We can be very intentional about creating greater access and participation, envisioning a future in which community is not always dependent on proximity.

There is comfort to be had in having one’s hand held, in the shelter of community brought into the intimate spaces of one’s life. That can and must one day return. But there is also comfort to be had in seeing the faces and hearing the stories of those who cannot share space but can share time.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

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