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Drive by shiva

Mourning in a pandemic

(Photo by Harriett Nachum)
(Photo by Harriett Nachum)

At a time when we have discovered an amazing ability to adapt and to create workable solutions to lives lived differently — to say the least — than ever thought they’d be, some members of Tenafly’s Temple Sinai have extended that capacity even further.

They’ve created a shiva experience tailored to the needs of a particular mourner.

“We’re not letting a difficult situation prevent us from doing what a community does,” said Rabbi Jordan Millstein, pointing with pride to the efforts of congregants to comfort mourners in ways that are meaningful to them, whether by Zoom virtual visits, or, in the case of Margo Tucker, who recently lost her father, by organizing a drive-by shiva processional.

Margo’s father, Jack Martin, died during Pesach at the age of 85. He left behind Margo, who lives in Englewood, and her sisters Betsy Mantell and Wendy Gummere. Their mother died 11 years ago.

Margo Tucker with her father, Jack Martin. (Photos by Harriett Nachum)

Like her father, Margo said, she is a “people person.” A Zoom shiva would not have satisfied her emotionally, she knew, though she acknowledges its value. Instead, having used technology during the three-person funeral to include people not permitted to be there, she was treated to “live” shiva visits by more than 30 families.

“It was a surprise,” she said, though her husband, Dan, and their daughters, Ally and Rachel, knew about it ahead of time. “They told me just a few minutes before.” Sitting on their front lawn, the family enjoyed real-time mini-conversations with families who drove by, rolled down their windows, held up signs, and showered her with words of comfort and affection.

“It wasn’t a shiva processional,” Margo said. “It was a love processional, one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I got a sense of love and support from the community. And the sun came out.”

Visitors came not only from her own congregation but from all over New Jersey. “There was nothing sad, just the pure love of people who mean everything to me,” Margo said. “They brought their whole families, opened their windows, and blew kisses.”

The event was organized by three of Margo’s friends, Ronnie Zlotnick, Harriett Nachum, and Lynne Stewart, “who pulled it all together. They’re part of the synagogue family, but what was incredible was that the rabbi was in the processional.”

At right, Rachel, Margo, and Dan Tucker sit outside and watch their friends drive by and send love as they honor the memory of Margo’s father, Jack Martin. (Harriett Nachum)

While the synagogue had offered to set up a Zoom service for shiva, Margo knew right away this was not what she wanted. “I’m not a computer person,” she said. “If I couldn’t have the calming effect of a hug, this was the next best thing. Hugs from 20 feet away. It’s not the same, but it fills the heart, and that’s what you need.”

Her father, also a “people person,” used his last breath to wish his family a happy Pesach. “He would have been so touched by this,” Margo said. “He was so proud of our family and knew we had a strong community around us.” He was also a community activist and volunteer, “always giving and making you feel important.”

Margo is so touched by Sunday’s shiva that she’s already planning to “pay it forward,” organizing a similar event for a friend who recently suffered a loss. Her friend Harriet Nachum created a video of the processional and set it to her favorite song. Margo sent it to friends he had not been able to participate, and she has received much positive feedback. “One friend said she cried throughout the whole video, another said it really touched her, and one said, ‘What a tribute to your father.’”

“I would recommend this for people,” Margo said. “Funerals are for the living. Jewish rituals help us stay grounded through mourning and grief. It was such a creative response in this unprecedented time — to still give someone that grounding and the beauty of what the ritual of shiva means. Come and gather and create an environment of comfort and community. It was an incredibly thoughtful response.”

Rabbi Millstein, who had led the funeral service earlier in the day, thought the shiva “worked brilliantly.

“I thought it would be symbolic. Go by and wave. But what actually happened is that we rolled down the windows and spent a minute or two talking to them. The whole family could see us. It was very moving.” He will recommend the idea to others, he said, and he already knows of another such event being planned.

“Margo is a fabulous human being,” he said. She’s a geriatric social worker, and “she has a private practice helping elderly people who need help in their homes, especially when their children are not around. She does consulting and managing the cases of people in their homes. She knows all the facilities and advises people on how to help their parents. She’s ‘s the warmest and most genuine open-hearted person. I’m glad we have her in the shul.”

While some good ideas have come out of the crisis, Rabbi Millstein said, “it’s also created a lot of confusion. What do you do when someone dies? Always, especially in the Reform movement, there were differences in what people did, but also there were standard, typical things. A funeral service, then people at your home, then the customary shiva, however long. It wasn’t, ‘Someone died and now what do we do?’

“Some cemeteries don’t allow more than 10 people at the burial, and Cedar Grove allows only three. With 10 you can get the immediate family. But with three, what are you doing?”

One family, he said, chose not to have a funeral at the cemetery. “It didn’t make sense. Only one granddaughter could go.” In some cases, people use Zoom. “You can do the entire service on Zoom and people can speak and be heard. The eulogy really works. It’s good for the service but not for the greetings afterwards.”

Rabbi Millstein said that his usual practice at shivas is to allow time for people to share thoughts and memories about the person who died. “Maybe 20 minutes is liturgy, and another 20 for people to talk. This replaces the moment where people get to talk individually” with the mourner. This practice, he said, “is becoming even more important” as services are streamed.

“One of families is trying to figure out if there’s a way on Zoom where people can drop in and out or gather in pairs and make it more like it is at home.” But then, he noted, people would have to sit at their computer for hours at a time awaiting virtual visitors.

“The part of this that’s positive is it shows how love and the human heart can overcome obstacles,” he continued. “People are really going to great lengths and being very creative to do what is really important, so that the Jewish spirit and the spirit of love and friendship is able to find a way. It’s like the tree that grows up out of a rock on the side of a cliff — how did that happen? They’re finding a way to do what they know is right, offering support and love even if it is not traditional.”

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