Loss, grief, and resilience

Loss, grief, and resilience

Teaneck-based nonprofit NechamaComfort supports parents who have suffered stillbirth, miscarriage, or the death of a baby

ON THE COVER: Sam, Stephen, and Charlie Jenesack are at the cemetery in Paramus where baby Max is buried. (NechamaComfort)
ON THE COVER: Sam, Stephen, and Charlie Jenesack are at the cemetery in Paramus where baby Max is buried. (NechamaComfort)

When you meet Reva Judas, you’re struck by her warmth, openness, and exuberance.

If you had to guess what she does, you might think social worker, or nurse, or teacher — someone whose job involves empathy and connection. Certainly the first word that comes to mind would not be grief.

But Reva — and we will call her Reva in this story, not Ms. Judas, because that is her preference, and because it makes sense — spends her life working with families who have suffered pregnancy loss, stillbirth, or the death of an infant, helping them not to forget, which is both impossible and undesirable, but to remember while moving forward.

NechamaComfort, as her organization is called — Nechama is the Hebrew word for comfort — provides individual counseling and support groups to people dealing with the loss of a fetus or a baby, in a Jewish framework, using a cutting-edge understanding of how to help people work through a set of feelings they hadn’t expected and no one could ever want.

Reva’s mission began with the death of her newborn son, her firstborn child, 37 years ago, but her story began 20 or so years before that.

Reva’s father, Rabbi Sidney Green, was “a roving rabbi,” she said; she was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, but “I grew up in different communities. I went to 10 different day schools.”

Reva is Orthodox, but her childhood gave her a deep understanding of the range and depth of Jewish life.

Her father grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a trolley motorman who shifted to bus driving as public transportation changed, as a traditional Conservative Jew, active in its youth group, USY. “He got a scholarship to Temple University, and he planned to go there and become a lawyer,” Reva said. “But his guidance counselor told him that there is a school called Yeshiva University that is giving out scholarships.” Because, as she put it, “rabbinics just called him,” he chose YU. That decision shaped the rest of his and his family’s lives.

Reva and Danny Judas hold a photo of their son Pesach; a photo of their family hangs behind them.

Reva’s mother, Margie Vinick Green, who was from Springfield, grew up as an only child; later, Reva learned that her grandmother had a baby girl who lived for 28 hours and then died. That was in 1942; her grandparents, Lee and George Vinick already were in their 30s. As was the custom often then, and still is today — a custom that Reva fights against — the baby was buried in an unmarked grave that family could not find. Nor do they have any idea what killed the baby.

Springfield was a bustling industrial city when Margie was born; when Reva, who spent every summer there, visited, she saw a town that still was vital.

“Springfield was a huge Jewish city when my mother lived there,” she said. “Dr. Seuss was born there. Me and Dr. Seuss. And a lot of people have really deep Springfield roots. It’s really where my roots are.” The place names in many of his books are from real Springfield streets, she said.

Between her time in Springfield and at her father’s other congregations, Reva came to have a deep understanding of the importance of community, as well as how to create and nurture it. Both of her parents were fully involved in wherever they were living; given what she saw of the challenges of leading a community, “I always said that I am not going to marry a rabbi,” she said. She hadn’t considered the option of creating and leading a nonprofit that creates community, but she learned a great deal about how to do it.

Reva went to high school in Detroit, where her family had moved, and she spent her senior year, 1978-79, in Israel with school friends at Machon Gold, and then came back home, ready for college. She’d planned on going to Stern — her father’s experiences at YU were at the front of her mind. But her youngest brother, Elie, was only four months old when she left for Israel, and her mother asked her not to go away again without getting to know him. So she decided to go to the local college, Wayne State University, for her freshman year. And “Lots of my friends also stayed home that year!” she said.

The year turned into four wonderful years. “It was so easy,” she said. Everyone lived at home, but the school and the city had much to offer. Myth positions Detroit as a dangerous place back then, but that wasn’t Reva’s experience. There was a big Palestinian community there — they first were drawn by the car industry, and as with every immigrant group, once the pioneers came and set up their lives, others followed — and at school, but everyone got along.

Reva studied human and child development. Her goal was to become a social worker. She took classes at Wayne State’s Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute. “I had some internships with them, in the inner city,” she said. “It was eye-opening. It was a really good education.”

Before her senior year, though, Reva’s parents moved to Florida; her father became vice principal of a school there. “The irony was that I’d stayed home to be with my brother, but they moved.” She roomed with an older woman, “a widow whose ad for a roommate I saw in the Detroit Jewish News,” she said. “She was my friend’s grandmother. Gertie Wolfe.” She learned yet more through this unexpected relationship.

Rebbitzen Meira Davis and Reva are in Teaneck at Yeshiva University’s annual conference for rebbitzen.

After she graduated from college, Reva did what it seemed like just about every other Wayne State graduate she knew was doing. She moved to New York — more specifically, to Brooklyn — and planned to go to YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

But just before that happened, she spent Pesach with her parents and her siblings — she had another brother and a sister — at the Tamiment Hotel in the Poconos, where her father was the holiday rabbi. “My sister and I drove from Detroit to the Poconos in my yellow Chevette, without a cellphone,” which was years away from being invented, she said. “And that’s where I met my husband.”

Danny Judas lived in Washington Heights with his family — his parents, Kurt and Adele, and his sister, Carrie — until he was 13, in 1973, when they moved to Teaneck. Kurt had owned Tasty Pastry in Washington Heights, and then owned New Royal Bakery in Fair Lawn. It’s now Zayde’s, Reva said. “They were maybe the 100th family at B’nai Yeshurun.”

They were also Holocaust survivors, like so many Jews in Washington Heights. Reva, on the other hand, is a fourth-generation American; all her grandparents were American-born.

“My father-in-law was an amazing baker,” she said. “He came here when he was 13 and went to trade school. Then he became allergic to flour and couldn’t touch it anymore. For 10 years, he was a costume jewelry salesman. And then they invented a vaccine, and he could go back to baking.”

When Reva and Danny met at the Tamiment, Danny was shy. He hadn’t dated much. “But we played Rummikub together, and I was friendly,” Reva said. “The next morning, he called my room at 8. He knew right away that we would get married.”

She got a job in the Bronx, at the Institute for Applied Human Dynamics, where she was a case manager for people who were developmentally delayed. “It was eye-opening,” she said, just as her work in Detroit had been. She commuted from Brooklyn to the Bronx — it’s far — dated Danny, and got engaged. She and Danny got married on Labor Day weekend in 1984, “on my 23rd birthday, which no one should do”; on the other hand, “my sister sent me a singing telegram on roller skates” — and they moved to Teaneck.

“Imagine Teaneck in 1984,” Reva said. “There were four shuls.” They joined Congregation Rinat Yisrael, where “we were the 65th family.”

Reva, second from right, stands, from left, with case managers Ellen Krischer, Esther Levie, and Chaya Hott, at a health expo in Monsey.

She got a job teaching at the nursery school at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly — that was before it became the Kaplen JCC — and followed her mother-in-law’s advice to wait to go to graduate school, because a new community, a new job, and school would be too much, Adele Judas said.

“We wanted to start a family,” Reva said. “We were married two years. I had no problems getting pregnant. Everything was great. I went for my sonogram. Everything was good. We started to make friends in the community. We went to my in-laws for lunch every Shabbat.

“At Passover time, I asked my doctor if I could go to my parents, who lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, then, and my doctor said ‘No problem.’

“I went to a model seder at the JCC. I remember that I was wearing a pretty black and gold maternity dress. Then we went to my parents.

“My sister was expecting her second child, due in April. She lived in Florida then, so she didn’t come up. My brothers were there. My in-laws weren’t there because my sister-in-law was engaged to be married; they planned to come during chol hamoed.

“My father had kashered the kitchen at the St. Joseph’s Hospital — that’s where Taylor Swift was born. There was not one Jewish person at the hospital, but someone had left an endowment to keep the kitchen kosher.”

On the first night of chol hamoed, Reva’s water broke; it was a little early and they were so inexperienced that they had to look it up in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” She called her doctor, who said that she had to go to the hospital there. Her mother’s gynecologist took over. After 18 hours of labor, the baby, Pesach, was born.

“Nobody was worried when I delivered,” Reva said. “Danny was there. The baby was a big boy. My mother said she remembers him looking like Danny.

Reva, Stacy, Sam, Marnina, and Cara hold their new babies at Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus on Mother’s Day.

“Everything was fine. They took the baby. I was exhausted and drugged. Danny was in the nursery. They were doing the tests. Danny said he noticed blood coming from his son’s nose, and he saw that his color was changing. He was sitting alone. And then the pediatrician came in and told Danny that his baby was very sick.

“They put the baby in the incubator. Danny was able to put his hand into the incubator. He remembers the baby putting his hand around Danny’s finger.

“I only held him once.

“Danny remembers all of this very clearly. It’s all a fog for me. We are envious of each other.

“In some ways, his memory is much more horrific than mine. They came into the room and said that they would take the baby to Hershey Hospital, that he was very sick, but that he’d be okay. They told him that he didn’t have to go — Hershey was half an hour away, and the baby was going in a special ambulance.

“We should have gone. My parents listened to the professionals, who said that we didn’t have to go. I remember just bits and pieces of it.

“We should have gone.”

When the baby died, of a congenital heart defect, on a Friday afternoon, “my father couldn’t remember what to do from a halachic perspective. So he called Rabbi Soloveitchik” — Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the Rav, was the rosh yeshiva of RIETS, YU’s rabbinical school, and a leading halakhist and moral philosopher — and together they got through it. He was told that he could bury the baby, but he had to have a bris first.

Reva visits her son Pesach’s grave at the cemetery in Reading, Pennsylvania.

“That Friday, I remember sitting in the living room with my mother and my mother-in-law. It rained that day, and a rainbow came out. And I cried and I cried and I cried.”

No one knew what to do.

“There aren’t Jewish funeral homes in small communities,” Reva said; Jews are accommodated by the outside community. “The funeral was graveside, but we didn’t have a coffin. Just a cardboard box. Now I make sure that communities have coffins.

“Danny remembers walking in the cemetery with my father-in-law. Danny is a crier, and his father said, ‘Stop crying. I went through Auschwitz.’”

In that terrible, unmapped place, Reva and Danny couldn’t even comfort each other. They didn’t know how.

“Danny will tell you that he heard a scream from me like he’d never heard before or again,” Reva said.

“I remember the phone ringing 24 hours. There was no call waiting yet, and poeple called constantly, but I couldn’t talk. I remember my mother telling me who was there, but I have no recollection. And I decided that I was never leaving my parents’ house.”

There was no formal shiva for the baby. Although there is no halachic reason not to have one, and many bereaved parents find it helpful, people sensed, incorrectly, that is was not allowed.

Reva Judas, in Israel, holds the photo of Pesach.

Eventually, Reva and Danny did go back home. When she went back to work at the JCC, “it was unbelievable. They were wonderful.” Her coworkers gave her support and love, and so did the children.

“My father called Rabbi Adler” — Yosef Adler was Rinat Yisrael’s rabbi then and is its emeritus now — “and said, because they were colleagues, ‘Yossi, you have to help Reva and Danny.’” And he did, and so did the shul community.

But still the Judases had to figure out how to heal on their own. “We were told not to go to therapy,” Reva said. “Just to go home and have another baby. And we wanted to have friends. At times, even my dearest friends sometimes crossed the street to avoid me, and then they’d call to apologize. They just didn’t know what to say. I’d say I forgive you. But there was always some discomfort with some people. So now I go on Zoom with people’s friends and tell them what to expect and what not to say.”

Other friends seemed to intuit Reva’s needs and did what they could to meet them. And Reva also discovered that more women had had miscarriages, stillbirths, or fertility problems than she’d realized.

Fairly soon, Reva was pregnant again. She has four living children, and now she is a grandmother too.

She also had six miscarriages. “They were between nine and 12 weeks, and because medical technology was not advanced, nobody knew why. The miscarriages were so painful, and I’d go to school the next day.” She’d have to have a D&C — a dilation and curettage, a procedure that removes tissue from the uterus after the fetus is expelled.

The emotional toll on Reva and Danny was massive. But they were figuring out ways to cope.

Reva left the JCC to teach at Gan Rina in Teaneck; she loved both places, but Gan Rina was closer to home. “I was teaching, I had children, Danny and I are both happy people by nature. I was involved in the shul; I was president of the sisterhood, and I ran the youth groups. I was busy.”

Reva and Danny light a candle in memory of their son Pesach and their six miscarriages on October 15 — Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day.

But she wasn’t so busy that she forgot about her experiences with grief and her desire to help other women, men, and families find their way through that black fog.

“In around 2000, I got a call from Johanna Gorab, who was a local Lamaze teacher who I stayed close to. She said she’d just gotten back from Wisconsin, where she’d been at a training at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, for a program called Resolve Through Sharing, which trains healthcare professionals to help people through grief and bereavement. She said I should come to a meeting about it at Holy Name,” the medical center at Teaneck.

She did, and through that Reva began her career as a grief counselor. She soon ran Jewish grief support groups at Holy Name and Englewood Hospital, and she was trained as a chaplain at Hackensack Medical Center. “It was a two-year program, and it was wonderful,” she said. “And then Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Teaneck wanted me to start new groups for the Orthodox community.” She stopped teaching kindergarten in 2011, although she did part-time work for Yachad and taught Hebrew school at Temple Emanu-El in Closter. She started a multiyear relationship with JFCS; she worked in its offices and “was fiscally housed under them,” she said. “They didn’t pay me, but I was able to take donations using their 501(c)(3).” Reva ran four groups then — two on Long Island, one in Riverdale, and one in Teaneck.

“My dear friend Ellen Krischer has been with me since Day 1,” Reva said. “She is my right hand and my left hand. She is also from Teaneck. She also had a stillbirth. She is in business tech. And my dear friend Esther Levie, who also lost a child through stillbirth, was my first case manager.” Coincidentally, “for years her father-in-law and my father-in-law co-owned a Washington Heights bakery,” she added.

“The three of us have been close for years, we all are trained, and through the years we grew NechamaComfort together.

About the name, why does it have the odd redundancy? “I didn’t know what to call it at first,” Reva said. “I wanted to have the name Pesach in it. But the word Nechama kept coming up, so we named it Nechama. And then during Hurricane Sandy, we saw vans from the OU with Nechama written on it.” As it turned out, that Nechama hadn’t registered the name, “but I didn’t want to fight with them, so I called us NechamaComfort.”

In 2017, Reva and NechamaComfort were in the first cohort of the YU’s Accelerator program. “They gave us $25,000 — they don’t do that now — and they taught me about running a nonprofit business,” she said.

In 2019, NechamaComfort officially became a standalone 501(c)(3). It continues to grow organically, through word of mouth. Although a sense of stigma surrounds pregnancy loss, stillbirth, and infant loss, it is becoming less acute, and increasing numbers of people seem to be confronting fertility problems.

Adam, Cara, Marnina, Iva, Stacy, Sam, and their babies are at a Chanukah party in Fair Lawn.

“People started reaching out to us, friends, neighbors; local doctors, social workers, and hospitals knew about us. I would go into hospitals to speak; I’d talk to the clients, meet the grandparents, and see how we could help. We got calls from outside New Jersey — this was about 2010 — and in 2014 I went to Israel and started to meet with people there.”

Reva realized that she couldn’t do everything herself, but it would be helpful to train other people to do at least some of what she does.

“We were invited to train fourth-year rabbinical students at YU with Dr. David Pelkovitz,” she said. “We met with Dr. Norman Blumenthal at Ohel. I spoke at my synagogue, Rinat. And we talked about how to help people going through pregnancy and infant loss.

“At the same time, my father and Rabbi Adler were working behind the scenes to do research about Jewish law” about what can or cannot be done with dead babies, and if there are any guidelines or restrictions on grieving parents of newborns.

“There is no halacha pertaining to the way we mourn the death of a baby who has been alive less than 30 days,” Reva said. “Everybody is on board with that.” By everybody, she means rabbis across the Jewish streams. This is not controversial. “There is no halacha that tells us what to do.

“That can be difficult, but realizing that just because there is no law saying that you are obligated to sit shiva doesn’t mean that you can’t sit shiva. And in a way that’s good, because if you were obligated to do it you’d feel guilty if you couldn’t. Because there is no obligation, we can do whatever we want.

Whatever it is that people do now is mesorah — tradition — rather than halacha — law — she added.

“Gutterman and Musicant,” the funeral home, “is wonderful. Its director, Marty Kasdan, is wonderful. They are special people there, everyone who works for them. They did the funeral free of charge, and Cedar Park Beth El,” the Paramus cemetery, “does not charge for a burial plot. That’s because a burial society in New York that closed donated 200 plots, which is 400 small plots, for babies. We have a beautiful baby section in Cedar Park.

Perel Hecht, a NechamaComfort client who writes about her experience, and Reva Judas are in Wisconsin together.

“NechamaComfort has a Mother’s Day program there, and people come even if their child is not buried there. And babies from all over the tristate area are buried there, for free, and I pick them up. I take care of it unless the shul has a wonderful chevre kadisha,” the society that cleans and keeps guard over dead bodies until they are buried.”

How does she do such emotional work? “On some days, I cry,” she said. “It affects me. But what drives me is what I can bring the family. I will hold the baby. I will say Shema with the baby. I will sing Hamalach Hagoel,” the lullaby about God’s protection. “Sometimes I give the baby a kiss. I can wrap it in a shroud. And I don’t get emotional until afterward.”

When covid hit, NechamaComfort had to move its support groups online. As many other organizations have found, although that move was in many ways a great loss, it did offer some benefits. Although there is great value to being physically present, in a room with someone in mourning, time and space don’t have to be barriers online. “Now we’re in every continent except Antarctica,” Reva said.

In the end, Reva said, “it’s all about resilience.

“We want to help reduce the stigma. We want people to recognize that this kind of grief and bereavement affects the whole family, and the whole community. We can all live healthier lives because this has a generational effect. I know that my children are able to live healthy lives because we talk about what happened.

“It is important to understand this kind of loss and grief. So many people go through it. Even in this world, with so many things going on in it, people suffer from individual pain. We need other people to support them emotionally, physically, and financially.

“We can never move past our grief, but we are moving through it,” Reva Judas said.

Learn more about NechamaComfort at www.nechamacomfort.org.

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