The Whole World Is Sitting Shiva

Alone. And some day, we must all rush back to one another and rebuild our communities.

Thomas Dworzak / Magnum

Sarah Davis survived the Holocaust. Decades later, when she was 95, she succumbed to COVID-19. Six of us stood around her grave at measured distances from one another; her children and grandson spoke of her life. In the far distance, four mortuary employees waited for the service to conclude so they could fill in the gravesite. All of us wore masks.

Later that same day, a woman whose father had died called to ask about sitting shiva, the week of mourning in the Jewish tradition, in this time of pandemic. “The first requirement is staying home, correct?” “Yes,” I replied. “Everyone is doing that anyway,” she said. “I suppose,” I told her, “the whole world is sitting shiva.” She said she found it strangely comforting.

Judaism is a tradition built on community. Religion, said the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, is what a man does with his solitude. Not in Judaism. Some important prayers, including the kaddish for the dead, are to be recited only when at least 10 people are present. In Hebrew, a synagogue is called not a “house of worship,” but a “house of gathering.”

Right now religious leaders of all faiths are asking themselves: Will community ever come back as it once was? This question has been asked before. At Sinai Temple, the Los Angeles synagogue where I am the senior rabbi, the community went through a similar experience during the 1918 flu. Our centennial history book, published in 2007, tells of the arrival of a new cantor on the heels of that calamity:

His arrival truly was cause for celebration. It marked the end of a compulsory 2-month ban on all public gatherings—including religious worship—to help prevent further spread of a deadly and raging influenza pandemic. Known as “Spanish Flu” or La Grippe, the influenza of 1918–1919 was a global disaster. Families feared death not only from war, but from disease, as well. And with good reason: more people died of influenza in that single year than in four years of the Black Death during the Middle Ages. Nearly half of the American soldiers who died, died not of war injuries but of the flu.

The ability to congregate once again in public, plus the beauty of Cantor Silverman’s voice, brought increasing numbers of worshippers to Friday night services (which were better attended than the Shabbat morning service), and it became apparent that increased seating capacity would soon be needed. Thus began the campaign to create a “Greater Sinai.”

That was before all the technological advances that have brought services, classes, and discussions online. Now when all the dinners and tributes and graduations are canceled, we mark them on Zoom—a frozen dinner in place of a feast. Rabbis around the world with whom I have spoken question the durability of ancient practices. How deep will congregants’ commitment to their synagogues be after months of this? I recall an observation that one of the most significant aspects of the 1969 moon landing was that, for the first time in history, when people wished to see the moon, instead of walking outside, they sat in their living rooms and watched it on TV. Each morning, we watch services on a screen instead of gathering in the synagogue. When the pandemic wanes, will we trade our sweatpants for suits and join together again? In a society where commitment to institutions is waning and “joining” is no longer the social norm, synagogue attendance was already on the decline. Will this pandemic accelerate the trend or (hope against hope) revive the need to gather in prayer and celebration?

My inclination is to believe that human nature is immutable, that when we take off our masks, we will rush, smiling, back into one another’s arms as people did a century ago. I want to believe that community is a deep existential need and nothing fundamental will change. I know that I can’t wait to see people gathered again at services, at weddings, even at funerals. But for all the certain proclamations about what the world will be like, we are none of us prophets, and so we wait to see whether the human hunger for community will override the lingering fear of illness and the frictionlessness of watching from a distance. For now we sit shiva, waiting for the world to return.