Coronavirus, kaddish, and kindness

Illustrative. Jewish men pray outside a synagogue at the Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2020 (before masks were required by law). (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Illustrative. Jewish men pray outside a synagogue at the Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2020 (before masks were required by law). (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

A few weeks ago, I did something that, prior to a few months ago, I had done thousands of times in many locations and under all sorts of circumstances. In large buildings and small; in sanctuaries, coat rooms, ballrooms, and classrooms; in dimly lit spaces and the bright outdoors; in airplanes and airport lounges; in hotels, summer camps, and army bases; in the morning, afternoon, and night; as a participant, observer, and officiate/leader; following familiar customs and ones I’d never heard of; surrounded by family, friends, and acquaintances, and sometimes by no one I knew at all; quickly finishing in 10 minutes or moving slowly over a full day.

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now (if not after the opening sentence) what that something is: davening in a minyan.

I’ve always felt comfortable in a minyan, whatever the location or circumstances. Until, that is, this very last time, when my feelings were much more nuanced and complex.

Unlike my father and grandfathers, I was never a big minyan attender, at least not once I graduated from college. In middle and junior high school I actually went to minyan every morning voluntarily, getting a ride to school with our principal, Rabbi Leiman, though I may have enjoyed the camaraderie at the free breakfast following the davening more than the minyan itself. And in high school and college (MTA and YU), where I dormed, minyan attendance was mandatory.

Once I hit law school, though, I became pretty much a Shabbat, yom tov, simcha, and every-once-in-a-while-just-because kind of guy. Of course, the two years I was in aveilut for my parents was an exception, when I faithfully attended three services a day no matter what. (I once asked a judge on a winter afternoon to put our motion on for second call so I could catch mincha in a nearby shul. He wasn’t happy but he agreed.) Otherwise, daily minyan attendance isn’t my thing.

But comfort never was an issue. I understood each minyan’s liturgy, customs, atmosphere, ambiance, quirks, and shtick, and I recognized the different types of attendees and leaders who almost always are present. There was the comfort of saying the same words I began learning in first grade and have continued saying every day, whether I’m in a minyan or not. It was as cozy as an old sweater, as warm as my wife’s delicious chicken soup.

And I therefore wasn’t surprised to feel that comfort at the outdoor minyan I attended a few weeks ago to commemorate the fifteenth yahrzeit of my father, who was very much a minyan person. I could almost breathe that sense of ease, of coming home again. Like riding a bike (which I learned to do just a year or two after I started daily davening), it all came back quickly.

But this time, though, there was an accompanying, unusual sense of discomfort as well. I had not been at minyan because I’ve been very careful about my behavior during the coronavirus crisis, and I had rarely been in the company of more than my immediate family. Suddenly being in a group of 15 people — all socially distanced, masked, and following the rules to be sure, but in closer proximity than anything I had done in months — made me feel uncomfortable, apprehensive, uneasy.

But there was a plus as well. In addition to this strange mixture of comfort and discomfort, of being at home and in a foreign place, of warmth and a chill, of being part of a group and an outsider, I also felt a sense of the kindness that has erupted recently. Many hearts that were wide open before lately have found ways to open even wider; to be more thoughtful, more compassionate, more empathetic, more giving, more helpful, more supporting. In sum, to be kinder.

I’ve written about kindness a number of times before, and each time I do I recognize even more the enormity of its importance. I think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s brilliant 17-word insight, “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” Or Rabbi Shai Held’s equally brilliant questions, “If you are blessed with children, do they know, truly and unambiguously, that whether or not they are kind is what matters most to you? That you value kindness more than success; that you value it more than brilliance or mitzvot like Shabbat and kashrut?”

And I think that the coronavirus has reignited the flame of kindness that resides deep within so many of us. We see people of all ages reaching out to those they’ve lost touch with and the homebound; others offering to shop for neighbors unable to do so; a member of our faith community helping restock a diminished food pantry of another faith community; people clapping for health care workers and offering free educational materials; and increased donations of money and resources. You can fill in your own examples.

And I also benefited from this kindness in my search for a minyan. I originally planned to recite kaddish over Zoom, and after asking for information about Zoom minyanim on TeaneckShuls, found an outdoor minyan, including Zoom, which was affiliated with an Orthodox shul of another community. (Distance isn’t a factor on Zoom.) After attending it before my yahrtzeit to see how it worked and being asked to mute my Zoom (which would make my kaddish mute as well), I exchanged several emails with the shul’s rabbi, whom I didn’t know. The end result was that although his halachic position was not to recite kaddish over Zoom, he agreed to allow me to do so because of a minority opinion I found that I was willing to rely on.

I’ve been associated with Orthodox shuls my entire life, and in my experience this was an unusual response. It’s much more common, and understandably so, for a shul rabbi’s halachic opinion to govern the practice within that shul. To make an exception for a stranger is almost unheard of. And yet, understanding that times are strange and that I had few other options, the rabbi treated me with, I thought, true sensitivity and deep kindness.

I eventually decided to physically attend an outdoor minyan. And I did so, in part, because the host of that minyan, understanding the reason behind my request, ignored the Zoom aspect of my question and invited me to his minyan, assuring me privately in an email that he would make sure I would have an unoccupied corner in his large backyard where I could be present for kaddish and yet almost not present as far as interactions with others. He, too, was guided by kindness in extending himself, without judgment, to meet my needs.

I often wonder which of the societal norms we have lately become accustomed to will endure once we return to normalcy (please God soon). I have my preferences, but increased kindness is on the top of the list. The very top.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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