Edgar M. Bronfman Sr. – Remembering a Jewish Philanthropist

I awoke in the middle of the night last night unable to sleep. It was a little before 4:00 AM. I know what time it was because I looked on my phone since the power was out from the winter storm. Shockingly, I noticed from a few email messages, tweets and Facebook postings that the world lost a giant in the field of Jewish philanthropy.

I only had the opportunity to meet Edgar Bronfman, Sr. twice and both were for only fleeting moments. At a Hillel staff conference in New Jersey he seemed to enjoy walking the hotel shmoozing with Hillel staffers and thanking us for our work on campus. It was he who should have been thanked. In the middle of the night I read his very lengthy obituary in the New York Times. As long as this tribute was it still failed to mention so many of the causes he championed and the philanthropic efforts he backed with his family’s fortune.

In October at The Conversation, Gary Rosenblatt’s annual convening of Jewish leaders at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland, I ate lunch with Dana Raucher, the executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. I listened to Dana share her fondness for Edgar Bronfman, Sr. and articulate how genuine and authentic is his love for the Jewish people and the many causes he supports through his foundation. Upon his passing at his home yesterday on Shabbat, Dana publicly shared the following about her boss:

“Edgar was deeply committed to making Judaism relevant to all those who were seeking it. He sought to build a big tent, open for vigorous debate, impassioned questioning, and full of joy. He loved the energy and exuberance of young people, and took them quite seriously because he recognized that they would be the ones shaping their own Jewish future.”

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Mourning For My Infant Nephew

“When Bad Things Happen to Good People” – Those words, the title of a book by my teacher Rabbi Harold Kushner, keep echoing in my head. Tragedy has struck my family. We planned to go to Chicago last week where I would have the honor of being both the uncle and the rabbi at my newborn nephew’s bris. Instead we’re headed to Chicago today – a week later than planned – where I will have the unfortunate responsibility to be both the uncle and the rabbi at my nephew’s funeral. We’re grieving.A little more than a week ago I searched the Web for an appropriate blessing to say on becoming an uncle. Not finding anything, I wrote my own blessing. Last night I searched the Web desperately seeking what one says at the funeral of an 11-day-old baby. The answer is nothing. We’re speechless.

When my nephew was born I wrote about Abraham of the Torah and his role as uncle to Lot. He took his nephew under his wing, cared for him and protected him. Today I unfortunately look to another uncle in the Torah. Moses mourned the death of his two nephews Nadav and Avihu. The Torah relates that the boys’ father — Moses’ brother Aaron — was speechless. So too must Uncle Moses have been in his mourning of this sudden death. We’re in shock.

On the Shabbat when the Torah portion was Parashat Vayechi (And he lived), my nephew died. On the Shabbat in which we learn of the blessings Jacob bestowed upon his sons, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law began to come to terms with the harsh reality that they will never bless their son as Jacob did. On the Shabbat when the Congregation of Israel stands upon finishing the first book of the Torah and, preparing to open the next chapter, proclaims “Chazak chazak v’nitchazek” (Be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened), my family feels weak. From creation there will be no next chapter for my nephew. We’re weakened.

Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet. May the soul of my innocent nephew Rylan Foster Gelb (Yitzchak Chaim) be bound up in the bond of eternal life and may he rest in peace. There is no more to say.

Mitch Albom’s Book About God, Heaven and Death

I often visit the graves of my deceased relatives and find myself talking to them as if they were still alive. Unfortunately, I get no response. I do, of course, wonder what it would be like if we could communicate with those who no longer walk this earth. Some people will pay a psychic medium like Rebecca Rosen a lot of money to help them communicate with their loved ones, but imagine what it would be like to actually receive a call on our cell phone from a beloved relative who has passed away. That is precisely what Mitch Albom’s new book is all about.

Mitch Albom - Book - First Phone Call from Heaven - God

Albom sets “The First Phone Call from Heaven,” in Small Town America. The story takes place in Coldwater, Michigan where local townsfolk begin receiving phone calls from deceased relatives they recently lost. All around the same time the police chief hears from his deceased son who was killed in Afghanistan, a woman gets calls on her cell phone from her dead sister, and another woman starts getting calls from her mother in heaven. Believers – and protesters – descend on the small Northern Michigan town as word of the heavenly phone calls spreads by way of an up-and-coming television news reporter. Interwoven in this very spiritual story that centers on how we connect to heaven is the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone. Just as people doubted Bell’s magical telephone would really connect people who couldn’t see each other, Albom seems to remind the reader that we shouldn’t be so skeptical about these calls from heaven.

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Dr. Abraham Nemeth – Inventor and Mathematician

One of the highlights of attending Shabbat services at Adat Shalom Synagogue since I was a young child has been talking with Dr. Abe Nemeth. Dr. Nemeth, who passed away yesterday at 94, was a brilliant mathematician and inventor.

Dr. Nemeth was blind since birth, but he invented many technological devices to make his life easier. I recall a Friday night get together at Rabbi Efry Spectre’s home during high school when Dr. Nemeth was the guest speaker. He showed the 20 or so teens in the room how he developed a wrist watch that would tell him the time just by touching it. He also showed us the Braille siddur (prayerbook) that he uses.

Dr. Abraham Nemeth

Dr. Nemeth taught math for 3 decades at the University of Detroit and then started their Computer Science department. In terms of his lasting legacy, his entry in Wikipedia explains that Dr. Nemeth developed “the Braille code that would more effectively handle the kinds of math and science material he was tackling. Ultimately, he developed the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation in 1952. The Nemeth Code has gone through 4 revisions since its initial development, and continues to be widely used today. Nemeth is also responsible for the rules of MathSpeak, a system for orally communicating mathematical text. In the course of his studies, Nemeth found that he needed to make use of sighted readers to read otherwise inaccessible math texts and other materials. Likewise, he needed a method for dictating his math work and other materials for transcription into print. The conventions Nemeth developed for efficiently reading mathematical text out loud have evolved into MathSpeak.

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Enough Senseless Tragedies Like Sandy Hook

A movie theater. A Sikh house of worship. An elementary school.

How long until we say enough gun violence in our nation? These tragic events get the media coverage because they are the result of gun violence on a large scale, but there are horrific murders and suicides in our nation all the time which are the result of guns and bullets.

Earlier today I took part in a conference call for rabbis about the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Rabbi David Lerner, founder of Clergy Against Bullets, and Rabbi Jeffery Silberman, a chaplain and Director of Spiritual Care at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut (ten miles from Newtown), both spoke to the more than 100 rabbis on the call. There were Jewish texts that were cited, but ultimately the discussion turned to the need for comprehensive gun reform in our nation.

This evening I represented the local Jewish community at a candlelight vigil for the victims. The following are the words I spoke in an attempt to put the tragedy into perspective, bring healing and also encourage people that we must work to put an end to gun violence.

I have been asked to speak here this evening as a rabbi and as a representative of our Jewish community, however, I would not be fully honest if I didn’t tell you that I also stand here in my most important capacity – a Dad. As a father of two 1st graders I couldn’t help but look at the adorable faces of those children and think about my own children. This violent act was senseless, immoral, brutal and truly vicious. But it was not unspeakable. We, as God’s children, MUST speak about it.

In the portion of the Torah which Jewish people will read in synagogue this coming Shabbat, we hear the voice of Joseph asking if his father is still alive. After revealing himself to his shocked brothers, the first words out of his mouth concern his loved one and whether he is alive or dead. Last Friday, it was the other way around. It was parents asking if their child was still alive. With concern in their voice, they asked the question that no parent should ever have to ask.

In Judaism, we have a mitzvah, a commandment, from Leviticus 19:16 that says lo ta’amod al dam re’echa  — You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. And I know this is a core ethical precept in all of our faith traditions. Just as we all share the value of Tikkun Olam, that we must all serve as God’s partners in making the world a better place, so too we must hold up the banner that we cannot stand by as our fellow humans, indeed our nation’s children, are being shot dead in school.

We are so much better than that. We have a responsibility to protect each other. To ensure that violence always loses out to peace. That life trumps death. We owe it to the kids who perished and to those who are back at school. We owe it to fellow parents and grandparents.
I don’t have an answer to the question of “where God was” at that school on that fateful day in Connecticut. None of us does. But we do have a mission in front of us. Let us work together so that tragedies such as this are relegated to the history books and our future will be so much brighter.

As a tribute to the victims of this tragedy and to all who mourn, I offer this prayer written by my colleague Rabbi Naomi Levy:

Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries innocent children and brave teachers.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair.
Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened
Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.
Let their cries give way once more to laughter.

Bless us, God,
Work through us.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
With a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.
Shield us from indifference
And from our tendency to forget.
Open our hearts, open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.
Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed
With all our hearts and souls.
Teach us perseverance and dedication.
Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair
So that all children can go to school in peace, God,
Let them be safe.

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.
Amen.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Scammers Add to the Tragedy of Noah Pozner

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The New York Jewish Week

When the names of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut were announced, Jewish media outlets immediately published articles about the youngest victim Noah Pozner, the Jewish 6-year-old who was laid to rest earlier this week in a traditional Jewish funeral officiated by the family’s rabbi, Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown.

As if the story of this tragedy couldn’t get any worse news reports have surfaced that individuals have sought to capitalize off the Pozner family’s heartache. A man named Jason Martin rushed to purchase the internet domain noahpozner.com. After the Pozner family had the noahpozner.com website transferred to its ownership, Victoria Haller, Noah’s aunt, emailed Martin. He wrote back that he’d meant “to somehow honor Noah and help promote a safer gun culture. I had no ill intentions I assure you.”

The purchase of noahpozner.com wasn’t the least of the surprising acts done by individuals not associated with the Pozner family. It was what was published on that website. Adding to the grieving family’s sorrow, someone the family didn’t know began soliciting donations in Noah’s memory, claiming that they would send any cards, packages and money collected to his parents and siblings. An official-looking website had been set up at noahpozner.com, even including petitions on gun control.

According to an AP story, Noah Pozner’s uncle, Alexis Haller, “called on law enforcement authorities to seek out these despicable people. These scammers are stealing from the families of victims of this horrible tragedy.” Noah Pozner’s family learned of the scam after a friend received an email asking for money for the family. The email was poorly punctuated and listed an address for donations with which the Pozners where unfamiliar.

Noah Pozner was the youngest of the 1st grade victims at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

While scams such as this one against the Pozners are all too common following a tragedy, it is still disturbing to the majority of people who live ethically. It is also outrageous that this family in mourning should have to deal with such a travesty and be hassled with having to deal with these scammers.

Ken Berger, the president and CEO of Charity Navigator, was quoted in the AP article. He said, “It’s abominable. It’s just the lowest kind of thievery.”

The noahpozner.com website now displays the eulogy his mother delivered at his funeral as well as several photos of the adorable 6-year-old who loved tacos. Donations to Noah’s Ark of Hope can be made on the site and a disclaimer clearly states that “This is the only official website for payment to directly and solely benefit the siblings of Noah Pozner.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Uncle As Father Figure

The past three Father’s Days have been difficult days for me. I’ve spent each of them with my dad, but I missed my beloved uncle in a real and painful way. My Uncle Jerry died after a very brief battle with Pancreatic cancer in February 2009.

As this year’s Father’s Day approached I thought about the father figure role that many uncles play in their nephew’s life. I have a wonderful relationship with my own dad, but my relationship with my uncle was different. He served as a different type of role model for me than my father. My uncle was the one to take me to hockey games and for a ride on the back of a motorcycle. We went on day-long excursions by snowmobile or by boat. It was my uncle who taught me to appreciate an ice cold beer on a hot summer day and a fine glass of wine with good friends as the sun was setting.

While my father taught me to drive, it was my uncle who taught me to drive aggressively and strategically and how to appreciate a luxury automobile. Uncle Jerry showed me by example that hard work pays off. He also demonstrated the value of a good vacation away from the office and the importance of enjoying time with the family.

My uncle had his own children, but he still made time for me and his other nephews and nieces. Just as there is a significant role for a Savvy Auntie to play in one’s life, there is a significant role for a devoted uncle too. The uncle is an unsung hero in society.

As the fond memories of my Uncle Jerry were floating in my head and I was considering the ways he served as a complementary (not surrogate) father figure in my life I was called upon to officiate at a funeral. On the phone, the local funeral director explained that the family was not affiliated with any congregation. He also told me that the contact person would be the deceased’s niece, but that she and her siblings should be treated as the grieving children.

When I arrived at the house to meet with the family in preparation for the funeral the following day, I learned that the man I was to eulogize played a substantial role in the lives of his nieces and nephew. While his own father died when he was just a young boy and he grew up without a father figure in his life, he filled that role outstandingly for his own two children as well as for his three nieces and nephew.

I listened to the stories flying at me from all directions about a man who shed the “Uncle” title and became “Dad” to four children when their own parents were no longer available. I considered how many uncles fill this role for their nieces and nephews. Some uncles, like the man who just departed this earth, step up and take on a father figure role when the need arises, and do so with love and affection. Others, like my own uncle, serve as a father figure in ways that complement the role of a biological father.

Father’s Day was one of my uncle’s favorite days of the year. He loved to open his house to the family and barbeque for us. As everyone was finishing dessert he’d motion to me to go outside and we’d play catch until it was too dark to see the ball. Sometimes I would just watch him hit tennis balls with a golf driver to his eager Golden Retriever. Growing up, I now realize that Father’s Day for me was also a day to honor my uncle and the impact he had on my development.

Just as Melanie Notkin has reframed our understanding of aunthood, I encourage everyone to take into account the special role that uncle’s play in the lives of their nieces and nephews. On this Father’s Day, I will once again pay tribute to the memory of my uncle. Through his actions he was influential in the way I now serve as a father to my own children. While I am not yet an uncle, I know that when the time comes I will look to Uncle Jerry as a role model. His legacy will inspire me to take a father figure approach to being an uncle. In a big way.

Cross-posted to SavvyAuntie.com

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Sacha Baron Cohen Hits Ryan Seacrest with Kim Jong Il’s Ashes: Funny or Disrespectful?

Sacha Baron Cohen of course made a scene before tonight’s Oscars when he arrived on the “Red Carpet” in character as General Aladeen, the star of his upcoming movie “The Dictator.” Carrying the fake ashes of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, Baron Cohen dumped the ashes onto Ryan Seacrest. As he walked away, he told Seacrest that when asked “Who are you wearing?” he should answer “Kim Jong Il.”

Sacha Baron Cohen dumps Kim Jong Il’s “ashes” on Ryan Seacrest (Photo: E! Entertainment)

It was meant as a prank and a publicity stunt. And like most of Sacha Baron Cohen’s publicity stunts, it worked. People will be talking about it on Monday morning and that will ultimately result in a larger box office take for “The Dictator.”


Watching the footage of Baron Cohen comically spilling the fake ashes of a dead dictator onto Ryan Seacrest reminded me of a similar scene from the season premier of “Two and a Half Men” this season. The new season began with Jon Cryer’s character Alan being surprised at seeing a soaking-wet Walden Schmidt (Ashton Kutcher) appearing at the Malibu house window and then tossing Charlie Sheen’s character’s ashes into the air. The ashes are later stepped on and then vacuumed. The spilling of a dead person’s ashes in error is an old comedy routine (remember Robert DeNiro’s mother’s ashes falling off the mantle in “Meet the Parents”?), but I still found it troubling. Sacha Baron Cohen dumping Kim Jong Il’s ashes on to Ryan Seacrest and Jon Cryer throwing Charlie Sheen’s ashes into the air were both funny and I laughed. However, it also made me think of how we should respect the dead.

Jon Cryer is surprised by the appearance of Ashton Kutcher’s character in “Two and a Half Men” and throws Charlie Sheen’s ashes (Adam Rose/CBS)

According to Jewish law, cremation is prohibited. We believe that dead bodies should return to the ground. Admittedly that could have had something to do with my discomfort at watching the scene from “Two and a Half Men.” Interestingly, I wasn’t as troubled watching the “Weekend at Bernie’s” movie in which a dead corpse is paraded around the beach for a few days.


The comedic gags with spilled ashes and a dancing corpse are one thing. They are meant to be humorous. However, we should remember the ethic of respecting the dead. K’vod ha-met in the Hebrew refers to the Jewish law of treating the deceased with honor. I have never attended Bodies: The Exhibition in which preserved human corpses are preserved and dissected to showcase the way the body’s systems work. I understand that it is for educational purposes, but purchasing a ticket to such a “show” has struck me as odd. It seems a disrespectful way to treat the dead.


What also comes to mind when I think about how we must honor and respect the dead is the recent published photograph by the National Enquire of a dead Whitney Houston lying in her coffin. I understand that the goal of this tabloid is to sell copies of their paper to make money, but this immediately struck me as crossing the line of decency and appropriateness. Journalistic integrity and responsibility is becoming harder to find these days, but the National Enquire should have refused to purchase this photograph. Publishing it on the front page of the tabloid was disrespectful to Whitney Houston’s family and was certainly a violation of the edict to respect the dead.

While I am uncomfortable even seeing fake ashes being used as a joke, I certainly understand how Sacha Baron Cohen was attempting to get shock value out of his stunt at tonight’s Academy Awards and how “Two and a Half Men” was making a joke (and perhaps a statement about Charlie Sheen). Where I think our society needs to tread more cautiously is when actual dead bodies are used inappropriately. The Bodies exhibit has been very successful for many years despite some people’s criticism of it. While I don’t plan to ever buy a ticket and attend this exhibition, I do understand how it can be an educational endeavor. However, the case of Whitney Houston’s dead corpse being published on the front page of a tabloid newspaper (and then all over the Internet), is a shame.

No matter how curious our society might be to see such a photograph, I hope more tact will be displayed in the future so that dead bodies (no matter what form they take) will be respected and honored. Sacha Baron Cohen was going for sensationalism tonight at the Oscars and he clearly understands how death gets our attention. 

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Making Shivah Easier Using Technology

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

When Sharon Rosen’s mother passed away in July 2009 she had the same eye-opening realization that many survivors do during the week of shivah: The death of a loved one can be a stressful, anxiety-ridden time. Overwhelmed with sadness and the reality of her loss, Rosen experienced planning a funeral and coordination of shivah in her home for the first time.

During the shivah period, Rosen felt like she took on the job of logistics director and wasn’t able to be fully in the moment to reflect on her loss. She was frustrated with all of the planning taking place for the shivah at her home. Even though friends were taking care of many things, it was still a hectic, difficult time for her.

Friends sent food for the mourners gathered at Rosen’s home, but despite their best intentions, some of the platters were delivered when there was already ample food and no room to refrigerate the remaining food overnight. Questions and concerns about food created unnecessary additional anxiety. Rosen felt like she had lost control as friends gathered in her home for a week, cleaning, setting out food and rearranging furniture.

Rosen used this stressful experience to create an innovative new website so others mourning the death of a loved one could find shivah to be an easier ritual. Realizing that increasing numbers of people rely on the Internet for information and as a convenient way to communicate, Rosen created a comprehensive website that organizes every aspect of the shivah experience. She dedicated the new endeavor to her mother’s memory and, after a year of research, design and building, she launched ShivaConnect.com.

“I thought of other registry technologies like a wedding registry or baby registry where information is posted, and I worked with my programmer to develop a shivah registry,” Rosen said.

What Rosen created was a quick and convenient way to connect with people online. Recognizing that mourners have several matters to take care of immediately following a death, the site allows for the quick entry of information and creates a link to the registry that is sent to the creator of the registry entry and is additionally emailed, texted or tweeted to relatives and friends. There is also a “Search for a Registry” option on the site, but the registries are not visible to search engines and a lock-down privacy option is possible.

Visitors can express their condolences and learn about the Jewish mourning rituals from educational articles. A yahrzeit reminder feature will email annual notices like many funeral home websites. A zip code search is built in to locate food options to send to the shivah home. Additionally, a link to ShivaConnect’s donation section is provided, where visitors find direct links to charity website donation portals.

Rosen has extended an invitation to hospices, funeral homes, synagogues and Jewish organizations to be listed as “Helpful Resources,” with links to facilitate charitable donations. Many synagogues are using the site to enhance the support they already provide to their members to inform of deaths.

In the past year, ShivaConnect boasted more than 75,000 page views with about 20,000 unique visitors. Rosen is looking to social media to help publicize the site. As the site has grown, she frequently posts updates about ShivaConnect on her personal and public Facebook pages, and on LinkedIn, Yahoo Groups and Twitter.

Rosen has become something of an expert on shivah observance. She recently spoke at the National Institute for Jewish Hospice’s annual conference hosted by its president Rabbi Dr. Maurice Lamm.

How has ShivaConnect.com begun to make shivah observance more manageable and less stressful?

“Nothing can ease the pain of loss, but the convenience and accessibility of the Internet to learn about sitting shivah can be tremendously helpful,” Rosen explained. “ShivaConnect also is serving as an outreach tool, providing information to non-practicing and unaffiliated Jews who want to honor a Jewish relative and want to learn more.”

In Rosen’s home state of Florida, 30 funeral homes are participating in ShivaConnect. There is no charge to funeral homes to be listed and no charge to synagogues to use the service, but Rosen allows some food establishments and florists to advertise on the site for a fee.

What began with an anxiety-ridden experience has turned into a meaningful way to honor her beloved mother’s life and make grieving a little easier for others. While observing shivah will never be totally stress-free, Rosen’s ShivaConnect has utilized the technology of the Web to provide the right resources to simplify the process.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Sitting Shiva for Traditional Shiva

I’ve been thinking about death and mourning quite a bit lately. To begin with, the first week of the new year brought with it a rash of deaths here in the Detroit Jewish community. There were a fair share of elderly grandparents who died in their 80s and 90s during the first week of 2012, but that isn’t all that uncommon. Within a one-week period, however, there were tragic and untimely deaths in every age demographic ranging from a drug overdose to horrific traffic accidents to sudden massive heart attacks to the succumbing of long illnesses. There was a lot of mourning and a lot of grieving here in the Detroit Jewish community.

I’ve also been thinking about death and mourning because I’ve been working on an article for The Detroit Jewish News about the Shiva Connect website which helps mourners coordinate shiva following the death of a loved one. The research I’ve done on this website has pushed me to look closer at how Jews are observing shiva in the 21st century.

Author Bruce Feiler’s article in today’s  NY Times was difficult to read because it makes me think that we should perhaps sit shiva for the traditional expression of Judaism’s mourning rituals which have been around for thousands of years. Feiler, the author of Walking the Bible, writes about observing a “secular shiva” for his friends who have died recently (or for his friends’ relatives). Rather than paying a condolence call to the home of the mourners, Feiler’s friends have gathered elsewhere and ordered pizza and a fruit salad and listened to eulogies by the grieving family. Bereft of prayers or the obligatory rites of Jewish mourning, Feiler finds this “secular shiva” to be a natural outgrowth of our busy, complicated lives without religion in the Digital Age.

There is already a trend among non-Orthodox Jews to minimize the length of shiva. The Hebrew word “shiva” means seven and refers to the number of days the mourners are required to stay at home receiving visitors to pay their condolences. Traditionally, the only time that shiva isn’t the full seven days is when it is interrupted by a significant Jewish holiday during which time formal morning is prohibited. When I first became a rabbi eight years ago I would listen to families explain why sitting shiva for the full seven days seemed too arduous. I would then be able to convince them to do it even it meant a little bargaining such as keeping the final few days private without opening their home to everyone. These days, it has become commonplace for families to only “hold shiva” for a few days or at the very least a few hours following the funeral.

Feiler’s NY Times article is titled “Mourning in the Age of Facebook”, but it focuses less on social media sympathies and more on this New Age observance of shiva. (I wrote about mourning and the effect of social networking sites like Facebook in a blog post for The Jewish Week’s Jewish Techs blog in May 2010.) Feiler’s argument is that shiva is too difficult to take place at the home of the mourners. I’ve heard this argument before and agree with it on some levels. The last thing that many mourners want to think about after their loved one has died is opening their home to an unknown number of people including many strangers who are connected to the deceased through other mourners. Of course, the idea of shiva is that the mourners shouldn’t have to worry about making sure their house is clean for shiva or if there will be enough food or ample parking. That should be taken care of by their community of friends. But truthfully, it is still stressful time for mourners and is likely the leading cause of the desire to shorten the length of the traditional shiva period.

I recently spoke with the leader of a local Reform congregation who shared his vision of creating a physical space (not in the synagogue or funeral home) for mourners to gather for shiva. It would be designed to feel like a living room and friends would visit with the mourners there so no one had to open their home to countless people during the immediate week of grief. On the one hand this idea makes sense, but there’s a certain warmth that I believe would be missing. There’s a certain unique feeling about shiva in a mourner’s home. Traditionally the mourner shouldn’t have to leave home during shiva. That is why people come to the shiva house and daily prayer services are held there rather than in the synagogue.

The part of Feiler’s article I found most troubling was the notion that we’re just too busy these days to fully respond to death. Feiler quotes a hospice nurse who explains, “We’re just too busy in this world to deal with losing people.” I certainly hope that’s not the case. There is a reason that seven days of mourning were instituted. While death is never convenient, we are obligated to respond to it by taking time out of our busy, overextended schedules and comfort the mourners in their time of grief.

It is certainly more convenient to post a quick sentence or two of condolence on the mourner’s Facebook Wall, but that shouldn’t preclude us from performing the tradition acts of comforting the mourners as instituted by our faith. Judaism is fluid and progresses through the generations in response to the changing culture of the times and the needs of its practitioners, but we should be cautious in how much we change certain aspects of our tradition. Formal shiva serves a purpose and while it is not a convenient situation it guarantees the comfort of the community.

As Feiler notes, “Especially in a world in which so much communication happens online, the balming effect of a face-to-face gathering can feel even more magnified. The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva offers an appealing template.” Rather than seeing social media promote the loss of traditional shiva observance, I hope it is used to strengthen it. We are all busy with many distractions, but hopefully we’ll find ways to use modern technology to help our friends who are grieving. We should recognize the inherent value of traditional shiva rather than trying to reinvent it. I’m glad that Bruce Feiler found meaning in the “secular shivas” he observed for his friends, but I pray that we’ll return religion to its proper place in Jewish mourning ritual.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller