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

Join the Minyan with Skype

It was 1998 and I was in my first semester of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My Talmud professor, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, approached me after class one day to discuss a project he was working on. As a member of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), he was examining the legal permissibility of a virtual minyan (prayer quorum). Knowing my interest in technology, my teacher picked my brain about some of the technical implications of video-conferencing. He sought to answer the halakhic (Jewish legal) question of whether a minyan could be convened using non-traditional, electronic means. Some of the sources he was considering were drawn from the same pages we were then studying in his class from Tractate Rosh Hashanah as it deals with hearing the sound of the shofar to fulfill the obligation.

Rabbi Reisner’s project resulted in a teshuva (legal position paper) titled “Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu,” in which he ruled that a virtual minyan conducted via video-conferencing was not “kosher.”

Now, one of my colleagues has opened his daily minyan through Skype access which brings this halakhic question back into discussion. Skype had yet to be invented back in 1998 when Rabbi Reisner considered the issues surrounding virtual minyan participation. In a bulletin article for his synagogue (reposted by the Rabbinical Assembly), Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts, Rabbi David Lerner refers to Rabbi Reisner’s published teshuva noting that he reasoned that should the technology come available the virtual minyan would be permissible.

Rabbi Lerner had good reason to open his daily minyan via Skype to those who couldn’t attend in person. One of his congregants, Maxine Marcus, lives in Amsterdam and works in The Hague, where she serves as a prosecutor of war criminals from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Her mother recently lost her fight against cancer. After returning to Amsterdam following the funeral last fall in New York, Maxine how difficult it was to say Kaddish in Amsterdam. Rabbi Lerner made the decision to allow Maxine to participate in the Temple Emunah minyan through Skype.

Based on my reading of Rabbi Reisner’s teshuva, the issue of reciting kaddish as part of an already constituted real-time minyan was a separate issue from constituting a minyan via the Internet through video conferencing. Thus, so long as a minyan is already in place in Lexington, Massachusetts at Rabbi Lerner’s congregation, there was never a question about a “virtual participant” reciting Kaddish in that minyan.

Based on Rabbi Reisner’s conclusions, however, it would seem that even with Skype a minyan could not be constituted virtually meaning eight people gathered together could not be joined virtually by two others using Skype to count as a minyan. He writes that “a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, through an audio- or video-conference or any other medium of long distance communication. Only physical proximity, defined as being in the same room with the shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader), allows a quorum to be constituted.” He goes on to explain, “Once a quorum has been duly constituted, those who hear the prayers being offered in that minyan may respond and fulfill their obligations thereby, even long distance.

With regard to the Mourner’s Kaddish, Rabbi Reisner concluded in the 2001 teshuva that “a mourner at a distance may recite it, but must be accompanied by a physical participant (a member who is physically present) in the minyan. This preserves the reason behind requiring a minyan for the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish. It establishes community. Without this concluding statement, individuals might take it a step further and recite Mourner’s Kaddish on their own.” Therefore, as far back as a decade ago Rabbi Lerner was on firm halakhic standing to allow his congregant in Amsterdam to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish via Skype so long as at least one minyan member in Massachusetts accompanies her.

Rabbi Lerner reports that introducing Skype into his daily minyan has strengthened the minyan and has proven to be a very powerful experience. “Members of the minyan have gotten to know Maxine, schmoozing with her for a minute or two after minyan over Skype.” He also has found that opening his minyan virtually has impacted the general community. He wrote in his bulletin article, “This project enabled someone on the other side of the Atlantic to come and experience the power of God, the power of prayer, the power of community, and the power and support of a nurturing community around sacred occasions and after times of loss. His biggest challenge has been trying to encourage other congregations to invite remote minyan-goers to their minyan without letting it adversely impact on our minyan or attendance.

Kol Hakavod (kudos) to Rabbi Lerner for making good use of technology like Skype to allow a mourner in Amsterdam to find comfort with her community in Massachusetts. While Skype might still not be the technology that allows ten people to come together virtually in Cyberspace to form a minyan, it is certainly a great way to allow outsiders to join an existing minyan with a Web cam and Internet connection.

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

Sending Social Networking Sympathies

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

The story was recently told to me about a Facebook user who updated her status message to announce the death of her grandmother and the grief she was feeling because of the loss. Her friend’s mother, a Facebook newbie, read the status update and clicked Facebook’s “Like” option. Was this a Facebook faux pas or a way to express condolences in the era of social networking?

We are all trying to make sense out of how to deal with death when it comes to Web 2.0. Here are some questions that arise with regard to social networking when a loved one dies.

What can Facebook teach us about grief?

In her Christian Science Monitor article, grief expert Diana Nash writes, “After the typhoon in Indonesia, after the deaths of Patrick Swayze and Michael Jackson, after school shootings, and in the wake of suicides, young people in mourning are now turning to social networking sites such as Facebook for support. This raises the question: Are social networking sites a better spiritual partner than a church, mosque, or temple? If you search for ‘In Memory of…’ on Facebook more than 100,000 results pop up.”

Clearly, young people are using social media sites like Facebook as an outlet for their grief. Facebook is a community populated by one’s friends in which those grieving can express themselves without censoring one’s emotions. Many people who were not comfortable talking about personal matters like grief and mourning feel comfortable sharing a few words on the computer to their network of linked friends.

What is the etiquette for announcing a death on Facebook?

Over the past couple of years, I have seen an increasing number of deaths announced through status updates on Facebook. When someone hears of a person’s passing and immediately updates his status by expressing his grief, the modern form of the condolence book has been set up. Others are now free to comment on that status update by offering their condolences to the bereaved, sharing a memory of the deceased, or expressing their own grief about the loss.

Certain questions arise before announcing to the Facebook community through a status update that someone has died. Perhaps the immediate family wants to make this announcement itself? Perhaps the survivors want to wait until certain decisions are made before informing the public (e.g., funeral arrangements)? If the death was tragic or unexpected, the delicate wording of the “announcement” is critical.

What is the status of the deceased’s Facebook page?

An October 28, 2009 article in TIME focused on this very subject. TIME reported that “In an Oct. 26 blog post, Max Kelly, Facebook’s head of security, announced the company’s policy of ‘memorializing’ profiles of users who have died, taking them out of the public search results, sealing them from any future log-in attempts and leaving the wall open for family and friends to pay their respects. Though most media reports claimed this was a new Facebook feature, a spokeswoman for the company told TIME that it’s an option the site has had since its early days.”

If this policy had been around, why did Facebook’s Max Kelly decide to publicize the memorializing of profiles in a blog post? When Facebook rolled out its new version a few days prior to Kelly’s blog post, a new feature automatically generated “suggestions” of people to “reconnect” with. On a personal note, I’m still receiving the automated suggestions by Facebook that I should reconnect with my deceased uncle. (Thank you Facebook, I try!)

Kelly’s explanation of how to put a deceased loved one’s Facebook page in the special category generated a lot of attention. To date, there are over 2,300 comments on his post.

Assuming that a family chooses to  not  put its deceased loved one into the Facebook memorial vault, what is the etiquette with regard to the ongoing maintenance of the deceased Facebook page? Should a family member gain access and manage the page? After all, what if someone posts a comment on the deceased’s Facebook that the family wants removed?

About a year after my uncle’s death, my cousin logged into his father’s Facebook account and accepted the “friend requests” that my uncle wasn’t able to accept in his final week’s on this earth. You can imagine the surprise (if that’s what it was) that some people felt when they were told that they were now “friends” on Facebook with a man who passed away a year prior. Maybe the ‘memorializing’ of profiles is the best policy after all?

And there’s an expert available who can help families create a Facebook obituary. R. Brian Burkhardt is “Your Funeral Guy” and his website describes the steps toward creating a Facebook Memorial.

Should we set up a Facebook page for the deceased?

As soon as a person dies (especially a young person), there is often a race to create the Facebook page in their memory. This can serve as a place to direct the community’s grief through sharing memories, posting photos, and disseminating information about memorial services, donations, etc. Before creating a Facebook page in memory of a loved one, it is important to check to ensure that there is not already one created. The administration of the page is also important to ensure that no inappropriate comments or photos are posted.

My teacher, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, wrote about “Mourning and Consolation on Facebook” in his Windows and Doors blog on the Beliefnet site. He reminds us that “The safety which media like Facebook create is a crucial element in grieving process – the safety to say whatever we want without fear of repercussion and the safety of knowing that whatever we say, someone is listening. On the other hand, the care of one’s family while they mourn, the attention to details that can only be addressed by those among whom we live, and the likelihood that only in the context of a physical community bound together by more than he desire to share their grief, will such things be properly addressed should not be forgotten in the rush to Facebook mourning groups.”

Can visiting a shivah homepage be a substitute for visiting a shivah house?

No doubt, a new etiquette will form for offering condolences to mourners in the social networking age. Until there becomes an agreed upon protocol, however, common decorum should serve as the guide. When a mourner announces the death of a loved one in a Facebook status update, it is appropriate to offer condolences as a comment to the status update or as a wall post. Traditional forms of consolation toward the mourner should then follow, whatever one’s faith dictates (attendance at the funeral if possible, a tribute in the deceased’s memory to a charity, condolence call, etc.).

Rabbi Hirschfield writes, “There are also new possibilities including online visitation of mourners, saying Kaddish with a virtual minyan, the buying and delivery of virtual food to the homepages of mourners, just to name a few. While the latter is not physically nourishing, and that may be a crucial aspect of the tradition of feeding mourners, can we deny it’s value as psychological and spiritual nourishment?”

As I am writing this post, I logged into my Facebook account and saw that a friend had posted a photo of his father’s tombstone since today is his father’s yahrzeit (anniversary of the Jewish date of death). I hadn’t known that he lost his father (almost eleven years ago according to the date on the memorial stone) and neither did several of his other friends on Facebook according to their comments to the photo. This photo, simply captioned “Dad,” allows his friends to share their condolences on his father’s yahrzeit.

And yet, there’s something deeper at work here. Yes, there are friends from around Cyberspace who are offering their condolences or expressing surprise at not having known his father had died over a decade ago. But there are also those who are now finding relief in admitting that they too take photos of loved ones’ graves. As one commenter wrote, “I’m glad to know that I am not the only one who takes pictures at the cemetary [sic].”

No one has clicked the “Like” option for the photo. At least not yet!

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