Death Facebook Faith Judaism and Technology Mourning Ritual Social Media Technology Web

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 | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Israel Jewish Olympics Ritual Sports

Fiddler on the Ice

To paraphrase an old joke: Are the Ultra Orthodox now going to forbid figure skating because it can lead to mixed dancing?

Uriel Heilman writes on the JTA Blog, “It was probably the first time in Olympics history that a kippah was an integral part of an athlete’s uniform. When the Israeli brother-sister ice dancing team Roman and Alexandra Zaretsky took to the ice in Vancouver on Sunday night, the pair chose a ‘traditional Israeli’ folk dance.”

The couple danced to the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagilla,” often sung at Jewish weddings. Heilman notes that the appearance of the yarmulke on Roman Zaretsky’s head makes him look like a nice Orthodox Jewish boy, but his “earring was a bit incongruous.”

While it was great to see an Israeli wearing a kippah while figure skating in the Olympics, I thought the costumes were a little over the top in the “stereotype department.” Not to mention that Alexandra Zaretsky’s skirt would not have gone over well in the Fiddler on the Roof shtetl. And yet, the performance by the Zaretsky brother-sister duo wasn’t the one deemed the most controversial in the Olympic competition. This year, the theme for the ice dancing original dance was folk dancing, which was supposed to represent the “flavor” of one country or another.

Some pairs, like the Israelis, chose folk dances that represented their own country (although I’m not sure all Israelis identify with a 19th century Eastern European shtetl dance). Other couples honored cultures other than their own. The Russian pair of Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin did an Australian Aboriginal dance that drew criticism from Aboriginal leaders who found the dance and costumes offensive.

I’m sure the Israelis could have skated to an Israeli folk song without dressing up in the most stereotypical Jewish costumes. After all, if they wanted to represent Israel they should remember there are other populations in Israel, such as the Sephardic Jews, who don’t feel a connection to the Jews represented in The Fiddler on the Roof. As for the Russians, they should have learned their lesson from their last performance when they dressed up in Aboriginal costume and set off a firestorm of criticism.

Here is the video of Israeli Ice Capades

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Humor Jewish Prayer Ritual World Events

Oh! The Plane’s Gonna’ Blow!

This is a poem I wrote about the incident last week when a Jewish 17-year-old boy caused a U.S. Airways flight to be diverted because the flight attendant thought his tefillin (phylacteries) were a bomb. It’s based on “Oh, the Places You Will Go!” by Dr. Seuss.

Oh, the Plane’s Gonna’ Blow!
By Rabbi Jason Miller
(With Apologies to Dr. Seuss)

Mazel Tov!
On the plane you shall pray.
You’re off to Louisville!
Takin’ off from LGA!

You have tefillin on your head.
You’re travelin’ with New York Jews.
You can pray in any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. If there’s turbulence, the Amidah you will forgo.

The flight attendant will see your odd boxes. Look’em over with care. Then she’ll say, “Hey Kid, whatchya’ got on over there.” With your arm full of leather and your shuckling feet, you’re too frum to take your seat.

She’ll tell the pilot the plane will go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head to a new town. Since your tefillin looked so silly, you’ll touchdown right in Philly. You’ll say, “The box on my hair? You really need not fear!”

Up there things can happen and frequently do, by people much more Middle Eastern than you.

And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. They’ll soon realize you’re a Jew.

Oh, the Plane’s Gonna’ Blow!

You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll let out a sigh!
You’ll soon join Bubbie for soup in KY.

You’ll be just fine because you’ll have prayed. The feds will say “Oops, Sorry!” for the mistake that was made. Wherever you fly, you’ll have learned quite the lesson. With tefillin no more will you be messin’.

Except when you do.
Fly El Al as a Jew.

Please promise us that you will no longer fear. These Hang-ups can happen when you fly U.S. Air.

You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant phlum. And the chances are, then, that you will still be frum.

Oh, the plane’s gonna’ blow! There is prayer to be done! You must say thanks to your Lord. You’ve done the right thing son. And the magical thing you do with a leather strap, will make you the most famous Jewish chap. No Shame! No one will think you’re just a rube, the world will learn about tefillin on YouTube.

They still won’t get it. But you shouldn’t fret it.

I’m afraid that some times you’ll pray sans phylactery. On a plane, in a train, or by that Ol’ Factory.

Daven Alone!
Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll do quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet people scared by your Jewish way. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that won’t know that a tefillin is what you lay.

Kid, innocent you are
And you’ll go far.

So… be your name Birnbaum or Schwartz or Levy or Mordecai Ale Van Allen O’Bevy, you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your Bubbie is waiting.
So… daven away!


  • Amidah = The central prayer in the Jewish liturgy, which is recited standing.
  • Shuckling = Yiddish meaning “to shake.” The ritual swaying of Jewish worshipers.
  • Frum = Yiddish meaning “religious.”
  • Daven = Yiddish meaning “pray.”
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Humor Jewish Ritual Tefillin World Events

Tefillin On Board

Most Jewish people have never heard of the word “phylacteries,” and yet according to Google, at current count the word appears in over 800 of today’s news articles on the Web. Apparently, a 17-year-old man wrapped in his phylacteries (tefillin in Hebrew) was treated suspiciously on a U.S. Airways plane from NYC headed to Kentucky. In fact the pilot rerouted the aircraft to Philadelphia.

For those who have never heard of tefillin, here’s an explanation from “Phylacteries is actually a Greek word for tefillin. Phylacteries loosely translates as ‘to guard, or to protect.’ In the Torah, they are referenced as something to be worn in recognition of God bringing the children of Israel to Egypt. A set of tefillin includes one for the arm and one for the head of the individual praying. They are typically a set of small cubic leather boxes, painted black and include parchment scrolls inscribed with verses from the Bible. They also have leather straps dyed black to help attach to the observant Jewish individual during prayer.”

I jokingly wondered aloud whether the pilot was just looking out for the observant Jewish teen and felt he’d be better served in Philly rather than Kentucky, which has a small Jewish population.

The news story reminded me of a story a friend told me that also involves tefillin and airplane security. He tells the story about a friend of his who took his tefillin on a flight (carry on) several years ago and the security agent saw the odd looking tefillin on the metal detector. He asked what they were and the guy couldn’t remember how to say tefillin in English (phylacteries) and said “prophylactics” by accident. The guard started to laugh and let him go through.

The bottom line here is that wearing two black boxes connected to some black leather straps should really not be considered a potential breach of aircraft security. In fact, after hearing about this, I decided to come up with a list of ten Jewish-related things that may actually pose a higher security threat on board an airplane (with apologies to David Letterman):

10. Waving a Lulav (eye poker)
9. Wrapping yourself in a Tallis (whip passengers with those fringes)
8. My Grandmother’s Chicken Soup (scalding hot, but it’s liquid so its already banned)
7. Wielding a Challah knife (obvious!)
6. Purim Grogger (Metal corners make dangerously sharp weapon)
5. Full Set of the Talmud (heavy enough to bring down an aircraft)
4. Using Jewish Sarcasm (it’s deadly!)
3. Giving a discourse on the history of the Jewish legal tradition (will put pilots to sleep)
2. Matzoh Balls (deadly as thrown object)

And the #1 Jewish thing more dangerous than wearing tefillin on a plane is…

1. Singing Shabbat song: “Bim Bom, Bim Bim Bim BOMB!!!”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |