Judaism in Cyberspace: How to Sit Shiva During Coronavirus

It was Nancy Levitt’s rabbi who suggested the shiva by Zoom: At the end of each day’s virtual visit, as she said the Kaddish, the mourners in the cloud answered, Amen

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral in Jerusalem's Mount of Olives cemetery, March 25, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral in Jerusalem's Mount of Olives cemetery, March 25, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

When her mother died in late March, Nancy Levitt knew that she couldn’t attend her mother’s funeral or sit shiva for her – at least not in the traditional Jewish way.

Levitt’s mother was born and died at the age of 86 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the Canadian mid-West. Levitt, 65, grew up with her family in Winnipeg and has lived in Israel for 44 years.

“My mother had been sick for many years, and I travelled to Winnipeg countless times, sometimes twice a year, to take care of her, to visit her. Now, because of Corona, I can’t travel, and that is was so hard for me. I know that she is in a better place now, not suffering any more. But I still needed to sit shiva for her,” Levitt says in a telephone conversation. “I needed the embrace of my friends and family. I needed to feel part of a community. I needed not to mourn alone, quarantined in my home. I needed to hug someone and to be hugged.”

Levitt, who works for Hebrew Union College, says the idea came to her almost immediately. “I’ve been on so many Zoom meetings for work and with friends since we’ve been working from home. So I thought, I could have a Zoom shiva.”

In Jewish tradition, shiva is a weeklong mourning period. It is meant as a time to immerse yourself in memory and grief, while, at the same time, providing a distraction and a way to ease more slowly into the inevitable sense of loss and pain. It is a time to receive and accept the comfort that others and community bring.

New graves at the Thiais cemetery, ParisCredit: Menahem Perez

The COVID-19 pandemic has made Zoom, a video-conferencing website and smartphone application, an integral part of many people’s work and even their social lives. It has also forced us to look for new ways to observe ancient rituals and seek new definitions of community and belonging.

Levitt says that initially, she wasn’t sure that the Zoom-shiva would work. “How much comfort can a virtual hug bring you?” she wondered.

After setting up a time for the Zoom meetings, Levitt posted the access code and the times that she and her husband, Ron, would be available for visits on Facebook and sent out emails and WhatsApp text messages to her friends and colleagues, who forwarded the message onward.

Nearly every evening over the seven days of shiva, at the appointed time, Levitt and her husband, Ron, opened their computer screen for two hours, and friends, relatives, and colleagues from all over the world joined them through Zoom.

Comfort from the ‘cloud’

Shiva-by-Zoom quickly developed its own set of practices and protocols. In a traditional shiva, the mourner is not supposed to be responsible for hosting, or even greeting, those whom come to comfort them. Says Ruth Yudekovitz, Levitt’s close friend, “If she had been sitting shiva in the usual way, I would have been there to help out, to cook meals for them, to do whatever needed to be done. So I took over ‘administering’ the Zoom session.”

Sometimes, there were more than twenty people on line. Yudekovitz would invite different people to speak, one at a time, while asking everyone else to ‘mute themselves’ when they were not speaking (which reduces echo); she helped Levitt to notice who had come on line; and she helped the inexperienced to navigate some of the intricacies of the technology.

As in a traditional shiva, family members shared pictures of and stories about Levitt’s mother. Babies and small children, who would not be brought to a home of mourning, were brought into the camera frame for a few seconds, which, Levitt says, really touched her.

As one person noted, even the traditional expression, “May your comfort come from heaven” took on a newer significance, referring to the internet cloud.

At the end of each visit, as Levitt said the Kaddish, the traditional mourners’ prayer, the virtually-assembled answered, Amen.

“It was an incredibly difficult experience,” Levitt says. “And yet, it also brought an opportunity. If I had sat shiva in Winnipeg, none of my friends would have joined me. Through Zoom, family and friends, people I haven’t seen for years, were able to be with me, to remember and honor my mother.

“A virtual hug isn’t a real hug, and sometimes, I felt very empty. And yet, there was also something very special, a community of people from all over the world that came together around my mother and for me.”

Martin Zinger, from a small town in northern Michigan, also set up a Zoom shiva for his mother, who lived and died in California. “My rabbi suggested that we do this, since of course, I could not travel to California. The funeral service was live-streamed to my younger brother, who lives in Arizona, and to me. Then, we set times to talk together, to be visited, and to say Kaddish together and with anyone else who wanted to ‘visit’ us.”

Zinger said that dozens of people joined his virtual sessions for every one of the seven days. “Usually, when I pay a shiva call, I don’t even always get to talk to the person in mourning. Or I say a few words to them, talk to one or two people, and leave,” he said. “But in Zoom, I could see everyone at one time on the screen, and everyone talked to me, one by one, and I talked to everyone.

“Of course, virtual reality isn’t real. I missed touching people, I missed embraces,” Zinger says. “And the shiva usually last for the better part of the day, but the Zoom meeting is only at certain hours. The sense of community that we have when people bring food to your home just wasn’t there. When we all went off-line, I just got up and made myself a cup of coffee. I was alone for most of the day.”

Zinger continues, “But we did have some sense of community. I think that, from now on, we should do both – yes, of course, we should have an actual shiva. But we should also make a time for on-line, when you can talk to people who wouldn’t travel to be with you in person.”

Judaism in cyberspace

For Judaism, which is so rooted in physical presence, meetings in cyberspace pose a particular challenge. “So many of the mitzvoth (commandments) of Judaism are meant to be done in a community,” observes Rabbi Shelton Donnell from Portland, Oregon, who “paid a shiva call” to Levitt through Zoom. “The people of Israel, through all generations, are thought of to have been together at Sinai to receive the Torah. We pray in a minyan (quorum). Many blessings, even the grace after meals, require a minimum number of people who convene in a real place," he says.

Indeed, the use of Zoom and high-tech devices for religious purposes during this time of social distancing and quarantine has been a hot topic of debate over the past few weeks. Israel’s Chief Rabbis have ruled that people cannot participate in the Passover seder remotely. Citing other rabbinic authorities, Rabbi Benny Lau has ruled that it is impossible to define a group of people who have gathered for a virtual service via Zoom as a quorum of 10, but he also ruled that a virtual meet up can be considered a kind of minyan for the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish.

Donnell, however, concludes that even in ancient times, Judaism has known how to find solutions to difficult situations. “From the time of Hillel the Elder, our rabbis and leaders have found ways to meet the challenges of the times. Technologies like Zoom, if used instead of real meetings, will be a threat to our future as a community and a people. But if we are wise enough to use them to expand our understandings and experiences, they will be a blessing.”

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