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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Sorry for your loss

I had to make a lot of phone calls after my father died. Of course there were the big ones that very evening, to my brother, my children, the rabbi, relatives, and, of course, the chevra kaddisha (burial society). Then to many others regarding arrangements for the funeral and shiva that followed.

After the shiva ended, and "real life" reimposed itself, there other phone calls, of a very different nature. These involved more mundane matters: mostly cancelling various services that my father had. I didn't have to make these kinds of calls when my mother died seven and a half years ago, but when your second parent dies, you have to deal with all that they accumulated during their lives together: the photos, the heirlooms, the art objects, things handing the walls, in drawers, in cabinets, in book shelves, all the stuff your parents' surrounded themselves with during their lives. Everything has to be dealt with, distributed, disposed, and, in the case of subscriptions, cancelled.

And so I made a list and one by one began calling to cancel them. There was the Wall Street Journal (he long ago switched to the journal from the New York Times). The cable TV service. His cell phone line. Life Line. Magazine subscriptions. Credit cards. His health insurance provider. The university from which he drew a pension. Social security. Medicare.

Workers have been trained to respond to requests to cancel service by trying to convince you to keep it. And so they inevitably ask why you are cancelling the service. But when you respond by saying you are calling because your father died, you short circuit any attempt at business negotiation. Their reaction is, at first, a pause and then the words "sorry for your loss." The employees became very helpful and sympathetic. Their humanity had been exposed. Within minutes, the service was cancelled.

In the beginning when I had to make these calls, I would tear up to these complete strangers when explaining the reason for my call. After a while the calls became easier, less emotional. I'm not sure that "sorry for your loss" is the best response to hearing news of another person's father, but it's fine when coming from a customer service employee of a company. These words by disembodied voices, as well as the knowledge I'd accomplished another small step to tying up the many strands of life left by my father's passing, provided, in its own way, some small measure of comfort.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Whatsapp minyan

Technology, smart phones in particular, has its pluses and minuses. This is true even as it relates to saying kaddish. On the minus side, it is quite annoying when they ring in shul (synagogue) during davening (prayer). For some reason, people who would automatically turn them off before seeing a movie, play or concert don't think of doing that when they engaged in the holy work of relating to their Creator. Of course, at public performances there are generally reminders to shut off your phones beforehand whereas Rabbis or Gabbis don't feel the need to issue such reminders before the service begins. Maybe they assume people know not to create distractions during the service. Or maybe, I suspect, they secretly want to admonish the assembled, but don't feel able to impose their authority or infringe on the personal autonomy of their congregants.

One benefit to smart phones in shul is the useful distraction they provide when you get bored during davening. (I explained my thoughts on this matter in my earlier blog written while saying kaddish for my mother) Boredom is not an uncommon occurrence for those of us who spend more than an hour a day, every day, in shul, owing to the obligation to say kaddish in a minyan (prayer quorum). (Of course, there are others who "voluntarily" make it their business to pray every day as part of a minyan.)

But the technology that, without a doubt, provides the greatest benefit to kaddish is WhatsApp.  WhatsApp is by now a ubiquitous messaging application. It allows one to communicate via text or phone call with anyone (with a smart phone), anywhere, anytime. (WhatsApp was introduced in 2009 and bought by Facebook in 2014 for nearly $20 billion.)

One of, if not the the most, valuable feature of WhatsApp is group messaging. WhatsApp allows you to create a group whereby you can message the entire group at once. Originally, people used this mostly for getting out messages to family members. Now, however, new WhatsApp groups seem to be popping up on a daily basis. My apartment building now has a WhatsApp group. So too the kiddush club to which I belong. These days it seems that every organization, formal or informal, large or small, is creating a WhatsApp group. (How one navigates the constant stream of messages is another matter.)

My community has created a shiva minyan WhatsApp group. It is moderated by the rabbinical staff of my synagogue. By now it has almost 100 members. (Male members, I should add, since only men are toward toward the quorum of 10 needed to say kaddish.) Whenever someone is sitting shiva and needs a minyan to say kaddish, the staff sends a message. People start responding, allowing a head count of how many men will be there and how many more are still needed. A typical message reads something like "that makes 6, 4 more are needed. Who will join?" I joined this WhatsApp group shortly after my father died knowing that, needing to saying kaddish, I would be making it my business to pray in a minyan for the next year. I also wanted to participate in the group in recognition for the help it provided in ensuring a minyan at my own shiva.

Last week I was heading for the shul closest to where I live for the afternoon mincha prayer service when a WhatsApp message came across my phone indicating that a minyan was needed at the other shul where I often pray. There were several shiva minyans (prayer services) taking place at the same time, siphoning off many of the regulars who would otherwise pray at shul.  So I changed direction and headed for the other shul. We got just enough men to make the minyan.

A few days later there were two shiva minyans and messages went out asking who could attend which minyan. Volunteers were directed to go to whichever home still needed the required 10 men. Both ended up getting a minyan, and then some, but another message went out from the shul that men where needed there. So a car went to pick up some of the "extra" men at one of the shiva minyans to bring them to the shul. This kind of coordination and information sharing, made possible by WhatsApp, could not have been possible just a few years ago.

Since I've joined this WhatsApp group, I cannot recall a single instance when someone sitting shiva did not get a minyan. And, I should add, this is true whether the mourner was a man or a woman, as in my community, many if not most women say kaddish while sitting shiva. It is an amazingly effective vehicle for making sure that every person sitting shiva has the opportunity to say kaddish.

What exactly makes this technology so effective? WhatsApp allows instantaneous information sharing among a large group of people. But I think more is at work here. In the past, it was easy to forget the details of a shiva minyan after the initial email and/or phone call announcing a shiva. WhatsApp messages, by contrast, provide daily reminders of who is sitting shiva and where and when minyans are needed. Even more, people attach greater priority to text messages than to emails or phone calls. Text messages have a greater sense of intimacy as well as urgency. For better or worse, they are understood as requiring an immediate, or near immediate, response. (See

There is also, I believe, an underlying sense of guilt and obligation implied in the WhatsApp messages. Once people start responding, a feeling arises of wanting to be part of the group. You have a palpable sense that your presence is needed. Other people are responding, changing their routine to join the shiva minyan, so why not you? You know abstractly that getting a minyan is important, but the messages, once they start pouring in, remove it from the realm of abstraction to the realm of action. And then there is the feeling of gratification when the final message is received that the minyan has been achieved.

We live in a wonderful age. Technology is changing so fast and having an overwhelming impact on our lives. Many have noted the negative aspects in terms of excessive screen time, needless distractions and addiction to cell phones. It is nice to have an example in which technology can help bring people together to enable recent mourners--people who are at their most emotionally raw and vulnerable state--to express their sorrow publicly through prayer and kaddish.