By Jane Herman.
A few years ago, when I was thinking about volunteering as a shiva leader, an opportunity unexpectedly presented itself. I was at the shiva of Bucky Epstein, a close family friend and Temple Past President and the assigned shiva leader could not come due to a last minute emergency. Knowing of my familiarity with the liturgy, some of the members of the minyan, along with Bucky’s widow, Madeleine, encouraged me to fulfill this mitzvah.
Bucky was devoted to Holy Blossom and to the wider Jewish community — together, he and Madeleine were recipients of the Negev award — and were great models for leadership and community service.
Without hesitation, I agreed. I could not have thought of a better way to honour Bucky’s memory than to promptly step forward.
This experience made me feel comfortable with the idea of leading a shiva on a regular basis. I then did some training with Lindi Rivers to ensure that I was reading and chanting according to the guidelines established by our clergy. Upon “graduating” I joined the corps of Temple shiva leaders, and began to volunteer. Like anything new you try, it took a little time to gain experience and confidence, but it has been immensely worthwhile.
As a shiva leader, you feel that you are carrying the empathy of the whole congregation with you. Such acts of chesed are intrinsic to sustaining the fabric of our community.
My colleague, Peter Dan expressed it very well when he said that “People are very grateful when you lead the service.” Robert Ruderman, another shiva leader who was recruited by Morris Vigoda over 30 years ago, agrees: “People so appreciate someone reaching out to them.”
There have been, of course, some funny moments – like when I was sent to the wrong address, or when not a single person in the room joined along, in either English or Hebrew, despite my best encouragement. There have also been poignant ones — such as when one woman began weeping profusely while I was reading, or when a very special relative confided, “I hope you’ll do my shiva one day!”
Our community is sustained by terrific and dedicated volunteers who take on many important but often behind the scenes responsibilities. Together, Larry Schwartz and Jeff Levy efficiently manage the details of co-ordinating the volunteers’ schedules. Their capable leadership ensures that we are there supporting our mourners at a difficult time.
But we are a large congregation; sometimes there are multiple shivas during the same week. Our small corps of regulars is in great need of some new volunteers. If you are someone who can read Hebrew and are comfortable chanting the prayers publicly, I urge you to join us and experience the beauty of this mitzvah.
If you’d like to become a shiva leader, please email Lindi Rivers at [email protected].