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Zoom Stories

What follows is the meditation I offered at this year's Yom Kippur Yizkor service reflecting what I learned at Zoom shiva.


This year was a difficult year. Our congregation suffered many losses and far more than past years. This year was also a strange year. We observed shiva more often than not on Zoom. Because of this there was a regular shiva minyan in my home for months on end. And yet, even though I sat by myself in my study I strangely, and perhaps even miraculously, felt surrounded by hundreds of people. There, we huddled together on my laptop screen, all trying to bring a measure of comfort to grieving friends.

This was not the shiva I had come to know in my thirty years of being called rabbi. In the past this is what I instead observed. More often than not people would arrive and find their way to the kitchen. They would exchange sometimes uncomfortable “Hello’s” and “It’s so sad.” They would talk about the weather’s latest storm or the maddening traffic, or a confounding Jets loss or on occasion, a surprising Mets win.

There were times when I would observe a beautiful moment of healing. A familiar face to the mourner, but a stranger to me, would come over and say, “Can I tell you about when your dad did this for me?” or “Can I tell you a story about your mom? There was the time…” And that was my cue. I would offer a hug and a goodbye to the mourner because I then knew they were in good hands. I had confidence that such stories would uplift their spirits and maybe even fill their emptied hearts.

I never heard those extra stories. They seemed private utterances, between mourner and storyteller, between the bereaved and their comforter.

In this past year, however, I discovered something new. I had to stay in that virtual room because I was now managing the technology. I had to make sure Aunt You Know Who stayed muted when she loudly whispered something to her husband about a relative they had not seen in years. When I heard, “He looks like he put on some…” I quickly hit mute. And yet this year, there I was, sitting quietly in the corner as it were, listening to what would have been in past years private conversations.

Here is what I discovered. No one talked about the weather or traffic anymore. No one berated the Jets or the Mets, even though they were deserving of such chastisements. Those matters were now as they should be, inconsequential. No one had to drive through the snow or the rain to get to shiva. No one bewailed our New York sports teams because they felt they only had a few minutes to offer their words.

I heard the most beautiful stories. One time I sat there, alone in my study, and heard how a conductor on the Long Island Railroad became friends with the father who one of our members was no mourning. He said, “We struck up a conversation years ago because he was always on my train. A friendship began because of a chance encounter. My life is better for it. I am going to miss him.” I heard piles of such memories.

I felt like an interloper, and I also felt blessed, as I listened in on these private remembrances, as these stories piled up on my computer screen. I learned so much about those we lost. This year the memories of those we lost were given new life. Their stories were more easily told.

Was it because Zoom somehow created a safe distance from which to tell these tales? I do not know for sure. I know this. We are better for it. We are better because of these newfound intimacies of sharing. Perhaps we have rediscovered, during this most awful of years, the power of telling stories. Perhaps we have relearned how to bring healing to our grieving friends. Perhaps we have been reminded that community is uplifted by such memories and the retelling of them.

I know this for certain. We are better that more people learned about our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, daughters and sons. We are uplifted by the secrets we discovered on our computer screens. Perhaps they should never have remained secrets and private utterances. I feel blessed that this strange year of Zoom has unlocked these stories and granted them the life they deserve. We are blessed when we learn, once again, the power of telling our stories.