Praying from the Heart at a Time of Mourning: The HUC Minyan

Zoom meetingWhen the father of Dr. Wendy Zierler, Sigmund Falk Professor of Feminist Studies and Modern Jewish Literature at HUC-JIR/New York, was tragically killed on March 12, 2019, exactly one year before the COVID shut-down, her ability to say Kaddish with a minyan (reciting the mourner’s prayer with ten people during the year of mourning) was impeded by back-to-back classes at HUC. Rabbinical student Rachael Pass ’21 immediately organized a Monday and Wednesday Mincha (afternoon prayers) and Maariv (evening prayers) minyan with other students during the short break between classes on the New York campus. The minyan continued to support Dr. Zierler in her mourning for her mother, who died the week before the end of her Kaddish year for her father. And with the onset of the COVID lockdown, when these prayer services pivoted to convene on Zoom, they were able to provide comfort to Dr. Sharon Koren, Associate Professor of Medieval Jewish Culture at HUC-JIR/New York, upon the loss of her father on March 8, 2020.

Eighteen months since its inception, Rachael and a committed group of students continue to gather three times a week to create a community in which the mourners can say Kaddish. The minyan is informal and intimate, without formal prayer leader roles, choir, sermons, or divrei Torah. Students who have practiced their leading skills include cantorial student Isaac Sonnett-Assor ’25 and rabbinical students Chelsea Feuchs ‘23, Ben Dyme ‘22, Sam Weiss ‘22, and Danielle Weisbrot ‘21, whose Mishebeirach prayer for the sick has become an important part of the Zoom tefillah during COVID. The minyan counted the Omer (the seven week period between Passover and Shavuot) together, and took this photograph when they completed the 49 days together.

This voluntary, unofficial minyan is an act of “gratitude and support for Drs. Zierler and Koren,” says Rachael. “It’s about showing up and being committed to a caring and prayerful practice. This is just doing something kind for people who matter to us who are going through something really hard. I get to give back to these women who have had a profound influence on my experience at HUC and my rabbinate to come.”

“This minyan has enabled me to fulfill saying Kaddish three times a day for my father and then for my mother,” explains Dr. Zierler. “It has created a beautiful supportive community for Dr. Koren and me and for the students in a time of isolation. Since the tefillah follows traditional nusach (chanting of prayers), it has exposed the students to the traditional siddur (prayer book) and to the rhythm of regular prayer. You can just come and pray. These students have been showing up because of their immense kindness, menschlichkeit (humanity), and spiritual integrity. They are superb people.”

On Zoom, participants gather as a virtual community, seeing each other in their home settings, getting to know each other’s families, roommates, and partners. “We just pray and show up for each other,” describes Rachael. “We have created a space in which the importance of community care and support are paramount. That kind of community commitment is a core experience necessary for future Jewish leaders.”

“The minyan for this past year-and-a-half is an experience of being there for the long haul,” adds Dr. Zierler. “It’s not about special occasions or orchestration; it’s like oxygen, something you need to help keep a community alive. For a mourner, it enables Kaddish, which I have come to understand as a daily conversation both with my parents and with God. The words of this prayer stand for my highest ideals and hopes for myself, my community, and the world at large. To recite them in the presence of my community at HUC, as well as my minyan at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the mornings and evenings when the minyan doesn’t meet, provides me this gift in my time of being bereft. Minyan in this sense is a great, perpetual hesed (loving kindness) machine.”

Dr. Koren concurs, alluding to the two core values that shape the minyan’s tefillah – kevah (the words that we pray and the pre-determined times that we say them) and kavanah (prayer where the meaning of the words are understood and come from the heart). “Our kevah leads to our kavanah. My father’s funeral was the last public service at our synagogue before the COVID lockdown. Shiva (the post-funeral seven days of formal mourning) was at the height of the pandemic and institutions had not yet figured out how to Zoom shiva or minyanim. There was no opportunity for me to say Kaddish for my father. The HUC minyan gave me a space to mourn his loss. I am constantly struck by the students’ kindness and generosity, and I will be forever grateful.”