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US synagogues touched by COVID adapt to serve grieving congregations

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JTA — Rabbi Paul Kipnes watched helplessly as 11 of his congregants died over the span of 11 days in January from COVID or COVID-related illness. The losses — along with another five congregant deaths that same month — compelled him to pour out his grief in a blog post titled “After 11 Deaths in 11 Days, I Had it Out with God.”

“I’m so angry. At You, All Powerful One,” Kipnes wrote. “God damn You, God! … What kind of Divine develops a world defined during the 21st century by the deaths of so many people?”

Kipnes, spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California, said these last few months were “the most intense” in his 20-year career. In addition to having to grieve for those in his congregation taken by COVID, he was also mourning the loss of his own mother, Linda.

In his piece, which took the form of an imagined dialogue with the Almighty, he allows God to defend Himself and eventually comes back around.

But Kipnes said he and fellow Rabbi Julia Weisz couldn’t handle the weight of this communal grief by themselves. They consulted social workers and therapists “to get us through the stresses and pressures we were facing. And we consulted with spiritual directors — rabbis — who asked us to answer the theological question of where was God during this painful moment.”

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Reeling under a staggering number of deaths, many synagogues across the country have created support groups and memorial services, hired social workers and pursued other initiatives to help congregants cope with the losses.

Kipnes, Weisz and Cantor Doug Cotler, for instance, developed an online memorial service for congregants whose loved ones died elsewhere or who had only been able to have 10 people attend the funeral.

“These memorials became powerful moments of memory,” Kipnes said. “We had people from all over the world attending. In fact, when the COVID quarantine ends, I think people will continue with online memorial services. They are spiritually uplifting because a large number of people can’t fly out, but they can Zoom in.”

Illustrative: A screenshot of a virtual Kaddish minyan. (via JTA)

In Los Angeles, the surge of COVID-19 infections got so bad in December that Sinai Temple shut down all outdoor services and activities until the first week of March.

“The ICUs were overflowing and our congregation was hit hard both physically and mentally,” recalled Nicole Guzik, the associate rabbi. “We lost several congregants who died from COVID and many, many relatives of congregants. … It has taken an emotional toll.”

To address the mental health needs of the congregation’s 1,800 families, Sinai Temple is hiring a........

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