Often we take the concept of Jewish community for granted and just assume that certain services and support systems will be in place when we need them. Last week, when I was sitting shiva for my mother, Pearl Donshik, z”l, I had the opportunity to learn about the real meaning of community. I would like to share a few recollections of the emotional rollercoaster that I experienced over the last week and how the supportive response of the people around my mother and me helped ease the pain and put me on the road to mending.
About ten days ago, my mother fell out of bed around 3:00 AM, and I called the community’s emergency medical service. As I walked up to the front door of my mother’s apartment, the x-ray technician who works at the local medical clinic and is also a volunteer with Magen David Adom, the volunteer emergency medical service, drove up and said she responded to the alarm when saw my mother’s name, even though she was not on call. I found this so moving and was deeply touched by the sense of connection she felt from having treated my mother on previous occasions. She briefed my mother as to what would happen when the ambulance would arrive with the other volunteers.
I could see how very special our local emergency medical volunteer teams are by the way they treated my mother’s wounds. They both administered traditional first-aid treatments and dealt with the trauma my mother was experiencing from the fall in her bedroom. Although they did not suggest taking her to the hospital they recommended she be seen by a doctor first thing in the morning. At 8:00 AM we were at the local medical center, and the receptionist arranged for the doctor on duty to examine my mother immediately.
Of course, the medical center was quite familiar with my 92-year-old mother: like many older adults she was a regular at the clinic. Following a thorough check-up it was suggested that she have a CT scan to rule out any possible injury to her head as a result of the fall. At the hospital where she had the scan, she received excellent treatment and was released because there was no apparent damage to her head or limbs.
On returning home, she entered her house, sat down on the couch in the living room, and requested that the health care aide bring her a glass of water. By the time the woman returned with the water my mother had become unconscious. I was called and immediately came over to my mother’s home.
I again called the emergency medical service, and within minutes there were several ambulances and teams of first responders. They immediately administered first aid and suggested I step away from my mother because CPR can sometimes appear quite violent. It was a moving experience to see how these neighbors were working so hard to bring my mother back to consciousness. After 20 minutes they concluded that there was nothing else that could be done, and they called a doctor to make the final decision as to whether she had passed on to the next world.
As much as I had felt a sense of extended family from my neighbors who were trying to revive my mother, it was only after her death that I came to understand how a community comes together to comfort and care for those in pain from the loss of a loved one.
I immediately called the director of the local religious council to begin the process of arranging for the funeral. As soon as he heard my voice, he said he had already been called by the Magen David Adom volunteers and was just then standing outside the front door of my mother’s apartment. Two seconds later he walked in and began to comfort me and let me know what the funeral process was going to be like. It was about two hours before candle-lighting time on Friday, and he wanted to make sure that all the arrangements that had to be made were completed before then.
The funeral was arranged for Saturday night, and the volunteer members of the Chevrei Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, were quickly recruited both to watch my mother’s body over Shabbat and to perform the tahara – preparing the body for burial. Everything was amazing well organized. During Shabbat people were quite compassionate, expressing condolences and providing comfort during this difficult time. After Shabbat the many people who came to the funeral were there to both honor my mother’s memory and to comfort my family as we mourned my mother’s death.
However, whatever I felt about the community up until and during the funeral was surpassed by what took place during the week of shiva. As is the traditional custom, I spent the shiva week in my mother’s apartment and the tefillot, religious services, were held there from the conclusion of the funeral until the following Friday afternoon. I received condolences from many, many people: there was a continual stream of people from early in the morning until late in the evening.
People came regularly to help make a minyan so services could be held and Kaddish could be recited, and they brought food in the morning because the family in mourning has no time to prepare meals and the mourners are not permitted to cook during the shiva week. The outpouring of condolences and generosity of spirit in attending the services three times a day were particularly moving. It is not unusual for people to have to wait for a quorum to be made, and we were blessed with our friends’ and acquaintances’ commitment to ensure that prayers would be held on time. And as is the custom, one member of the community accepted responsibility for learning mishnayot – the six-volume compilation of rabbinic discussions that is the basis for Jewish law – every evening spelling out the letters of my mother’s Hebrew name.
So between those who took care of the burial, those who prepared food, those who made it possible to have regular religious services, and those who studied in my mother’s memory, I was able to experience a real sense of community as people shared my pain and loss and sought to offer me consultation and comfort at this difficult time. For me this signified the real meaning of a Jewish community, and I am thankful for my friends, neighbors. and acquaintances making themselves available to my family and me.
Stephen G. Donshik is a long time contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com.