Zoom kaddish comforts mourners unsure of where to turn

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Dr. Richard and Nancy “Nan” Gimpelson

Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

I’m a strong believer that timing matters. I remember once reading an essay about falling in love in which the writer — I’m pretty sure it was Anna Quindlen — remarked that it wasn’t a matter of finding Mr. Right, but rather Mr. Right Time. Her point was that timing — in this case whether one is even open to falling in love — is critical to many outcomes.

I thought about that in a different context when I spoke to Dr. Richard Gimpelson last week, a retired gynecologist from west St. Louis County, who emailed to thank me for an article I had written last October. It was about Philadelphia-based Reconstructionist Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, known as Reb Rayzel, who on Jan. 1, 2021 — a day after her mother passed away from complications due to COVID — created a “Zoom shiva” because it was the only practical option to mourn her loss with family and friends given the restraints of the pandemic. 

Let’s turn back time to Oct. 19, 2022, when I wrote about the Zoom shiva, which was still occurring nightly (except for Shabbat) even after 22 months. Nine days earlier, on Oct. 10, Gimpelson had lost his wife of 46 years, Nancy “Nan” Lee Gimpelson, to a very aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma. He no longer belonged to a synagogue, as he did years ago to Congregation Shaare Emeth, and wasn’t sure where, or how, to mourn his late wife.

“I read an article in the Light and thought the Zoom shiva might be a good place for me to go,” he explained. “I’ve been attending ever since, anywhere from four to six nights a week. I’m amazed by the rabbis who show up and the lay people who also are phenomenal in leading the service.”

Gimpelson’s email prompted a call to Reb Rayzel to see how the Zoom shiva was going now, after nearly 2½ years. She said after the Light article, which was reprinted in other Jewish papers, attendance grew, and has kept steady at between 15 and 25 people nightly, including Gimpelson, who as far as she knows is the only attendee from St. Louis. 

When I asked what she attributed to its longevity, she replied: “I think we fit a need for people who want a liberal nightly minyan to say kaddish and also to pray for healing without having to leave home. There has been a lot of gun violence in America and people are coming to pray that things get better. Our new motto is, ‘We will pray for you.’ We call it a comfort minyan. Our two signature moments are when participants share the people they are holding in their hearts for healing and also whatever is going on for them with kaddish and grief.”

Gimpelson, who will turn 77 on May 26, is flirting with learning to lead one of the nightly services, which last about an hour. He confesses he’s nervous not just about learning the prayers but also having to sing. He says his voice is such that he was told in school choir to just mouth the words.

“I love the nightly service and am staying with it,” he said, adding that he felt the timing was fortuitous in learning about the Zoom shiva days after his wife’s passing. “This has been a good way for me to grieve Nan’s death, reconnect with my Judaism and meet a wonderful, caring community of people.”

If you are interested in joining the Zoom shiva, email Reb Rayzel at [email protected].