Boston Jews inaugurate COVID-19 memorial to help cope with ‘insurmountable loss’
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Bench honors 'last responders,' those who care for the dead

Boston Jews inaugurate COVID-19 memorial to help cope with ‘insurmountable loss’

Community used recent Jewish fast day to mourn COVID-19 victims and dedicate a memorial garden at historic complex of 42 cemeteries

  • The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
    The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
  • The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
    The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
  • The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
    The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
  • The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
    The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

BOSTON — The Jewish community of Boston unveiled a COVID-19 memorial in the heart of a storied cemetery complex last week, timed for a day of public mourning on the Jewish calendar.

The brainchild of Rabbi Suzanne Offit, July 9’s Zoom-based ceremony and memorial dedication were viewed by hundreds. Called “A Time to Mourn: Grieving Together in the Time of COVID,” the pre-taped gathering included mourning psalms and words of comfort from communal leaders.

“The rupture in the Jewish communal practices is so profound,” said Offit. “We couldn’t visit the sick. We couldn’t bury the dead. We couldn’t comfort the mourner,” Offit told The Times of Israel.

Trained at Hebrew College outside Boston, Offit was a palliative care chaplain with Hebrew Senior Life for 14 years. Early in the pandemic, she was struck by the impact of COVID-19 on the Jewish community.

The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

According to Offit, the customs made impossible by the pandemic are “all the things that are so foundational to living in a community,” she said. “And rabbis are inundated by their own grief and fear.”

The seed for the garden was planted in April when Offit conducted an informal listening tour of Boston’s Jewish community. There was a sense that “an insurmountable loss” was taking place, with no end in sight.

“We are really missing something,” Offit told a group of communal leaders. “We need to respond.”

After deciding to hold a commemoration on Tammuz 17, the donation of a large memorial stone and two benches was made by the Slotnick, Canter, Schneider Memorial Group. A group of rabbis helped Offit create the ceremony, which opened and closed with a haunting rendition of Psalm 23.

The community could not gather in-person to see the “unveiling” at Baker Street, but the memorial garden will remain in the cemetery for future use.

Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries is under the management of Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts. During the 19th century, the grounds were home to Brook Farm, a utopian experiment in communal living. The grounds include 42 Jewish cemeteries in use since the 1920s, each of them connected to a central access road.

The COVID-19 memorial was placed in the middle of a small round-about at the end of the access road, past a row of chapel-sized buildings once maintained by largely-defunct congregations and associations.

‘The Last Responders’

At the beginning of the COVID-19 lock-down, Offit was working with staff at Hebrew Senior Life, helping them cope with their fear and grief. At the end of March she developed COVID-like symptoms herself and went into quarantine.

The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

“We need to turn everything off and feel the grief, which is like the flu itself,” said Offit. “We’ve had a lot of pain for many months now and we can’t hug each other.”

The Tammuz 17 day of fasting, said Offit, offered “a moment we could be particular about our tradition, a day set aside for public communal mourning.”

Rabbi Suzanne Offit (courtesy)

One of two benches was placed in honor of “last responders,” the holy workers tasked with caring for the dead and burying them, said Offit. The other bench was placed in honor of the caretakers of COVID-19 patients.

Since the ceremony last week, some people have reached out to Offit with their feedback.

“I didn’t know how much I needed that,” were words Offit said she heard from several people.

On Facebook, community member Paula Sinclair thanked the people behind the COVID-19 memorial, having visited the grounds with a family member the night before.

“[We] went to visit the new memorial last night, and for us, it was our first visual testament to my father’s death,” said Sinclair. “Thank you for teaching me the term ‘last responders.’ I am so grateful for those brave people who have worked so tirelessly to be sure all the victims are given proper burials in Boston.”

The COVID-19 memorial installed at Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in Boston, Massachusetts, July 12, 2020 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
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