WEST ROXBURY – Jamie Cotel, the executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, placed a stone on a newly dedicated memorial at the Baker Street Memorial
Park in West Roxbury. Putting a stone on a memorial is a Jewish mourning custom, and on July 9, the stone commemorated the impact that Covid-19 has left on the Jewish community.
On that day, Cotel helped dedicate a Covid-19 memorial in a ceremony at the association’s Baker Street Memorial Park. Some, like her, were at the ceremony, while others participated virtually, with all sharing heartfelt words about a still-unfolding crisis.
The memorial reads, “In Memory of Those Lost During the COVID-19 Pandemic. And the People Mourned as One Community.”
Cotel told the Jewish Journal that for the past few months, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts had wanted to dedicate a memorial for those who died during the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said the memorial was the first in Massachusetts and potentially in North America as well.
The idea to hold a coronavirus memorial ceremony came from Rabbi Suzanne Offit, an alumna of Hebrew College and a chaplain who until recently was affiliated with Hebrew SeniorLife, which has nine residential facilities in Greater Boston.
“This came from an idea of working to respond to the community,” Offit said in a phone interview. “As a rabbi and chaplain, I listen a lot, respond to needs of people. There was a very profound need unanswered, because of the unique situation we’re living in.”
Offit found organizations that partnered to realize her goal ‒ including Hebrew College, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, and the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. She called these four organiza-tions “really integral” in “helping me take my vision and making it a reality.”
“[The] desire to create a communal time to pause and reflect was what came first,” Offit said.
She credited “a very generous man” – Steve Schneider, the principal of Slotnick Monuments in Everett – with a donation that helped create the multi-piece granite memorial at the end of the memorial park.
Reflecting on the perhaps unprecedented nature of a Covid-19 memorial, Offit said, “Most memorials are created after the problem. This was a unique action to create a memorial in the middle of a pandemic.”
She estimated that the process took “maybe six weeks or more.” Its dedication date corresponds to the 17th of Tammuz on the Hebrew calendar – “the Jewish day of mourning,” Offit explained.
Offit, who gave the introductory remarks during the ceremony, told the Journal that“[the] idea was that [the 17th of Tammuz] is a day of mourning, we would come together, with a new lens on our mourning practice.”
“The challenges of this time have only underscored the yearning that people feel for connection to each other and to the sacred traditions that have sustained our people through- out history,” Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, president of Hebrew College, said in a statement. “The forms can and must adapt to the moment, but the essential yearning for meaning and connection endures.”
The biggest part of the memorial is the stone commemorating those who died during the coro-
navirus pandemic, inscribed with the Hebrew phrase zichrona livracha, or “may their memory be a blessing.” During the ceremony, names of 39 individuals who died during the pandemic were listed for the on-screen audience.
Two benches complement the memorial stone, one honoring those who died alone, with no one to even say Kaddish for them; and one honoring what it calls the “last responders” working at cemeteries to bury the dead.
During the ceremony, Rabbi Karen Landy, a chaplain with Hebrew SeniorLife, shared what it was like to care for coronavirus patients in person, whom she referred to through pseudonyms. Her first patient to test positive, Ruth, had been a Kindertransport refugee from
Europe in the months leading up to World War II. Her two daughters could not come to see her in the nursing home because of coronavirus restrictions.
Another patient, Gigi, was a Holocaust survivor from Poland who tested positive in May. Her
husband and their two sons had predeceased her, but she continued to present a hopeful attitude, Landy said. Gigi could sing in four languages and suggested that Barbra Streisand could play her in a movie.
“Gigi died surrounded by the staff who had taken care of her for eight years,” Landy said. “When it came time to bury her, we were there, that same staff and the last responders, the groundskeepers at Baker Street Cemeteries and the staff from JCAM. She was not alone.
“This pandemic has taken away so many of our grounding rituals, but we are merging with a deeper sense of compassion and empathy, of love and presence, and I cry out, ‘El Na Refa
Na La,’ please, God, allow us to find healing in this place of brokenness. Amen.”