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How to Host a Virtual Shiva

Rabbi Robyn Frisch

After the funeral of a loved one, Jewish families traditionally “sit shiva.” Sitting shiva gives the mourners an opportunity to share memories and to hear from others about their deceased loved one. It’s a chance for the mourners to be comforted by their family and friends. Some people sit shiva for seven days, others for three, and some for just one day.

In light of the coronavirus, shiva has moved online for many mourners. Virtual shiva may feel less intimate, and you can’t hug someone or engage in private conversation. But the upside is that friends and relatives of all religious and cultural backgrounds who don’t live nearby or wouldn’t have been able to attend shiva in normal circumstances can join and offer their condolences.

Interfaith families should feel comfortable participating in the powerful Jewish tradition of sitting shiva. Family members of different religious and cultural backgrounds who have lost Jewish relatives can find shiva to be incredibly comforting. Similarly, Jewish mourners can find great comfort in sitting shiva for loved ones of different religious and cultural backgrounds.

There are many things to keep in mind when having a virtual shiva. First and foremost, if you are in mourning, you should be able to be fully present for the shiva, not having to worry about managing the logistics or scheduling of speakers. The mourners should appoint someone they are close to who is comfortable with the online platform being used to be the host or moderator of the shiva.

Here’s our advice for the host or moderator of a virtual shiva.

1. Consult with the mourners.

You should begin by asking the mourners a few questions to find out what they want to include in the shiva:

When and for how long do they want the shiva to be? It’s hard to keep people engaged online for more than 60-90 minutes. If the mourners want shiva to be more than 90 minutes, consider having it on two separate evenings (and they can decide if they want to invite everyone both nights, or different people to each one). 

What time do they want shiva to be? If people are being invited from different time zones, be sensitive to that. For example, if you live on the East Coast and they want to include people on the West Coast, consider starting shiva at 8 or 8:30 pm EST.

What do they want included digitally? Do the mourners want to speak first? Do they want to include pictures of the deceased? Do they want to include a poem/song/reading? Do they want to have any sort of service?

2. Email the group.

As the host, you should find out from the mourners who they want to invite to the virtual shiva. You will need everyone’s email address so that you can send them an email that includes:

  • A link to the online platform you are using. (For purposes of this article it is assumed that you are using Zoom, though there are other platforms you may choose to use.) Be sure to let them know that you’ll be online early to help those who are new to Zoom.
  • The date and time of the virtual shiva, as well as information about what to expect. 
  • Make sure to include information about shiva, as well. You can say something like: “[Mourner’s names] have lost their beloved and are going to have a virtual shiva [date/time]. This will be a time for family and friends to offer condolences and share memories of [name]. It would mean a lot to [mourner’s names] if you could join them.” 

3. Get online early.

We suggest being available 20 minutes ahead of time to help anyone who isn’t familiar with Zoom (and make sure you’ve scheduled the call so that people can dial in before the set start time).

Make sure that you and other participants are in a quiet place and are well lit (don’t sit in front of light sources like windows and lamps).

Make sure that each person has their name showing on their screen—or if more than one person is at a computer, make sure that each of their names is showing.

Explain the difference between Gallery View (where they can see everyone on the call) and Speaker View (where they just see the speaker and a few others).

Let them know how to mute their microphones and explain that they should do this when they’re not speaking.

4. Get things started.

Give everyone about five minutes or so to arrive.  As people sign in you can do one of the following:

Heather Paul, a rabbinical student at Aleph, suggests using “screen share” during the first few minutes to share a slide with a picture of the person who died and play music—it’s especially nice to play something that the deceased enjoyed.

Rabbi Michelle Pearlman suggests that as people sign in, you screen share a slideshow of photos of the deceased.

When you are ready to begin, you can stop sharing your screen and turn off any music. At this point, you should introduce yourself as the host/moderator and ask people to mute themselves when they aren’t speaking (you can mute everyone except the current speaker throughout the shiva, as necessary). You should also tell everyone what the general structure of the shiva is going to be and let them know that if they have anything to tell you they can use the Chat function to send you a private message. They can also use chat to share a memory with just one mourner or with everyone if they aren’t comfortable speaking.    

5. Include poems, readings or songs.

It can be nice to provide structure to the shiva with a poem, reading or song at the beginning and or end of the virtual shiva. Perhaps those that were favorites of the deceased.

  • If you need ideas, here are some lovely poems suggested by Heather Paul.
  • If someone is going to sing, be aware that multiple people cannot sing together out loud on Zoom, as everyone will be off by a second or two and it will sound very chaotic. Everyone can sing —and you can share the words by using the “share screen” function—but only one person can sing while unmuted (or you can share a recording).

6. Share introductions.

If there are a lot of participants, you may want to invite everyone to use the chat to share their name, where they live, how they knew the deceased, or how they know the mourners. If the group is smaller, you may just want to ask everyone to share this information before they speak.

7. Talk about the person you’re mourning.

The vast majority of time should be spent with the participants sharing memories of the deceased. If the mourners want to speak, they will probably want to go first, and after that you can offer everyone else the chance to share. If there are a lot of people, you may want to ask for remarks to be limited to a specific amount of time. You should announce before participants start to share that when they want to speak, they should either raise their hand, or use the Zoom “raise hand” function. You can then call on people to speak, so you don’t have several people trying to say something at once. Heather Paul suggests that if you have a large group of people, you could link to a Google Doc in the chat function, and people who don’t have a chance to speak can share their memories in the document. Of course, you can also encourage those who don’t have a chance to speak to reach out personally to the mourners after shiva.

8. Include prayers or readings.

Just as you may want to include a poem, reading or song, you may want to end with something more structured. Some people may want to end (or begin) their virtual shiva with an entire service. You may, however, want to recite the 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd…”), the El Malei Rachamim (the Jewish memorial prayer) and/or the Mourner’s Kaddish. You can find all three right here. It’s a good idea to screen share whatever you’ll be reading—or someone else can lead—and to make sure before you start that everyone is on “mute” (though make clear that they are invited to read out loud while muted).

9. Concluding the shiva.

At the end of the shiva, thank people for attending and let everyone know if the mourners will be having another virtual shiva that they can attend. If you have a picture or slideshow of the deceased that you used earlier in the shiva you may want to share it again as everyone signs off.

The nice thing about a virtual shiva, just like an in-person shiva, is that it enables mourners and guests, regardless of their religion, to carry out two very important Jewish values: kevod ha-met (honoring the deceased) and nichum avelim (comforting mourners). Even when the days of coronavirus are over, and people feel comfortable gathering in person, it is likely that there will be times when people will still want to have virtual shivas, either instead of or in addition to sitting shiva in person. In all likelihood, virtual shivas are here to stay.

If you’re looking for more resources on the ritual of shiva, how to support someone in mourning or send food to a shiva, visit our partners at shiva.com.

You can also learn more about mourning and funeral practices from this booklet “Mourning the Loss of a Jewish Loved One.”


Rabbi Robyn Frisch