The first funeral conducted by Finchley Reform Synagogue’s Rabbi Miriam Berger under the movement’s new rules banning mourners from attending in person was for her grandfather, Ronald Bayfield, 95, who died from coronavirus on Sunday.
Rabbi Berger was joined online for the funeral by family and friends including her grandmother, uncle and father, Rabbi Tony Bayfield, formerly president of the Movement for Reform Judaism. A grandson followed the service from a boat in the North Sea.
“It was very hard that we weren’t able to be together,” Rabbi Berger told the JC. “It goes against everything that we expect. You grow up thinking that at these difficult times we will be able to support each other by being together.”
She used the Zoom app to stream the funeral from the graveside so that mourners could see each other.
“At first the sound was on so people could say hello. Then I switched it off so I could conduct the ceremony.” She “unmuted” her father so he could deliver a eulogy, and also her grandmother and uncle so they could say Kaddish.
Her grandmother Sheila was able to “attend” the funeral for her husband - whom she married at the age of 19, 76 years ago - from Anita Dorfman house, a Jewish Care home in Stanmore.
Rabbi Berger said Jewish Care had been “completely extraordinary” in the support they had given to her grandmother, who is in social isolation. “The chief executive’s PA made sure she could be online on her tablet, and got the link working, to make sure she could be with us.”
Mr Bayfield had been a headteacher and a former president of South West Essex Reform Synagogue. He was ill for two weeks at Northwick Park Hospital before his death. No one from the family was allowed to visit.
“It was very difficult but he knew and we knew that we couldn’t be with him, for our safety and for the doctors’ safety.”
Rabbi Berger said it was strange holding a funeral alone for someone who had always been surrounded by people. She took comfort from the knowledge that he had always worried about his family and would not have wanted them to be in any danger.
She praised the Jewish Joint Burial Society, which oversees Reform and Liberal burials, for its drastic move in banning all mourners from funerals.
“It was a courageous decision. When you have got emotional mourners, it is brave to go above and beyond the government’s guidelines.”
Although it was hard to officiate alone, the experience would help her to support congregants in the same situation in future, “now I understand better all the dynamics involved”.
She has noticed that more people are supporting virtual services than usually attend in person. “This is what Judaism is. Something which people turn to when times are hard.”