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Faith after Heartbreak

April 16, 2015 | by Rivka Ronda Robinson

After his wife’s sudden death, Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz is determined to live with meaning and joy.

Most people do their grieving in private. Hirshy Minkowicz, a 42-year-old Chabad rabbi in Alpharetta, Ga., has also mourned in public since his 37-year-old wife died unexpectedly March 11, 2014.

Grieving is highly individual, says Minkowicz, whose process includes a Facebook blog about the family’s journey through the tragedy. He strives to turn his pain into a way to help others maintain faith through their own challenges.

The passing of Rashi Minkowicz, a dynamic, devoted mother of eight children, then ages 2 through 14, touched a nerve globally. She had taken to her bed with a migraine headache late that afternoon and never awakened for the Purim-themed Torah & Tea class she was leading for women that evening.

According to the medical examiner, an aneurysm caused her death. Vibrant and seemingly healthy, the artsy Jewish mother and community leader had no prior warning. She had spent the previous evening quickly improvising a flower costume from dried puff paint and Popsicle sticks for her daughter to wear to school the next day.

For her class, Rashi planned to teach her guests to make hamantaschen. One of the last pictures she posted on her Facebook page, just a few hours before she passed, showed gourmet toppings for the Purim pastries.

Friends remember her as a powerhouse of a person, the life of the party, who would constantly send out pictures and recipes. Her creativity and love for family, community and Judaism knew no bounds.

It Could Happen to Anybody

“It was a big, big tragedy that affected people in a big way,” Minkowicz reflects a year later in his study as the children play nearby. Shock waves reverberated among Jews all over the world, seeing this man with eight children suddenly lose a young wife. “I think it made people shiver and say, ‘This is scary. It could happen to anyone.’“

One thousand family members, friends and strangers attended the Shloshim in Georgia, the end of the traditional 30-day mourning period when loved ones gather to offer support, pray and recite psalms.

“We’ve had lots of help from above through helpers below,” says Minkowicz.

They have included a steady stream of relatives from around the world. He comes from a family of nine children in Brooklyn, and Rashi was the eldest of 17 who spent her early years in South Africa.

The Atlanta community also has offered tremendous support, from providing kosher meals to playing with the rabbi’s children to keep them entertained.

Classmates from his yeshiva days pooled their money to have a scribe write a new Torah in memory of Rashi. The first letter of the Torah was written at the Shloshim, and the project was completed in time for the first anniversary of her death.

Peer support helps in many ways. “There’s a whole network of rabbis in town when I need someone to talk to. But at the end of the day, you still go through it yourself, me and my kids.”

Maintaining Joy in Life

So how does he go through it—committed to faith, trust in God and even joie de vivre?

Muses Minkowicz: “Every person is wired differently, the way they handle grief. We’re just going through it our way. There’s a lot of internal sadness. There’s a lot of missing her. There are a lot of times when the thought comes into our head, ‘Why?’ But we don’t let that define the way we’re living.”

In “Rabbi Hirshy’s Torah Bar,” he blogs his way through the emotions by sharing stories of witnessing God’s Hand in guiding the family through their challenges. Readers say the columns about divine providence fill them with inspiration and faith to meet their own struggles.

“It’s a choice you have to make. God is right there and the light is right there, but you have to make the choice to plug into it.”

From the dark, we are at least trying to make light.

Minkowicz sees a silver lining from the family’s tragedy: the effect it has had across the entire community, across all denominations. Hundreds of Tea & Torah classes have been started in Rashi’s memory, engaging hundreds of unaffiliated Jews with their heritage.

“You could say that if this had to happen, then from the dark, we are at least trying to make light,” says Minkowicz.

The hardest part though, what Minkowicz calls “the stab in the heart” is watching his six sons and two daughters go through life without their mother. Getting them fed, dressed and ready for school is purely a matter of logistics. But consoling them when they confide, “I think about Mommy,” is a different matter. It’s a matter of love.

As he says, “I feel my kids need to have safety, including a strong father to be there for them, since now they don’t have a mother. They recognize their father’s there and he’s going to take care of them, with God’s help.”

A Bite-Size Nugget from ‘Rabbi Hirshy’s Torah Bar’

Good Noise

On the very first Friday night after Rashi passed away, one of my children came over to me and asked “Will we ever have guests again on Friday night”?

I knew exactly what he meant. The Shabbos dinners at our home were always great. Rashi would cook up a storm and we would enjoy a delicious meal. The kids would share Torah thoughts they learned at school and we got to enjoy family time that we didn’t get during the week.

But what we enjoyed most were our guests. Sharing the Shabbos dinner with different people from all sorts of backgrounds was always enjoyable and fun and the most meaningful way to spend our Shabbos.

The kids were worried it wouldn’t continue. I was worried I wouldn’t know how to continue it.

I promised them that I would surely make it happen, and we have been doing great so far.

But in truth I have been struggling with it a lot lately and here is the reason why.

Ever since March it seems that by the time Friday night comes around my children have an overload of energy which they feel they need to release while the meal is going on.

The house becomes lively and loud and I find myself worrying all the time whether the guests are able to enjoy themselves.

One of my guests finally set me straight and this is sort of how it went.

When I apologized for the noise she asked why I felt the need to excuse myself and I said:

“You know it is kind of embarrassing that your Friday night meal also had to include the sounds of children laughing, giggling, screaming, playing, running and jumping.

She looked at me and said: “Don’t you realize, this is what is amazing about your story? Less than a year after these children lost their mother, they are able to enjoy their Friday night meal laughing, giggling, screaming, playing, running and jumping. You should be grateful.”

And I struggle with it no more.

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