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My Shiva Visit with the Ferencz Sisters in Jersey City

December 16, 2019 | by Elissa Felder

I wanted to express that I cared and that the whole of our nation mourns along with them.

A few hours of driving and many states later, my husband and I arrived at a small town-house in Jersey City. The sign on the open door directed us to the top floor. A long flight of stairs led to the home of the Ferencz family who were mourning their beloved Mindy. Mindy Ferencz was one of victims of the antisemitic attack last week in their grocery shop.

We walked in intending to pay a short shiva visit. We would just sit in the back, pay our respects and leave quietly.

We entered the room and found a group of women gathered on one side and the men gathered on the other. My husband and I split up to join our respective groups. I am not Hassidic, so I was dressed very differently from everyone else and obviously stood out. A friendly Hassidic woman asked me who I was and I uttered, "I am a member of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people)." I am a member of the Jewish family and I am here because the tragedy of the Ferencz family touches all of us. We are all the Ferencz family; we may dress differently and relate to our Jewishness differently but we are all one people, one family.

As I was escorted in I saw eight sisters lined up on low chairs looking exhausted and grief-stricken. I sat in the back thinking I would leave after a few minutes. I wanted to touch this overwhelming grief, express to them that I cared and show them by my presence, that the whole of our nation mourns along with them. I felt it important to be part of the visceral collective grief of our people and that I could only do so by sitting in the epicenter of it.

When our hearts are broken we are able to connect in deeper ways with others.

Despite being in a state of mourning and shock, many of the sisters started inquiring about me. "Where are you coming from?" I told them that I live in Rhode Island. They could not believe it and were so grateful that my husband and I had come all this way to share in their grief. Our presence seemed to give them a sense of how their tragedy was affecting others. They told me about other visits they had received from people coming from all over. Their warm embrace and their interest in me in the midst of their grief was so unexpected and so inspiring. I felt enveloped in their love. I realized that we all want to feel unified, we all crave love and we all want our pain to be acknowledged and shared. When our hearts are broken we are able to connect in deeper ways with others.

One sister told me, "I am marrying off my daughter tomorrow," and that her Rabbi had told her she could participate fully in the wedding, in the middle of the shiva period. She told me that she would be wearing her ripped clothing (a sign of mourning) under her wedding finery. She would then immediately return to sitting shiva after the celebration.

We spoke about the extraordinary strength it will take to be experiencing gut wrenching grief at the same time as joyously celebrating her daughter's wedding. "It's hard but it's what I have to do," she said matter-of-factly. "God has a plan, God is in charge and everything God does is good."

Another sister chimed in with the mystical teaching that Mindy's soul will visit her niece's wedding tomorrow. Yet another sister added that Mindy's soul is very high up in the heavens because she was killed for being Jewish. We marveled at the tenacity of the human condition and at the resiliency of the Jewish people.

We continued talking about how kind their sister was – "Just like our mother." They shared with me how Mindy loved to cook, how she generously provided for so many people and was beloved by everyone.

I stood up, said the traditional refrain of comfort one says when leaving a mourner and turned to leave. As I was exiting I was presented with two trays of food for my husband and me to take with us for our long journey home. I couldn't refuse. As much as I came to be the comforter I was also being comforted and taken care of.

An attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us.

In that short visit we weren't strangers any more. I came with a desire to connect with the Ferencz family and their pain. Mindy Ferencz was a mother, a sister, a wife, a daughter, a part of a big extended family and a loving member of the Jewish people. An attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us.

Stepping into that shiva home was a little intimidating. I encourage anyone who ever thinks twice about paying a shiva call to do just do it. We expand our hearts when we open ourselves up to sit with others in pain. My goal was to help carry their load just a little, to connect to their pain and that of the Jewish people. It gave me a first-hand experience of the love and kindness that our people have for each other. And the opportunity to connect to these wonderful, grateful, caring loving family members.

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