POLITICS

News Of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Death Interrupts Rosh Hashanah Services Nationwide

"God help us."

On Friday, Jewish people around the country celebrating Rosh Hashanah were stunned to learn that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a prominent member of their own tribe, had died.

You’re not really supposed to be checking your phone during services, but it’s been known to happen. And this year, with services conducted online due to the coronavirus pandemic, outside intrusions were harder to avoid.

People received alerts, Zoom messages and announcements from their rabbis about Ginsburg Friday night.

On a livestream for the Sixth and I synagogue in Washington, D.C., senior Rabbi Shira Stutman, masked and holding back tears, broke the news at the end of the services:

We have just a few more prayers to say before the close of our service, but I am sure that many of you have heard by now that Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away today.

Man, 5780 has been hard. The justice passed away from complications of cancer. And in moments like this, of course the first thing we do is we are gutted with profound sadness, as we are whenever someone dies. And we offer our condolences to her family.

It is hard, of course, not to turn our thoughts right away to our country, which is already teetering in so many ways. And we are grateful to Justice Ginsburg for all that she gave to our country over her years of service, and the ways that she protected women and queer people, the ways that she fought for voting rights for people whose right to vote was suppressed, most often people of color. We are grateful for all the ways that she helped to carry this country.

In the book of Leviticus, when Aaron the high priest is told of the death of his sons, the next words are very famous ones. It says, “Va’yidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent.” And it’s true. I don’t know what the rabbinic words are in this moment, except here’s what I know, which are the prayers that we have in front of us.

Julie Dinnerstein, attending the service for Kolot Chaiyenu in Brooklyn, New York, said the nearly 400 attendees there learned the news when someone put it in the Zoom chat. Rabbi Miriam Grossman immediately inserted a prayer for the late justice.

Asked to describe her reaction to the news, Dinnerstein replied: “Despair.” But, she added, she was “grateful to be with a (virtual) community and led in prayer by a rabbi who shares our sadness at this terrible loss.”

“God help us” and “what a terrible way to begin 5781” were some of the messages put into the chat for the service at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City.

Natalie, an attendee who asked that her last name not be used, called the experience of learning about the news in an online service “deeply weird.”

Some other reactions from Twitter: 

Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court. On the wall of her chambers hung a framed quote from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

In an interview with The Forward in 2018, Ginsburg recounted how she fought to get changes to Supreme Court bar membership certificates, so that they didn’t always read “in the year of our Lord.” 

“One of my colleagues, and I will not disclose who, said, ‘In the year of our Lord was good enough for Brandeis, it was good enough for Cardozo, it was good enough for Frankfurter, it was good enough even for Goldberg,’” she told The Forward. “And before he got to Fortas, I said ‘It’s not good enough for Ginsburg.’”

There are now choices in how the date is listed on those certificates, including options that don’t reference Christianity.

Ginsburg also helped make sure the Supreme Court doesn’t sit on the High Holy Days. She told The Forward her religion shaped her as both a lawyer and a justice.

“I grew up in the shadow of World War II. And we came to know more and more what was happening to the Jews in Europe,” she told The Forward. “The sense of being an outsider — of being one of the people who had suffered oppression for no … no sensible reason … it’s the sense of being part of a minority. It makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.”

“I would say that, and love of learning,” the justice went on. “The sense of being a member of a minority group that somehow has survived generations and generations of hatred and plundering.”