For many local Jewish people, the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was more than the loss of a national liberal icon: It was the passing of a guiding light in a woman that resembled their own “bubbe” as they entered the most intensely religious part of the year.
“For many of us, RBG was a member of the family,” said Rabbi Keith Stern of Beth Avodah in Newton. “She was one of us.”
The news broke in Massachusetts just about sundown, when traditionally Jewish people begin their new year celebration of Rosh Hashana, although most congregations are holding services virtually this year due to the pandemic.
Ginsburg, who died Friday at age 87 of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, was among the country’s most prominent Jewish people, and engendered a deep sense of connection with other Jewish Americans that has heightened a sense of mourning for many, according to local rabbis.
“There they were in front of the TV ready for the service, and entered New Year weeping,” Stern said of members of his congregation Sunday, remembering the moment when the news broke.
He had already started the service when he was handed a note announcing Ginsburg’s death.
“I was crushed,” he said Sunday, during a break from the services marking the second day of Rosh Hashana.
Local rabbis said Sunday it was immediately clear that Ginsburg’s death would become a part of the holiday, which — along with Yom Kippur — celebrates a new year based on the Jewish calendar and considers the year that has passed.
Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington said Jewish people felt a unique connection to the late justice because of her openness about her Jewish identity.
“Undoubtedly, there is a certain sense of additional emotion that is tied up in the fact that she is part of the Jewish community and proudly identified as such,” he said in a phone interview.
And her career strongly embodied Jewish values of justice, according to Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Temple Israel of Boston.
“She was a tzadik, a righteous person, and sought to seek for people’s lives to ensure that there was justice and everybody did the right thing, including on the Supreme Court,” she said in a phone interview Sunday. “The way she lived her life was one of pursuing justice and that is a high value in Judaism, part of our prayers and what we say, and what we pursue,” she said. “In that way, her model and way of living, [a] life pursuing justice, is inspiring to us even as we mourn her passing.”
Yet, the almost familial connection many Jewish people felt with the late justice may come in part from Ginsburg’s resemblance to their grandmothers or mothers that made so powerful a figure instantly relatable.
“With RBG, it was always like ‘Bubbe’s there; she’s in our corner,‘ ” he said, using the Yiddish word for grandmother. “It’s unnerving to think of the world without her and it makes me feel just a little bit more vulnerable as a Jew and an American.”
Over the weekend, some mourned the late justice in traditional Jewish ways, including reading her name along with members of the congregation who have died, as part of the traditional mourner’s kaddish during Friday’s service, according to the rabbis.
Joshua Morof, 26, a medical student from Michigan spending a year at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, walked to a makeshift shrine on the steps of the Harvard Law School library Saturday and placed a rock, a traditional Jewish gesture of visiting the dead.
“It’s a happy time and it’s a lot less sweet” due to her death, he said.
His girlfriend, Ashley Schnaar, 24, left a note thanking the “queen of justice and feminism” and using a traditionally Jewish phrase: “May her memory be a blessing,” she wrote.
Jaffe said the timing of her death, at the beginning of the holiday, offered inspiration for Jewish people during a period of intense introspection.
He said she “left us all with an inspiration moving into the new year about the world that we are building.”
“The themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur of tshuva: finding our best selves,” reflected Zecher, using a Hebrew word for “return” or “repentance.”
“She modeled her best self that we could not only admire but be inspired by.”
Zecher said she was stricken with grief when she was handed a note informing her of Ginsburg’s death during her sermon on Friday. And yet, wrestling with her emotions and looking ahead at the difficult spiritual work of the holidays, she said she felt that very inspiration of the late justice.
“That’s what gave me the strength,” she said.
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.