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Shiva Sisters offer kind words, practical help for Jewish families at times of loss

The Shiva Sisters aid Jewish mourners with an only-in-L.A. panache, arranging catering, equipment rentals and general assistance for after-funeral gatherings. 'They kind of just swoop in and mother you,' says one man who lost his partner of three decades.

March 20, 2011|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Lily Morris, 13, goddaughter of Lee Weinstein and Michael Berman, listens to speakers during a memorial for Weinstein for which the Shiva Sisters made all the related arrangements.
Lily Morris, 13, goddaughter of Lee Weinstein and Michael Berman, listens… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

The early arrivals got the good seats, 115 folding chairs facing the pool. Other guests grabbed standing-room-only spots under giant umbrellas or stood blinking in the sun; still others jammed into the living room and family room, watching and listening through open sliding glass doors.

"Good morning to all of you, on this beautiful, radiant Sunday," Rabbi Carla Howard began, from a lectern on the far side of the pool. "We come together at the home of Lee and Michael to honor, celebrate and, finally, say goodbye to Lee Ivan Weinstein."

It was just before noon, and the Weinstein memorial service was proceeding like clockwork in a spectacular Los Feliz hillside home overlooking the sun-washed city below.

Behind a closed door, the kitchen was a hive of frenetic activity. And there was a small problem.

The memorial had drawn about 300 people, roughly 100 more than expected. It was warm, and people were thirsty. While everyone else listened to the eulogies, Danna Black made a dash to Ralphs. When she returned, she was lugging bags full of soda and ice to replenish the exhausted supplies.

Another minor crisis averted by the Shiva Sisters.

The Shiva Sisters are two women, Black and Allison Moldo, who have started an event planning business with an unusual focus.

They deal with death — specifically, Jewish mourning — with an only-in-L.A. panache. They arrange catering, equipment rentals and general assistance for after-funeral gatherings, including valet parking, video production, personal shopping and — there is no better way to say it — Jewish mothering.

"They kind of just swoop in and mother you," said Michael Berman, Lee Weinstein's partner of 30 years, who hired the Shiva Sisters on the advice of Rabbi Howard. "They're not just planning a party and an event, but they're compassionate and understanding at a time when people are grieving."

In Jewish tradition, shiva (the Hebrew word for seven) is the initial period of mourning after the burial of an immediate family member. Families "sit shiva" at home for seven days, during which extended family and friends are expected to come to console them, feed them and join in prayer.

Their name aside, the Shiva Sisters don't usually have much to do with shiva, at least not in any traditional sense. Their clients tend to be people who are Jewish by birth, maybe by upbringing, but not usually by practice.

Then someone dies. People who haven't set foot in a synagogue in years want a Jewish funeral, with a rabbi presiding, and some kind of Jewish gathering afterward. In traditional parlance, this gathering is called the "meal of consolation." A better term in this case might be "lunch."

"A lot of them feel like they need to serve deli platters," Moldo said, "because that's the tradition."

In Judaism, as in other faiths, the community has traditionally taken care of a grieving family. But as society has become atomized, that has grown more difficult, especially in a place like Southern California, where people are spread out and many have moved here from somewhere else.

Virtually every Jewish congregation has a "caring committee" to support families in mourning. But increasingly, Americans are not affiliated with any religious institution, and Jews are no exception. In Southern California, about 30% of the Jewish population is affiliated with a synagogue, according to Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of the Greater Los Angeles Jewish Federation.

"There is no adequate substitute for the warmth, the care and concern of that community," Diamond said of the synagogue. "Particularly for unaffiliated families, I think what the Shiva Sisters are doing is very noble. And it is a sign of our times that professionals step in to fulfill unmet needs."

The Shiva Sisters began in October 2009, after a particularly bad period in their own lives. Black was an event planner; Moldo worked in the mortgage business. Each was in her late 40s, with parents and other relatives who were aging, and each had been through a string of losses.

At an uncle's funeral, Black overheard a cousin. "She said, 'I wish there was someone who could help us do this,'" Black recalled. "I realized, I could do this." She talked to Moldo, a friend from their children's preschool days.

"We just knew," Black said. "We're the perfect demographic, and we knew there was no one to help."

In addition, she said, both of them had a certain comfort level with the subject — she more than Moldo. "People are just afraid to talk about death," Black said. "They think if they speak of it, they're going to die. We know from experience that's not true."

There followed months of discussions with rabbis to learn the fine points of Jewish mourning rituals. They attended seminars on death and dying and read every book they could find on the subject.

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