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Jewish Americans Grieve Justice Ginsburg As Jewish New Year Begins

People gather at the Supreme Court on the morning after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
J. Scott Applewhite
People gather at the Supreme Court on the morning after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The first Jewish woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, died Friday night as millions of American Jews were getting ready to celebrate the first night of Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish new year.

Justice Stephen Breyer learned midway through the traditional Mourner's Kaddish that his colleague had died. When word of Ginsburg's death spread, many Jews were in services, praying from their homes as congregations broadcast over livestream.

Rabbi Shira Stutman fought back tears from a mostly empty Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, as she delivered the news toward the end of the service.

"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," Stutman said. "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."

Blocks away, people gathered outside the Supreme Court singing the Mourner's Kaddish. Blasts of a shofar echoed over the plaza.

For Sheila Katz, hearing that sound from the court's steps somehow felt right.

"The shofar is blown as a literal wake-up call to the Jewish people — a signal that we need to act toward bettering ourselves and healing the world around us," Katz said.

In Michigan Saturday morning, Temple Israel Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny went on a walk with a friend before services. The news was almost all they talked about.

"Here we are trying to embrace the sweetness of the new year, embrace hope, and we get this news of one of the great ones of our generation," Kaluzny said. "When we're thinking about the Book of Life. All of these feelings and emotions and fundamentals of our holiday and our faith are coming together as we remember this woman who lived the idea of equality, of the divinity of every human being."

So Friday night after the dinner plates were cleared and services complete, Kaluzny piled into bed with her kids. They read a children's book about Ginsburg and they talked about her legacy.

"When I sit with a family when someone has died, that's what we do," she said. "We sit and we tell stories."

Decades ago, during Ginsburg's confirmation hearing, she told senators her own story. She talked about her father, a Jewish immigrant, and her mother, barely a second-generation American.

"Their parents had the foresight to leave the old country, when Jewish ancestry and faith meant exposure to pogroms and denigration of one's human worth," she said. "What has become of me could happen only in America."

Years later, on Rosh Hashanah, Ginsburg surprised worshipers with a speech during services, and she drew another link between Judaism and her lifelong pursuit of justice.

"The Jewish religion is an ethical religion." Ginsburg told the congregation. "That is, we are taught to do right, to love mercy, do justice, not because there's gonna be any reward in heaven or punishment in hell. We live righteously because that's how people should live."

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Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.