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Justice Ginsburg's Death Strikes Symbolic On Eve Of Rosh Hashana

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we've been remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a barrier-breaking woman, mother, and finally now as the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court. Her death was announced last night as millions of American Jews were getting ready to celebrate the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As NPR's Sam Gringlas reports, many Jews saw something symbolic.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHIRA STUTMAN: I'm sure that many of you have heard that Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away today.

GRINGLAS: Rabbi Shira Stutman was fighting back tears from a mostly empty Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUTMAN: (Speaking Hebrew) May you rest in power, Justice Ginsburg.

GRINGLAS: Blocks away, people gathered outside the Supreme Court singing the Mourner's Kaddish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Hebrew).

GRINGLAS: Blasts of a shofar echoed over the plaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOFAR)

GRINGLAS: For Sheila Katz (ph), hearing that sound from the court steps somehow felt right.

SHEILA KATZ: The shofar is blown as a literal wake-up call to the Jewish people. It's a signal that we need to act, to work towards bettering ourselves and healing the world around us.

GRINGLAS: In Michigan this morning, Temple Israel Rabbi Jen Kaluzny was still processing.

JEN KALUZNY: Here we are trying to embrace the sweetness of the New Year, embrace hope. And then you get this news of one of the (speaking Hebrew), one of the great ones of our generation. When we're thinking about the book of life, all of these fundamentals of our holiday and of our faith are just all coming together as we remember this woman who lived the idea of equality, of the divinity of every human being.

GRINGLAS: So last 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.

KALUZNY: And when I sit with a family when someone has died, that's what we do. We sit, and we tell stories.

GRINGLAS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: 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. What has become of me could happen only in America.

GRINGLAS: Years later, on Rosh Hashanah, Ginsburg surprised worshippers 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 going to be any reward in heaven or punishment in hell. We live righteously because that's how people should live.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

GRINGLAS: Sam Gringlas, NPR News, Washington Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.