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Cared for, for Eternal Life
Jewish Burial in the Age of COVID-19 #5

July 14,2020

By Isadora Kosofsky - Photographs by Mark Abramson

Dignity for the dead for members of the Jewish community is something Chesed Shel Emes, a grassroots network of volunteers, has worked toward since the 1980s. No matter the obstacle, they never say “no” to any Jewish person in need of burial. “If you’re a member of AAA, they will come get you. If you’re a member of the Jewish community, even if you’re not an active member, we will come get you,” said Benjy Spiro, a volunteer of ten years.

Their work focuses primarily on the forgotten and the anonymous. With contacts in the death bureaucracy of New York and the surrounding areas, Chesed Shel Emes identifies Jews bound for potter’s fields and claims them instead for their cemetery in upstate New York. The group is often on scene after suicides or accidents and at hospitals for patients who have just died. Chesed Shel Emes operates through WhatsApp and with a Ford pickup converted into a hearse.

As COVID-19 hit New York last spring, the virus claimed the lives of hundreds of Orthodox Jews. Families feared their loved ones would be cremated instead of buried. They read false social-media messages warning that their deceased relatives might not get proper Taharas, or ceremonial baths. They dreaded the possibility that their parent or sibling would be left indefinitely in a temporary morgue truck.

The pandemic presented Chesed Shel Emes with unprecedented challenges, but the group continued its work. Unable to socially distance while carrying a coffin, volunteers knew they were taking a risk to bury those they would never know.

“Why did God kill the woman in apartment 1A but not apartment 1B? We don’t know,” said Benjy Spiro. “Only God knows the bigger picture.”

Chesed Shel Emes volunteers bury a female victim of COVID-19 in their cemetery in Woodridge, New York, after discovering that the deceased lay unclaimed for three months in temporary morgue in New York City. Photo: Mark Abramson


Volunteers stop and pray for a female victim of COVID-19 as they walk her coffin to its final resting place at the Woodridge cemetery. Due to Orthodox modesty laws, deceased women can only be tended to by other women. At the start of the pandemic, Chesed Shel Emes decided volunteers over 60 must retreat from their duties. That left the organization with only six women who could perform the purity ritual on deceased women. They were on-call at all hours of the day and night. Photo: Mark Abramson


A crew of Chesed Shel Emes workers clean up after the body of a Jewish man who jumped to his death was removed from the scene in midtown Manhattan. According to Jewish law any spilled blood must be cleaned following death, and any remains must be buried with the deceased. Photo: Mark Abramson


Shia Weisblum, a volunteer with Chesed Shel Emes, covers up a trolley used to transport bodies inside a Williamsburg, Brooklyn funeral home. Photo: Mark Abramson