The Final Honor
BY CHAYA SILBER - AMI Magazine
Reb Meir Hersh Berger of Chesed Shel Emes shares incredible stories of hashgachah
In days of old, a meis mitzvah often meant finding an abandoned body at the side of the road, which needed to be tended to immediately, as a first priority. In fact, a kohen gadol, who may not become impure for his own deceased family members, was enjoined to care for this unfortunate Jewish soul immediately, even on Yom Kippur instead of doing the avodah! Nowadays, the concept of meis mitzvah still exists, only the circumstances are slightly different. Today, the average meis mitzvah is an elderly, lonely senior citizen, often a Holocaust survivor with no children (or whose children are estranged), who passes away alone and unnoticed. Sadly, many times these elderly Jews are unclaimed and lie in the morgue for months, often to be buried in pauper’s
plots or mass graves, or cremated, which is far more economical. This is a tremendous desecration of the deceased’s body and causes his or her soul immeasurable pain. These circumstances, far from being isolated instances, are all too common. In preparation for this article, we spoke to the renowned askan Reb Meir Hersh Berger, who, along with Reb Mendy Rosenberg, the tireless founder of Chesed Shel Emes, is involved in burying these unclaimed niftarim, with new cases coming to his attention nearly every day. Here are three compelling true stories that occurred recently; they prove, once again, how important it is for us to be aware of elderly shut-ins or people who have no family and enable them to be buried with dignity, according to halachah.
Intervention at the Pharmacy
Mrs. Klein was shopping in a Duane Reade pharmacy in Kensington. It was days before Yom Tov and she was under tremendous pressure, because there was so much to do and too little time in which to do it. The lines were endless, but she was finally done. As she left the pharmacy, her arms laden with bags, she stopped to smile at a panhandler who stood at the door, reaching into her pocket for a coin to give him. As she exited the store, she felt a tap on the shoulder. “Excuse me, Miss?” asked an African-American woman with a kerchief on her head. “Can you spare a moment?” “Uh, sure,” she replied. “I was looking for a Jewish rabbi who can help me. I see you’re a Jewish woman, but I wasn’t sure you’d be comfortable if I approached you. But then I saw that you greeted the panhandler, so I figured you were a nice lady. Maybe you can help me find a rabbi?” “I’ll try,” said Mrs. Klein, wondering where this was leading. Why did this woman need a rabbi? “My name is Latisha, and I’m a parttime aide for an elderly Jewish woman. Her name is Betty, and she’s very sweet. My mother was her aide for many years, but when Mom died, I took over the job. I was hired by a local agency that takes care of shut-ins. It’s not just a job for me. It’s a calling. You see, we come from Jamaica, and we respect our elders. Anyway, Betty lived in Bay Ridge, in one of the projects, and I’ve been with her for a couple of years. Maybe five or six, I don’t remember.” “How is she doing now?” asked Mrs. Klein. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Yesterday, when I showed up, I realized something was wrong. Betty was lying on her back, all stiff and not breathing. She must have passed in the night. I called 911 and they checked for a pulse, but she was gone. I think they took her to the local morgue. Unfortunately, she has no family to take care of her, and she never got married or had children. “I don’t know where they’re going to bury her, but I don’t think it will be in a Jewish cemetery. I kind of feel bad about it, because Betty used to speak about it all the time, how she hopes that when she dies, the Jewish community will make sure she’s buried with the Jewish funeral rites. Betty was very religious, you know. She kept the Sabbath, didn’t turn on any lights or even use the call button. And on the Jewish holiday when you fast and wear all white, Betty insisted on fasting, even though she was 96 years old!” “Wow,” Mrs. Klein marveled. “She must have been a very special woman.” “She was. And I want to help her have a Jewish funeral, which is why I want to speak to a rabbi who can help me.” “I’ll get you in touch with a rabbi,” Mrs. Klein replied. She called her husband, who connected her with Reb Mendy Rosenberg of Chesed Shel Emes, while Latisha waited patiently. A few phone calls was all it took. The dedicated Chesed Shel Emes volunteers discovered where Betty had been taken, and, after ascertaining that she was indeed Jewish, undertook to bury her in their beis olam in Woodridge, New York, covering all the costs. Betty received a taharah and levayah according to halachah,
as well as a minyan to say Kaddish in her memory. And to think it all took place because Mrs. Klein stopped to greet a panhandler at the pharmacy, sparing a smile for an unfortunate human being!
On a Stormy Winter Night…
The phone call came one rainy winter evening to Chesed Shel Emes headquarters from a non-Jewish funeral home. “We have a Jewish deceased, an elderly woman who was just brought here,” said the director, who often called their office to report such cases. “Can you come now and prepare the body for the funeral tomorrow morning?” It was late in the evening of what had been a long day. “Can it wait until tomorrow morning?” asked Reb Mendy Rosenberg. “We’ll be there first thing in the morning, G-d willing.” “We have a very busy schedule tomorrow,” said the director. “There are a lot of funerals taking place in the morning, and several cremations, as well. We want to get this out of the way. It would really be better if you could manage to come tonight.” Although Reb Mendy had spent the entire day involved in caring for Jewish niftarim, and he wanted nothing more than to get some rest, he reminded himself that this was one of the greatest chasadim he
could do for a niftar, and that it was worth extending himself for this chesed. “We’ll be over soon,” he told the funeral director. Still, he wondered why the director had insisted he come over now, in bad weather, even though the same taharah could have waited until the morning. A group of six women volunteers braved the snowy, icy streets, and finally arrived at the funeral home late at night. They waited as an attendant wheeled out the body and carefully opened the casket. To their shock and horror, instead of an elderly, white, Jewish woman, they found the body of a black man! Mendy asked the attendant to summon the director and informed him there had been a mistake. “We were expecting a Jewish woman, not an African-American male,” he said. The director gasped in shock. “I don’t believe it!” he murmured. “I don’t believe it! Someone messed up and gave you the wrong body.” But there’s more to the shocking story. As the funeral director explained, “This man was scheduled to be cremated early tomorrow morning. Had you come in the morning, as you first suggested, this Jewish woman would have been cremated by mistake!” A few moments later, the elderly Jewish woman was given a respectful taharah and was buried the next morning with dignity. She escaped a horrific and irredeemable fate because of the mesiras nefesh of Chesed Shel Emes volunteers to show up in such stormy weather.
Change of Heart
The call came in from a small community upstate, on a summer Friday afternoon. A middle-aged Jewish man had passed away, and his ex-wife and two daughters were trying to arrange the funeral. Since he had been a religious man, they wanted him laid to rest in a Jewish cemetery. The Chesed Shel Emes volunteers showed up an hour later and immediately began preparing the deceased, treating the body with respect and dignity . The man’s ex-wife and two daughters watched quietly as the volunteers took care of everything with precision and compassion, working quickly until it was all arranged. Suddenly, the ex-wife burst into tears as her daughters comforted her. It was all a bit unsettling. Why was the ex-wife so grief-stricken, even more than her daughters, who seemed to love their father very much? And then she explained. “Several years ago, my now ex-husband and I were happily married. But then he decided to become religious, to keep the Sabbath and all the mitzvahs, to go to synagogue. I’ll be honest with you—it was very hard for me to adjust to this new lifestyle. I wanted no part of this extremist behavior, and I refused to cooperate. Things went from bad to worse, until we separated and got divorced. Yet we still remained cordial, for the sake of our daughters. “Now that my ex-husband has passed away, I have had the opportunity to see religious Jews, up close, taking care of him with so much dedication. You are arranging everything without asking anything of us. Now I realize what a mistake I made.
You religious Jews care for each other like brothers, like one family. I regret divorcing my husband, breaking up my family, and not joining him in his religious observance.” The woman’s sobs increased. “Is it too late, or can I still join the community?” The Chesed Shel Emes volunteers reassured her that it was never too late, and that the door was always open. They gave her the number of a Chabad rabbi in the area. They were later informed that she reached out and accepted an invitation for the Yomim Tovim. Thanks to the dedication and mesiras nefesh of the Chesed Shel Emes volunteers, a Jewish mother and her two daughters are on their way back home