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The ultimate good deed

August 5,2007


Prof. Liviu Librescu grew up in Nazi-occupied Romania, immigrated to Israel and later relocated to Virginia, where he was killed in April in a Virginia Tech classroom.

A Hasidic group from Borough Park, Brooklyn, picked up his body and arranged a funeral service.

Representatives of that group were present for the autopsy of Auxiliary Police Officer Eugene Marshalik after he was gunned down in Greenwich Village on March.

And a month earlier, when Long Island students Carol Kestenbaum and Nicole Schiffman were shot dead in Arizona, that same group helped ensure a speedy burial.

Now and again, when a Jewish person dies in the city and beyond – especially in tragic circumstances – volunteers from Chesed Shel Emes spring into action.

“Whenever we can, we try to get involved,” said Rabbi Mendy Rosenberg, founder and president of this unique nonprofit organization. “You have to do whatever needs to be done.”

Chesed Shel Emes, which means “true kindness” in Hebrew, handles about 300 cases a year, getting referrals from medical examiners, hospitals and community members.

Sometimes they just offer advice to the bereaved or clean the body, but often a call comes in about a forlorn person with no relatives who has just passed away.

In those cases, they claim and handle the remains, buy a cemetery plot, administer a funeral and even designate someone to say the mourner’s Kaddish prayer on every anniversary. They pay all the expenses.

“We try to help people as much as we can,” said Meyer Berger, a four-year volunteer. “I feel that might be my purpose of being in the world.”

It was some 25 years ago when Rosenberg started helping Jewish families prevent unnecessary autopsies from being performed on their loved ones. That stricture is part of detailed provisions in Jewish law regarding the deceased.

“One thing led to the other,” Rosenberg said. “And now we’re getting calls from all over.”

Most people they attend to were secular in life, and their families are unaware of the importance of burial rites – a fact that changes nothing for Chesed Shel Emes members.

“When a person dies he cannot choose,” Berger explained. “We believe that after he dies, he knows what’s right.”

While helping thousands of families over the years, the organization has had an impact on society at large.

Authorities are more sympathetic now to religious objections to autopsies, insisting on them only in criminal cases, and when Chesed Shel Emes members were dispatched to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA amended its protocol to accommodate various faiths, including Islam.

“They are absolutely amazing,” Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn), whose district includes Borough Park, said of the volunteers. “Their satisfaction is very internal, very deep. They perform the ultimate good.”

While Rosenberg owns a tire shop, his Chesed Shel Emes cell phone rings almost every single day or night except for the Sabbath, when using a phone is forbidden.

When pressed for the motives of his tireless charity work, he just mentioned the biblical origin of the phrase “Chesed Shel Emes,” spoken by Jacob to his sons on his deathbed.

The phrase translates as “true loving kindness” in English, but scholars have interpreted the words to mean that a true grace can only be done toward the dead, when there can’t be an expectation of a favor in return.

“This is one of the biggest things you can do in life,” Rosenberg said of his work.