Yated Ne’eman Interview:

Against all Odds

Stories of Ordinary People who have Accomplished the Extra-Ordinary

Yated interviews Mr. Meir Berger of Chesed Shel Emes, an Organization devoted to doing Chesed with the Deceased, and Next-of-Kin

The elderly Russian immigrant was clearly lost and bewildered. Her deceased husband had not left clear instructions about the burial, and she could not afford a traditional burial plot. Cremation was the most economical, she explained to the Chesed Shel Emes volunteers who had been called to the scene, at only 500 dollars, a real bargain. Besides, what difference could it possibly make?

How could the Chesed Shel Emes team explain to this Jewish woman that by cremating her husband, she will do irreparable damage to his neshamah on the next world? That, according to halacha, one cannot sit shiva or tear kriyah in such a situation? Tact and diplomacy were called for, in extra doses.

While conversing with the woman, Mr. Meir Berger, a longtime Chesed Shel Emes Volunteer, carefully asked her, “Have you made plans for your own burial, after 120?” The woman responded that she would liked to be buried in a specific cemetery, where some of her family members were interred.

“And don’t you want to be buried next to your husband?” he gently probed.

“Of course I do!” the woman responded, then realized what she had said. “But how will I pay for his burial?”

The volunteer assured her that she would only have to pay the $500- she originally planned to spend, and Chesed Shel Emes would take care of the rest. And thus, another Jewish soul was buried with dignity, in a Jewish cemetery, according to halacha, while Mishnayos was learned in his memory by the Chesed Shel Emes volunteers.

**

On August 10, 2001, the tragic helicopter crash in the Arizona Desert, which claimed the lives of five heimishe Yidden, (and left the sole survivor seriously injured,) sent waves of shock and anguish throughout the Jewish community. As soon as the bodies had been sent to the local Medical Examiner’s Office, Chesed Shel Emes got busy, preparing to bring them back to kever Yisroel.

“It was a lengthy, complicated process,” said Mr. Berger, who recalls the tremendous amount of time, financial resources, and ‘pulling the right strings’ involved. The accident happened on Friday morning. By Motzoei Shabbos, a Chesed Shel Emes team, including the renowned community liaison and vice president of Chesed shel Emes, Rabbi Chaim Boruch Gluck, were on their way to the Nevada desert.

“At first, we heard that it was a waste of time; the Medical Examiner’s office would not be open until Monday morning, and the bodies would be not available for transportation to New York until Wednesday, the earliest,” said Mr. Berger. The long delay would be a tremendous tzaar for the niftarim, and Chesed Shel Emes was determined to prevent that.

“Rabbi Gluck and Rabbi Mandel arrived at the small Nevada airport late on Motzoei Shabbos with the victims’ dental records, only to be told to wait until Monday morning. Undeterred, they called the New York Medical Examiner, who gave them the private phone number of the Nevada Medical Examiner, at his home. His family members said that he was at church, and could not be disturbed.

After discovering which church he attends, the devoted askanim drove there, and asked a passerby to call him out. The medical examiner was surprised to see his guests, and even more surprised when they begged and pleaded with him to make an exception this time, and open his office on Sunday, in honor of the deceased victims.

“I would love to accommodate you,” the examiner apologetically said, “but it won’t help me, because I don’t have the equipment to identify the victims based on dental records. I won’t have the equipment for another day or two, at least.”

Another snag, but the askanim refused to give up. “Where can I find a medical examiner’s office which has the necessary equipment?” asked Rabbi Gluck.

“Over the state line, in Arizona,” was the reply. “However, according to state law, bodies may not be transported to another state before they are identified.”

After thanking the medical examiner for his time, Rabbi Gluck immediately got on the phone, reaching Senator McCain of Arizona, who, in turn, contacted the senator from Nevada, and after a short wait, special permission was given. Now the askanim needed to charter a private plane, at the cost of $60,000, to bring the niftarim to the medical examiner in Arizona, wait until they were identified, then leave for Kennedy Airport on Sunday night.

By Monday morning, the niftarim were back in New York, and the levaya took place on Monday afternoon! Had the askanim not been involved, the process might have taken a week or more, a week of tremendous pain and anguish for the niftarim and their families.

**

An elderly Yid from Seagate visited a specialist in Massachusetts for a specific medical problem. While in the waiting room, he met an elderly woman, frail and hunched over, who cleaned the office and did odd jobs around the office.

“I see that you are a religious Jew,” the woman said to him. “I want to ask you a favor.” As the stunned man listened, she told him that she was a Holocaust survivor, who survived the war after being hidden by a Christian family, and remembered nothing about her background. “The only thing I remember, is that I am a Jew.” After the war, this doctor’s father had adopted her, and she lived with the family for many years, in the small Massachusetts town, never having met another Jew.

“Now that I am old, I want to make arrangements for my burial,” she said. “I know that it is very important that I should be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Can you arrange it for me?”

The Yid promised to try, and left his number with the doctor, to be contacted when needed. He then went back to Seagate, and repeated the story to several friends. Barely two weeks later, he received a phone call from the doctor. The elderly woman had been hit by a car, and suddenly passed away. Could he take care of the arrangements?

The Yid immediately called Chesed Shel Emes, and within a few hours, the elderly woman’s body was on its way to New York, where a b’kovodig levaya was arranged. The Holocaust survivor, who had grown up far from her people, finally was brought back home.

**

These are but several out of dozens of Chesed Shel Emes experiences, every single week! “On an average week, we have at least one, and usually more than one kevurah every single day,” says Mr. Berger, who was interviewed for this article.

“We serve as Chevra Kadisha, take care of unplugging the niftarim from hospital machinery, arrange for the taharah, and often pay for the kevurah, regardless of the niftar’s background or affiliation. Our only requirement? That the niftar be a member of Klal Yisroel.”

Often, Chesed Shel Emes will be called by various kehillos to care for their niftarim, whether because the kehilla lacks its own services, or because the niftar had a highly contagious disease, and the Chevra Kadisha are afraid to come close. “We sometimes have to wear masks, gowns, and gloves,” said the volunteer, “but we never refused a taharah.”

“Just recently, we were instrumental in preventing an autopsy for a frum bochur who was tragically niftar in Los Angeles. Though the Medical Examiner’s office in L.A. was unfamiliar with halacha, we reached local officials who knew about us, and who helped us pull the right strings, in order to prevent this travesty.”

The services of Chesed Shel Emes extend not only to the niftar, but to the family as well. “We were recently dealing with the distraught mother of a young bochur, who threatened to jump out the window as soon as we left. Chesed Shel Emes stayed on the scene, contacting a qualified social worker and not leaving until the woman was being cared for.”

Doesn’t Chesed Shel Emes have its own social worker and other employees?

“We don’t have any overhead at all,” says Mr. Berger firmly. “We have 260 men and 140 women volunteers, who complete the taharah, take care of the levaya, accident cleanup, etc, and even a cadre of Talmidei Chachomim who learn Mishnayos in memory of the niftarim, for the first year, and on their yarzeit. In addition, we maintain a bikur cholim room at several Manhattan hospitals, working alongside Rivka Laufer Bikur Cholim.

“However, not a single one of these devoted volunteers gets even a dime, or even free equipment. I have been a volunteer for four years, and taken part in over 1,000 taharas. I often paid for needed services out of my own pocket, when necessary, and consider it a privilege.”

Why doesn’t the organization maintain the bare minimum financial resources, of, well, any other organization? And how, then, do they pay the tremendous costs so many kevuros entail?

“We don’t have a bank account for a reason; to prevent power struggles and internal politics. In fact, we have no infrastructure at all, just a drive and willpower to do good. Anyone who wants to join can do so, provided they are willing to do taharas and arrange kevuros at a few moments’ notice, a true Chesed Shel Emes.

“There is no kovod or glory involved, only in the next world. As for the money to pay for all this, whenever we need money for a kevurah, we know whom to call. There are countless generous donors who are always available to take part in this tremendous mitzvah.”

“Can you tell us a recent Hashgocha Protis story involving Chesed Shel Emes?”

“Of course. On Chol Hamoed Pesach, we received a phone call from a woman who works in a Washington Heights Nursing Home. One of the patients, let’s call him Mr. Friedman, was recently admitted to the hospital, and she suspected he had passed away. Since he had no surviving family members, she was afraid the body would not come to kever Yisroel. We thanked her, and immediately got to work, trying to track down the body. The hospital informed us that the patient was deceased, and had been taken to the medical examiner’s office. However, the local MA’s office insisted they did not have a patient with that name.

“We were frustrated and exhausted, after having spent most of the day trying to track down the niftar, to no avail. Suddenly, Mr. Rosenberg’s phone rang; it was Rabbi Chaim Boruch Gluck, notifying Chesed Shel Emes that another Medical Examiner’s office had an unclaimed body, with numbers tattooed on his arm, indicating that he was a Holocaust survivor. His name? Mark Friedman.”

“We were open-mouthed at the tremendous hashgocha protis. Here we were, spending so much time trying to find the niftar, and he was literally brought to us, so to speak. The elderly niftar, who had suffered so much in his life, was brought to kever Yisroel, and Mishnayos was learned in his memory.”

**

Chesed Shel Emes, founded by the well known askan Mr. Mendy Rosenberg, has been in operation for over ten years, and has been called to too many accident scenes, niftarim found at home, elderly, abandoned patients in nursing homes, and many other thankless and often emotionally difficult tasks.

Yet they are always ready, always available to ‘push the right buttons’ and ensure that every single member of Klal Yisroel receives what he or she deserves: a taharah, levaya, and kevurah in a respectable manner, according to halacha.

Though it seems they are working without recompense, their ultimate s’char for their Chesed Shel Emes is waiting for them, after 120, up in the World of Emes.