It was late Friday afternoon when we got the call. My sister-in-law’s childhood friend Joel was found dead in his house in Brooklyn. He had not been seen or heard from in a while, so someone called the police, who broke in and found him. My sister-in-law was completely rattled and in shock. The body was going to be sent to the medical examiner’s office, where we feared an autopsy would be performed. This was less than two hours before Shabbos and the thought of a pending autopsy put us in a panic.
My first thought was to call Fred Schulman, a longtime friend and chairman of the chevra kadisha in the White Shul. Fred immediately contacted Rabbi Zohn, the director of chevra kadisha for Vaad Harabonim of Queens, who asked to speak to me. Rabbi Zohn listened and then said, “Give me a few minutes and I’ll get back to you.” I could not imagine that he could do anything, since by then it was only around an hour or so before Shabbos. Was I wrong.
Within 20 minutes, I got a call back from Rabbi Zohn. He said that the body was in a decomposed state and going to the morgue. He placed an objection to an autopsy and was confident that it would stick. Amazingly, Rabbi Zohn had already managed to take care of all the immediate problems, which was a big relief. But now we had to focus on getting the body identified and finding out his Hebrew name, as well as where and how soon we could get him buried. Being an old family friend, my wife knew that Joel had cousins, but they didn’t know much.
Joel’s family history was tragic. His father died at 36; his brother was shot and killed in front of their house. He had a wonderful stepfather, but he passed away, as did his mother, from cancer. Joel never married, so he had no immediate family.
Shabbos morning after shul, more than one person said that with Rabbi Zohn on the case, there was nothing to worry about. Motzaei Shabbos, we called the relatives in Florida and told them the bad news. We found out that they were distant cousins—very distant, in fact. I asked if they knew Joel’s Hebrew name but they did not.
My sister-in-law had taken Joel to the cemetery where his family was buried and she remembered the name. We found out that Joel’s parents and brother were indeed buried there, but they had no Hebrew names on record. And all four of the family plots were taken. A plot might be available but it would cost over $6,000. The very lovely woman in the cemetery office offered to drive to the family’s plot and take a picture of any headstone with Hebrew on it. But still no Hebrew name and still no place to bury Joel.
We were really worried, but again Rabbi Zohn came to the rescue. He gave me a phone number and contact at the Hebrew Free Burial Association, and let me just say—thank G‑d for them. Rhonda at Hebrew Free Burial was waiting for my call. I was dreading the red tape, but Hebrew Free Burial took care of everything in the most amazing way.
But we still had to get the body identified. I remember AccuWeather said we were in for bad weather—cold, fog, and rain the entire week; my spirit dampened.
Monday morning, the hold on the autopsy was still in place and Rabbi Zohn was hoping the body would be identified with just a picture. He said he would let us know.
My wife was now trying to get Joel’s Hebrew name from B’nai Israel of Midwood, the shul that Joel’s family belonged to, hoping that some Hebrew school or bar mitzvah records were available. Unfortunately, the shul had consolidated and the only available documents were hundreds of yahrzeit cards. So we planned on spending Tuesday morning going through the cards in search of a Hebrew name.
Tuesday morning, it was pouring rain and Rabbi Zohn said that the body could not be identified with just a picture. That alone was so sad. But the police found the dentist in Brooklyn who treated Joel ten years before. Since we were on our way to Brooklyn to search for his Hebrew name, we contacted the dentist, who said he had a small group of X-rays from ten years ago, but he could not release his records to us. He was waiting for a mailer from the M.E.’s office to mail them in himself, which could take days. So again I reached out to Rabbi Zohn. The medical examiner’s office faxed the dentist a release allowing us to take the X-rays and bring them to their office. The dentist was amazed and wanted to know who we knew who could get this done. And of course the answer was Rabbi Zohn.
We drove down Joel’s block on the way to the shul. My wife stepped out of the car and went to the front door of his home, but the police had sealed it. A neighbor who happened to be outside across the street asked us if we knew Joel. He proceeded to tell us that the last time he spoke to Joel was March 18. Later he saw his bedroom light go on as he sees every night, but his light never went off and was still on in the morning. No one saw or spoke to Joel since that night. From this information we now had a yahrzeit. Now on to the shul.
My wife and I looked through hundreds of index cards. After several hours, much to our dismay, we could not find a single thing with his family name on it, although many of the names on the cards initiated fond memories of long-lost families and friends.
From there we ran over to the morgue, strangely excited to expedite this part of the process. (Sort of happy, sad, and horrified all rolled into one. Surreal to say the least.) Everyone in the M.E.’s office was very kind and helpful. They said a dentist would be in the next morning to try to make a positive identification with the X-rays.
We were still waiting to hear back from the public administrator’s office about the will. Rabbi Zohn had explained that a public administrator would now be involved, whose job it is to locate a will and to find all assets of the deceased. As you can imagine, this takes some time to do and could delay the burial even further, perhaps weeks. Rabbi Zohn said that he recently had a meeting with the public administrator’s office to discuss expediting these cases. He was promised full cooperation and told that they would do everything possible to speed up the process. Joel would be the first test case since that meeting.
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That night was depressing. We were still not getting any closer to burying Joel. But just as my wife was ready to go to bed, one last look at her phone revealed a new message. It was a picture of one matzeivah. The woman from the office had kept her promise, and as it turned out there was only one stone with a Hebrew name. That turned out to be Joel’s father, Reuven ben Rav Shlomo HaLevy. By then, my sister in-law remembered Joel’s name as Dovid Yaakov. (He once told her he thought his English name should have been David.) So now at least we had his name—Dovid Yaakov ben Reuven HaLevy. We felt the tide was beginning to turn.
It was still pouring on Wednesday morning when the medical examiner’s office called to say that Joel had been identified using the dental records. I was needed at the M.E.’s office to sign a statement objecting to the autopsy on behalf of the deceased, a member of the Jewish faith. Now the body could be released. The M.E.’s office was respectful, patient, and understanding.
That afternoon it was still raining when Rhonda from Hebrew Free Burial called to say that no will had been found. It seems that the public administrator had completed their findings in record time. She said there would be a funeral for Joel at 2:30 in the afternoon the next day, at Mount Richmond Cemetery on Staten Island. The case had been expedited. How they got that done, we will never know.
Rabbi Zohn’s office told us the body would have a teharah and there would be a minyan at the grave. That night we fell asleep knowing that finally Dovid Yaakov ben Reuven HaLevy would be laid to rest with kavod.
The sun was finally out on Thursday when we got to the cemetery. Rabbi Plafker from the Hebrew Free Burial Association as well as volunteers from Staten Island for the minyan greeted us. The aron was in the hearse and the plot was open and ready.
Rabbi Plafker officiated and since it was Rosh Chodesh, with no hesped, we recited Tehillim. The rabbi was exceptional; he delivered a meaningful and moving burial service. The sun was shining bright when we placed Joel in his grave. I recited the Kaddish and at that moment felt a tremendous hakaras ha’tov.
It is impossible to imagine what would have happened if Rabbi Zohn and the Hebrew Free Burial Association had not dedicated themselves to this mitzvah. The cemetery was filled with graves of hundreds of Jews here in New York whose fate would have otherwise been an unknown mass grave in New York’s potter’s field! It is unimaginable.
Fred Schulman, Rabbi Zohn (director of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha), Rhonda, Rabbi Plafker, the volunteers for the minyan, the Hebrew Free Burial Association, and all the others behind the scenes must be thanked and know how appreciated they are. They fly under the radar, taking care of those Jews who were unfortunate in both their lives and their deaths. I now know how important this organization is and how far-reaching their efforts are during such a difficult and emotionally draining time. This mitzvah is carried out by this outstanding organization hundreds of times a year and indeed will certainly be on the top of my tzedakah list. v