By Larry Gordon
The news of the murder of Menachem Stark traveled quickly, having a ripple effect through the community last Friday afternoon. All his family knew was that he had not come home Thursday night as a snowstorm blanketed New York.
It was already Shabbos when the body of the deceased Mr. Stark was discovered by the police and fire departments in a dumpster in Great Neck on Long Island. Realizing that the victim was a Chassidic Jew, the Nassau County police brass reached out to their Jewish community liaison, Alex Wercberger, a local Five Towns personality and member of Hatzalah with excellent police contacts. Alex was observing Shabbos at a Kids of Courage weekend retreat/Shabbaton in Springfield, Massachusetts, when police were attempting to reach him.
This was a brutal and shocking murder, complicated by the arrival of Shabbos, which inevitably leads to the lack of availability of key people in the community, unless a case is deemed by halachic authorities to be a matter that suspends the laws of Shabbos. How and under what circumstances that happens requires a long and complicated dissertation in Jewish law.
Within those limitations, given the matter of the emergency at hand, Wercberger swung into action with the assistance of non-Jews at the hotel who did the dialing on his phone (as directed by the rabbis), as he reached out to his contacts to bring them up to speed.
Menachem Stark, a Williamsburg resident, was tortured and then murdered by those who abducted him late Thursday night as he exited his office in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. As the discovery was made and events unfolded, the approach instantly switched modes. Once those involved learned that it was most likely that Mr. Stark was no longer alive, the priority became the preservation of respect for the person and the dignity of his family.
In this case, the tragedy is an amplified one; it involves the most horrible of crimes and the creation of a new widow and seven new orphans, one of whom is under two years of age. The tragedy rips through the Jewish community, and indeed the communities of all decent people, as we learn some of the details, with the abandonment of any civility, along with the perpetration of a craven and vicious crime.
In the meantime, Alex and his associates, along with his contact on the ground in Williamsburg, worked the phones through Friday night and over most of the next day, Shabbos. He explains that two priorities were immediately addressed: limiting the damage done to the body by an autopsy, which was imperative due to the nature of the events, and then making certain that there was an expeditious burial.
And then there is the sensationalism that accompanies a news event of this nature. The tabloid media—especially the New York Post—like amateur journalistic vultures, saw to it to immediately plunge Mr. Stark’s reputation to the lowest levels imaginable. The objective is to titillate the reader and play with his or her emotions in the most extreme fashion.
Here we had the murder of a 39-year-old man with a large family. The natural reaction is sympathy and chagrin, so it is the function of some newspapers and media outlets to try to create a public reversal of emotions. Regardless of the nitty-gritty facts, it was important for the Post and others to present this man as the worst type of human being and suggest that those who were sad at his untimely demise should perhaps not feel so bad after all. It is a bad-news, subhuman approach. During such a reporting frenzy, the wildest contradictions are just fine and casually accepted by readers far and wide. In this instance, one moment Mr. Stark was a multimillionaire and in the next he was tens of millions of dollars in debt. In one sentence, he was a generous philanthropist and in the next, a loan shark, and it’s all OK.
As to why the websites and Internet outlets that many of us generally check for immediate updates on breaking news had to reproduce the offensive Post headline for everyone who did not see the actual paper or the Post website is something else that requires some introspection and explanation. You can rest assured that if this were a rape case and there were pictures of the victim on the front page, those images would not be offered up on those sites. So the issue is taste, sensitivity, and just plain sechel, all seriously missing in this instance.
It was Shabbos at about 7:00 p.m., Alex Wercberger says, when Nassau County detectives contacted their New York City counterparts to tell them that they had a body and to inquire whether they had any information on missing persons. It was unexpectedly rapid police work. Others from the community were involved in the overnight Friday-into-Saturday process that got things to happen in a respectful way, ending in a Saturday-night funeral in Williamsburg. Without the involvement of people like Alex and his colleagues, none of this could have happened as quickly as it did. He reached out immediately to Nassau County Acting Police Commissioner Vic Politi and requested that whatever processes needed to be performed be done quickly, in the interest of Jewish law and sensitivity to the survivors.
The request reached into County Executive Ed Mangano’s office through Dr. Jeffrey Stahl, and to the office of Chief Medical Examiner Tamara Bloom. The deceased was taken to the Nassau County Medical Center, where the local coroner’s office is located. Dr. Bloom and several associates arrived to perform a minimal but necessary pathology procedure to assist the investigation in determining the details of the victim’s death.
At about 11:30 on Shabbos morning, two of Mr. Stark’s brothers arrived at the coroner’s office to identify the body. According to those close to the case, the brothers were transported to Long Island by a non-Jewish driver and, later that day, the deceased was brought to Williamsburg, where the funeral took place that evening.
(The interfacing between the laws of Shabbos and those of caring for the deceased, with all their nuances in extenuating circumstances, are a complicated matter. Different communities apply more or less strict understandings of the laws. But that is not the focus of this essay.)
The circumstances that led up to the death of Mr. Stark are being investigated by police. Those details have no impact on the respect we are required to accord to him and are presently obligated to extend to his grieving family. It was and still is a shocking series of events, amplified by the fact that these types of events are virtually unheard of in our communities. But sometimes things from out there spill over and invade our usually insulated and protected communities. This was one of those sad and tragic instances. There is not much else to say except that the family should be comforted in their loss amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.