By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
On Sunday, August 18, hundreds of men assembled on a field of 19 acres in Woodridge, in the Catskills. The village was formerly called Centreville, a midway station on the old New York, Ontario, and Western Railway. Located in the Catskills “Borscht Belt” resort area, at its peak it was home to numerous summer hotels, bungalow colonies, and boarding houses.
During the 1950s, when the Catskills were the destination of Jewish vacationers, Woodridge had a bank, a liquor store, a fish market, a steam laundry, a mattress manufacturer, a shoe store, a movie theater, two taxi services, two dry cleaners, two dental offices, two drug stores, two medical doctor’s offices, two bus lines, two barber shops, three automobile dealerships, three butcher shops, three produce markets, three clothing stores, three hardware stores, three lumber yards, four luncheonettes, five automobile repair shops, five groceries, and six gas stations. In addition, there were numerous tradesmen and professionals, including architects, auto body repair, chicken dealers, CPAs, electricians, flooring contractors, lawyers, masons, carpenters, painters, plumber, and sign painters.
Woodridge today is a rural village with a population of less than 1,000. A small percentage of the year-round population is Orthodox Jewish, and they maintain three active shuls: the Ohave Shalom Synagogue, a beautiful shul listed on the National Register of Historic Places; K’hal Yere’im of Woodridge, a Chassidishe kehillah led by Rabbi Yitzchok Lebowitz; and Beis Medrash Abraham Chaim, a Chassidishe shtiebel led by Rabbi Yisroel Aron Goldenberg. In the summer of 2010, an eiruv was erected in Woodridge by Rabbi Yechiel Steinmetz, Vishnitzer Dayan of Monsey. The eiruv functioned only for that summer.
The hundreds of men were in Woodbridge that day to dedicate a new cemetery. The ceremony was conducted by the Chesed Shel Emes organization, led by Rabbi Mendel Rosenberg. The Woodridge cemetery is the seventh location where Chesed Shel Emes can now provide burial for special situations. Chesed Shel Emes strives to provide every Jew with a proper burial. Sadly, a Jew might be neglected because he or she had no surviving family or friends, and burial would be left to a secular governmental agency with interment in a public potter’s field. This is known in halachah as a meis mitzvah, to which Jewish tradition is enormously sensitive. The Torah directs anyone, even a Kohen Gadol on his way to the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, who finds a deceased Jew without any attendants to stop and bury the deceased (Nazir 47a). A Kohen Gadol is otherwise never allowed to touch or come near a cadaver. The burial of a meis mitzvah is considered the supreme mitzvah of gemilus chassadim (acts of loving-kindness).
On that day in Woodridge, the men, having fasted, conducted the first five hakafos (ritual encirclements while Tehillim is recited) around the cemetery, led by Rabbi Moshe Menachem Weiss, Boro Park Pupa Dayan. The official dayanim of the cemetery and of Chesed Shel Emes are Rabbi Shraga Feivish Hager, Kosover Rebbe, and Rabbi Yechiel Steinmetz, Vishnitzer Dayan of Monsey. Cemetery dedication customs have the official dayanim come onto the cemetery only after formal investiture of holiness, never during the ceremony itself. The sixth hakafah was led by Rabbi Eliezer Hager, Jerusalem Vishnitzer Dayan and son of the Vishnitzer Rebbe of Monsey. The seventh and final hakafah was led by Rabbi Yitzchok Lebowitz, rav of Woodridge.
At the conclusion of a hakafah, each rav faced the assembled and soberly commented on the timeless importance of what they were accomplishing together. When the somber hakafos were finalized, Rabbi Steinmetz joined the assembled in a l’chayim tisch in which all the participants joyously broke their fast.
The seventh Chesed Shel Emes cemetery is in addition to four other locations on Long Island, one in New Jersey, and another one in Liberty. As in Liberty, the Woodridge property allows Chesed Shel Emes to conduct burials 24/6, unencumbered by unions and other labor restrictions, holiday limitations, or bureaucracies. The Jewish cemetery in Liberty dates back to the early 1900s, when the nearby synagogue of Swan Lake boasted a year-round observant community. The congregation established the cemetery to serve its then-vibrant membership. But the year-round observant community of Swan Lake faded away; years passed without any activity in the cemetery. That is, until it was acquired by Chesed Shel Emes.
Within a week of assuming administration of the Liberty cemetery, Chesed Shel Emes was called to a nearby Liberty apartment where a longtime elderly resident was found to have expired unattended. The deceased, who had no family, had died several days earlier. Chesed Shel Emes negotiated extensively with local governmental agencies that sought to perform an autopsy and to have interment in a non-denominational venue. After much effort, no autopsy was performed and the deceased was brought to rest in Chesed Shel Emes’s then new Jewish cemetery. The Liberty cemetery is now full, Chesed Shel Emes having used every grave for a meis mitzvah.
They receive calls from all over the United Stated and abroad in regard to Jews who are in terminal phases of dreaded diseases. The calls are about Jews who may have no religious affiliation or are simply indigent and are without resources to have a Jewish funeral or Jewish burial. Often cremation, prohibited by halachah, had been chosen. Other times, no one claims a body, and somehow, possibly by Divine intervention, their predicament arrives at the doorstep of Chesed Shel Emes, which immediately springs into action to give the deceased final Jewish honors.
As its reputation continues to spread, the call volume in the office of Chesed Shel Emes continues to grow. New volunteer members are constantly being trained in this holy work. Hundreds of men and hundreds of women are actively involved, on a totally voluntary basis, in preparing Jewish deceased for proper burial. They travel to every imaginable city and neighborhood, regardless of the time of day or night, cost, or inclement weather.
In addition to providing time-honored ritual burial services, Chesed Shel Emes endeavors that Jews in their last moments of life should be surrounded by a minyan; fights to save Jews from cremation; and arranges for a monument to be inscribed and placed upon the gravesite. Further, the organization has Mishnah study groups that dedicate their studies to each meis mitzvah for the first year as well as for every subsequent yahrzeit. Chesed Shel Emes provides loving-kindness for the living as well. Bikur Cholim Yad Yaakov, under the auspices of Chesed Shel Emes, maintains fully stocked bikur cholim rooms in several New York City hospitals and has earned the profound gratitude of countless patients and their families. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.