38 Matzeivos Erected
On Thursday, November 29, emotions ran high among the dozens of men present in the Jewish cemetery in Liberty, New York. Chesed shel Emes, the organization dedicated to proper burial of Jews, erected thirty-eight matzeivos (tombstones) for those recently buried in its cemetery. This followed, by just a few days, the burial of tens of thousands of sefarim damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Estimates are that more than eighty tons of damaged sefarimwere buried.
Chesed shel Emes strives to provide every Jew with a proper burial. Sadly, a Jew might be neglected because he or she had no family or friends and burial would therefore be left to a secular governmental agency, with internment in a public potters field. This is known in halacha 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). The burial of a meis mitzvah is considered the supreme mitzvah of gemilas chassadim (acts of loving kindness).
In May 2011, Chesed shel Emes buried the 100th meis mitzvah since its acquisition of the cemetery field. The organization has dedicated Tisha B’Av as the day in which matzeivos are erected for all the meis mitzvah buried in the preceding year. However, the number of meis mitzvah buried to date this year exceeds the capacity of matzeivos that could be erected on one day. The administrators, recognizing the increase of the meis mitzvah buried since Tisha B’Av, decided that matzeivos should be erected as soon as possible.
Chesed shel Emes maintains the Jewish cemetery in Liberty for meis mitzvah. In addition to the matzeivos, a damaged sefer Torah from a Williamsburg shul, rendered irreparable by flooding from Hurricane Sandy, was buried.
The event was simultaneously sad and happy. Sad because thirty-eight Jews had died without anyone to attend to their burial; happy because those thirty-eight Jews were buried in full accordance with Jewish law, tradition, and sensitivity. Though the cemetery was acquired recently, the Chesed shel Emes organization is more than 26 years old and has hundreds of chassidishe members, men and women, who actively serve in its chevra kadisha.
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. Sadly, the year-round observant community of Swan Lake faded away and years passed without any activity in the cemetery.
In 2007, when empty burial plots in the other five cemeteries owned by Chesed shel Emes were decreasing in number, the organization acquired the Liberty cemetery. On Wednesday, August 22, 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 anon-denominational venue. After much effort, no autopsy was performed and the deceased was brought to rest in Chesed shel Emes’s new Jewish cemetery. In the past five years, 138 lost souls were united with other Jews in eternal rest in Liberty.
On Pesach 2011, Chesed shel Emes received a call from a secular nursing home regarding Gitel bas Yaakov a”h, a Jewish patient who died without any relatives. Chesed shel Emes was allowed to provide Jewish burial (the nursing home otherwise would have contributed the body for medical research). She was the 100th meis mitzvah to be buried. Thirty-eight others have been brought to eternal rest in Liberty since then. At the same time, several other meis mitzvah were buried in the organization’s five other cemeteries.
In addition to burial, Chesed shel Emes saves Jews from cremation and arranges for a monument to be fully inscribed and placed on the gravesite. Further, the organization has Mishnah study groups that dedicate their learning to each meis mitzvah for the first year as well as for each subsequent yahrzeit.