Rabbi Nir Donenfeld, the Chabad shliach to Cebu, Philippines was preparing for the festival of Purim, which was a well-planned and important day in his calendar.
In the midst of the preparations the phone rang.
“Rabbi, my husband Paul! He’s dead,” Mrs. Peskin, the widow exclaimed. She explained to Rabbi Donenfeld that her husband had died from a complication following heart surgery, and as she couldn’t afford a burial she was going to cremate him. Cremation is strictly forbidden by Jewish law.
As Rabbi Donenfeld listened to Mrs. Peskin, he learned that Mr. Peskin died in a hospital in Guam, an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which was 1,500 miles away from his Philippines home.
The rabbi knew that the only Jewish cemetery in the entire vicinity was full and could not take another funeral. He realized that at some time they would have to find alternative arrangements for funerals, but so far no alternative had been found.
He contacted a philanthropist friend in Hawaii who was dedicated to ensuring that every Jew receive a proper Jewish burial. The rabbi explained the situation and said that they needed to stop the cremation.
They contacted Rabbi Shlomo Feldman, a New York coordinator for Chesed Shel Emes (a Jewish burial organization). Now it was 1 a.m. in New York but they couldn’t afford to wait until the next day, as there was a lot of bureaucracy to get through.
Rabbi Feldman contacted Benjy Spiro, a veteran member of Chesed Shel Emes and up and coming askan in Los Angeles, as it was earlier in the night in LA and closer to Guam.
Their aim was to bury the deceased as soon as possible in accordance with Jewish custom.
However, Cebu does not have the Jewish or even general support that most developed countries are blessed with.
The Philippines are made up of over 7,000 islands and the widow and the rabbi lived on different islands. Both islands had poor internet and phone connections, making communication exceptionally difficult. After a discussion, they decided to have Mr. Peskin flown to New York. Once in New York, Chesed Shel Emes volunteers could receive him, give him a tahara followed by a proper halachic burial, in a Jewish cemetery located in Woodridge, NY, which was owned by Chesed Shel Emes for the specific purpose of burying meisi mitzva (Jews who have no one to take care of their burial).
A WhatsApp group was developed between all those involved, on which they shared all the paperwork, as well as information about state, federal, and international laws on the transportation of human remains, so that the body could be prepared in accordance with halacha and international law.
After several sleepless days, the team had been able to speak with the Guamanian and United States funeral homes, the airline, and the widow. This was no easy feat and involved catching people in various times zones, including a notary who visited Cebu only once a week.
Rabbi Dovid Heber of the Star-K, a notable expert on the halachos concerning the International Date Line was consulted to clarify the halachic issues concerning flying across the International Date Line, and when would be acceptable days to fly based on the Chazon Ish’s ruling.
Mr. Peskin’s body was released and sent on its long journey from Guam, to Tokyo, and connected to a flight to New York. The body was brought to Yereim Chapel in Brooklyn, NY, where a tahara was performed. When the chapel attendants opened up the coffin, they were amazed to find that the Guamanian funeral home had sent Mr. Peskin’s talit, a yad (a pointer for reading from a Sefer Torah), and his tefillin (a Rashi and Rabeinu Tam). Only a person who is especially particular about the mitzvah would use two sets.
Obviously Mr. Peskin had been more observant than they had been given to understand, but many things about this story remain a mystery.
A few hours later, approximately 150 people, who had never known Mr. Peskin, attended the funeral which took place at a Satmar shul in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, and Mr. Peskin was buried at the meis mitzva cemetery in Woodridge.
Thanks to the coordinated efforts of many dedicated volunteers working night and day. Jewish burial was given to a man who died penniless, over 8,000 miles from New York.Ann Goldberg