Rabbi Mendy Rosenberg, a Viznitzer chassid, stands outside his Williamsburg tire shop in rain, sun, sleet and snow, repairing flat tires and replacing old worn ones. Located in an area that was once an industrial area, the shop seems to be out of place on an island sandwiched between towering new building complexes, part of Williamsburg’s building boom to accommodate the ever growing Chassidic population.
Although Mendy is the president of a privately run organization Chesed Shel Emes, (literally, true kindness, a kindness expressed with no idea or hope of any reciprocity) which he founded to ensure every Jewish person has a proper Jewish burial, you won’t see Mendy wearing a suit during the work day. More often, Rosenberg’s work clothes are blackened with tire grease and he is jostling back and forth between customers and answering the ringing phones in a small wooden booth in the tire shop.
Chesed Shel Emes began when Mendy, who regularly volunteers for chevra kadisha, repeatedly faced complex situations where there was no family to pay for proper burial according to Jewish law. In some cases it was an elderly person who was shomer shabbos their entire lives but now estranged from their assimilated or intermarried children, or someone without living relatives. Sometimes an estate executor wanted to choose the cheapest burial option, cremation, or sometimes the unfortunate lonely soul found his final place in Potter’s Field — the burial ground where unknown or indigent people are buried by the City of New York.
Mendy Rosenberg’s brother and business partner, Shulem Rosenberg says, “We have rescued numerous bodies from the city dump and reburied them in one of the plots we bought in a Jewish cemetery.” Another brother, Yitzchak Rosenberg who works at the tire shop too, says they just completed a purchase of a fourth cemetery for “meis mitzvah,” the term that refers to a deceased person with no family, thereupon falling to the Jewish community at large to assume responsibility for the requisite Jewish burial. To date the Rosenbergs have been responsible for burying close to eight hundred meis mitzvah.
Judaism has stringent laws regarding the handling of the deceased. The body is not to be left unguarded, autopsies are to be avoided or minimally invasive, and the deceased must be laid to rest quickly. Chesed Shel Emes ensures that orthodox Jewish standards aren’t compromised and do everything in their power so that every Jewish person will have a proper Jewish burial regardless of where they are located. Shulem explains, “Chesed Shel Emes is solely a volunteer operation, no one gets paid, there are no benefits, no tax deductions for the cars the volunteers regularly use, this is really about doing a chesed shel emes where there is no payback.”
They don’t run formal fundraisers but rather operate per diem, per case. Shulem explains, “When you have a ‘cassa,'[a fund] you suddenly have someone else telling you what to do, but we already know what needs to be done since we’ve been doing this for years.” The average price for a burial is thirty-one hundred dollars, which the Rosenbergs put together once a call for a “meis mitzvah” comes in. Often they send the body to Israel which incurs an additional expense. “When people call and say they want to give us a donation, we tell them to hold onto their money and we will call them back when we need it.” Mendy says, “The only donations we accept in advance are actual cemetery plots, even if it’s only one plot,” and explains that sometimes families buy a number of plots but, for whatever reason, don’t use them all.
Mendy also became accustomed to handling taharas of decomposing bodies that were discovered after a period of time has passed from event of death, or when seriously maimed in car accidents. In tragically unfortunate cases where the dead person suffered from a communicable disease like Hepatitis B or AIDS, many chevra kaddisha societies refuse to handle the tahara and Chesed Shel Emes is called. Shulem tells of “every now and then, an extended family member will walk in and ask about a particular case, want to know what the body looked like,” but absolute confidentiality and respect for the niftar (the deceased) reigns supreme including the identity of who performed the tahara, “I tell them, I don’t know, I wasn’t there.”
In a small no-frills office at the back of the tire shop, Shulem Rosenberg takes out the maps of the cemetery plots the organization has purchased. One is specifically designated “shomer shabbos.” Mendy walks into the office and asks Shulem if he saw the bikur cholim bill from the bakery and hands it to him. For in addition to kvuras (burials), they also fund the bikur cholim rooms at Lutheran Medical Center of Brooklyn, Long Island College Hospital, and in partnership with the Rivka Laufer Bikur Cholim the bikur cholim room at N.Y.U Medical Center in Manhattan.
Doing chesed, extending selfless good deeds to your fellow Jew seems to run in the Rosenberg brothers’ genes. They are descendants of the 18th century Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who was also known as the Kedushas Levi and is famed for always finding the good in every Jewish soul, no matter how distant they had fallen from religious practice and their identity as Jews. Their father, the esteemed Viznitzer chassid Yidel Aber Rosenberg has dedicated his life to funding Viznitzer mosdos and community projects. While not explicitly declared publicly, it is something they discuss privately among themselves; the Berditchiver model is one they feel obliged to live up to.
Mendy begins washing his hands with a grease solvent in preparation to go home and laughs as he tells the story of a woman who kept walking around the block looking for the Chesed Shel Emes office. Finally she stopped at the greasy tire shop and approached Mendy in the wooden booth surrounded by tires and nuts and bolts. She was bewildered that this was the addresss she had been given. Mendy asked her for all the necessary information and said, “Consider it done.” She asked, “But where is the president of the organization?” He assured her he would pass along the message and all would be taken care of. And so it was.
Mendy explains, “I do everything with my cell phone, I know who to call, we have over three hundred volunteers for taharos.” Indeed his business card lists his cell phone number as the Chesed Shel Emes contact number. Newspaper and television reporters began calling when Chesed Shel Emes expedited the release of slain Professor Liviu Librescu from the Virginia medical examiner’s office after the Virginia Tech massacre and immediately arranged that the body be guarded, there be no autopsy other than removing the bullets, and the niftar be immediately brought to New York where a tahara was performed before sending the body to Israel for burial.
But Mendy shies away from all publicity and says, “I don’t have time to deal with the media. I don’t need it, I don’t want pictures, I don’t want to be recognized and have reporters badgering me, I just send everyone to my spokesman Meyer Berger who’s good at talking to them.” His brother Shulem motions with his hand that it is alright to take photos while Mendy scribbles down Berger’s cell phone number on the back of his business card. His only interest in speaking with The Jewish Press is so that word spreads and Chesed Shel Emes will be called when there is a meis mitzvah, regardless of where the deceased is. They are connected to chevra kadishas throughout the world.
Meyer Berger, spokesman for Chesed Shel Emes, runs a sewer cleaning company and has an office in Boro Park. He is a chassid who wears traditional chassidic clothing to work, including knickers and black knee socks known as “shvartzeh zucken.” He shows the notepad he carries with him with work notes on the front side, and Chesed Shel Emes notes on the back of each page. “I feel,” Berger explains, “the importance of the services that Chesed Shel Emes provides. Whether or not it is a “meis mitzvah,” we have volunteers on call who go to hospitals and ensure the proper handling of the niftar without delay from the moment of their death. A Jewish body should be handled and guarded by a Jew immediately, the hospitals will often let us disconnect the tubes and I.V. lines when we explain this.” Berger will advise a family on the various burial options available to them and discourage cremation, “We only step in to cover burial costs when there are no family funds for burial.”
In the local New York City area Chesed Shel Emes has a network of volunteers for taharos and they are connected to chevra kaddishas throughout the world. Berger gives an example of a complex tahara case that Chesed Shel Emes volunteers were called on to perform, “There was a niftar who suffered from skin cancer and the entire body was full of tumors. Every time the chevra kaddisha washed one area, sores began oozing in another area and it was a very difficult situation.” Berger explains how they used certain substances to stop the oozing and had to cover the body with extra layers of tachrichim.
Chesed Shel Emes regularly deals with the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office, with the assistance of Rabbi Edgar Gluck. “We arrange there be no autopsy unless there was criminal activity, and they respect our religious requests such as keeping private body parts covered,” says Berger, “the medical examiners in the tri-state area usually call the Chesed Shel Emes office once they realize they are looking at a Jewish body.”
Recently, a volunteer was in the Kings County Medical Examiner’s Office and saw a body with a nametag Sara Hazan and immediately called Mendy. Berger says, “We soon realized that according to the identification number, there was a mix-up and this body should have been in the Queens County Medical Examiners office.” Eventually Chesed Shel Emes learned the meis was a Jewish woman who died in a nursing home (owned by a shomer shabbos Jew) three years earlier and had been a subject in medical school anatomy laboratories ever since. Berger pulls up a photo on his computer with this woman’s tombstone, “We laid her peacefully to rest.”
Rabbi Edgar Gluck, vice president of Chesed Shel Emes and chaplain for the NY Medical Examiner’s Office, is particularly effective when dealing with out of state medical examiners, some of whom operate differently than in New York. Berger tells a story of a tragic accident involving New York vacationers out west. Dental records were immediately flown in from New York to identify the bodies, but problems arose because the medical examiner in the small western town didn’t have the technical expertise to identify bodies utilizing dental records. The bodies would have to be transported three hundred miles away to another medical examiner who would conduct x-ray examinations; however, since it was the weekend, all offices were closed. “Since Jewish law dictates that we bury the body as soon as possible, parshas Ki Seitzei says it is forbidden to leave a meis overnight, we were very troubled when we were told that these bodies would only be released in several days,” says Berger.
Rabbi Gluck called on his personal friend, U.S. Senator John McCain, who was the neighboring state’s U.S. senator. While Arizona had the ability to identify bodies according to dental records, there was still a problem since dead bodies may not cross state lines before they are identified. McCain called his neighboring senator and the matter was immediately resolved, the bodies were released to the medical examiner in Arizona, identified, and then returned by private plane back to New York for burial the next day.
Each year Chesed Shel Emes makes a siyum mishnayos, as volunteers undertake to learn l’iluy nishmas a “meis mitzvah.” Shulem Rosenberg is humbled when he reflects on his communal work, “It’s a zchus, a real privilege, we just learned in Parshas Emor that even a kohen gadol is obligated to become tamei for a meis mitzvah.” Noting the similarities between the sewer cleaner and tire-repair men who immerse themselves in grimy work during the day but volunteer in the holiest work in their free time, Shulem Rosenberg says, “Laugh, but maybe this kind of work needs people who are ready to get their hands dirty, we aren’t college educated professionals working in fancy offices; When you have to salvage a decomposed body creeping with green worms, you don’t see lawyers showing up to clean up.”
The Chesed Shel Emes phone number is: (718)436-2121. The 24 hour hotline is: (917)559-8250.