As Jews around the world sat down to their Purim seudah, Rabbi Shlomie Feldman’s mind wandered. He had started to hear talk of a serious virus coming out of China. Rabbi Feldman, the human resources director for Chesed Shel Emes (CSE) – a volunteer burial organization – immediately began thinking about how things might play out and contacted New York’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for guidance.
At the time, it didn’t have a lot of research or insight to act upon, but CSE made the decision to procure the highest-grade personal protective equipment (PPE) available – suitable for a biological attack – in order to be prepared for any possible scenario.
As Covid-19 cases began to increase in Brooklyn and beyond, Chesed Shel Emes’s hotline began to get much busier. Chesed Shel Emes director Rabbi Mendy Rosenberg was fielding calls from in and outside New York with cases of people dying with no family or needing assistance to disconnect deceased patients from hospital equipment. There was an influx of taharahs and a dearth of volunteers.
As the organization began to realize the magnitude of the disease, a plan of action was put into place. Since many CSE members are over 60, they couldn’t volunteer. Many younger members, however, were out of work and able to step in and contribute more hours than usual.
Some volunteers spent up to 12 consecutive hours wearing head-to-toe PPE, including a full body Tyvek suit. Chaim Shia Miller, one of CSE’s most seasoned volunteers, said when he finally finished his holy work, he was exhausted, dripping with sweat, but he felt an obligation to give people who passed away the respect they deserved.
As the disease spread, airlines and airports were brought to a standstill. Many of the deceased wanted to be buried in Israel, but there were no commercial flights available. Yanky Rosenberg, son of Rabbi Mendy Rosenberg, helped arrange for several private jets to bring bodies to Israel.
Since Chesed Shel Emes owns several cemeteries in upstate New York, the organization also offered to bury people’s loved ones “al tanai” (on condition). That means that when normal flights resume, the bodies can be transferred to Israel at a far more manageable cost. In just seven weeks, Chesed Shel Emes handled more than 60 of these cases.
Chesed Shel Emes operates cemeteries so that it can bury people with no financial means or family to pay for their funerals. To date, CSE has buried more than 3,500 such people.
As Covid-19 spread, many bereaved people called the organization begging for assistance. These included a woman with just a few hundred dollars to her name concerned about how she could afford to bury her husband and a 38-year-old widow who never imagined she would need to buy a burial plot for her young husband.
For Chesed Shel Emes, the word “no” does not exist. Over the last few months, its volunteers have buried more than 75 people in their cemeteries, completely for free.
“We needed our members more than ever now,” said Rabbi Mayer Berger, director of operations for the organization. “With so many of our members sidelined for health or age concerns, the volunteers we had were a constant source of inspiration for the families who lost loved ones, and for the entire community as well.”
Due to the rapid spread of the virus, the organization’s leadership decided to dispatch several volunteers to a few of the large funeral homes in Boro Park and Williamsburg to expedite taharahs and ensure burials could take place as quickly as possible, according to Jewish law.
To protect both patients and staff, many hospitals forbade visits from family and clergy. That meant when people succumbed to the virus, they were all alone; no one was there to say Vidui with them. Rabbi Berger came up with the idea of creating a hotline with a recording of a final thought in both English and Yiddish and Vidui so that a speakerphone could be placed near patients and they could follow along.
Rabbi Berger said he heard from people all over the world that they used the hotline and it brought great comfort to many families.
Chesed Shel Emes volunteers were graciously allowed to continue their work in a few hospitals, including Maimonides Medical Center, a major hospital in the heart of the Brooklyn Jewish community. CSE members Chaim Tuchinsky and Mordechai Meisels had been constant presences in the hospital long before the pandemic broke out, providing support, kosher food, and ensuring patients were as comfortable as possible.
Leveraging their already strong relationships within the hospital, they both spent countless hours helping the staff handle the deaths of Covid-19 patients according to halacha. Meisels said he would regularly receive a notification of a new case even before he had wrapped up the one he was working on.
He estimated that he and Tuchinsky took care of more than 90 percent of the “disconnects” of deceased patients in the hospital. (Halacha stipulates that a person be buried without any foreign objects in him, so all hospital tubes, etc. must be carefully taken out while the blood in them remains with the person to the extent possible.)
He also said that while the situation was bleak, he was uplifted by the kindness of others. Many nurses, doctors and other staff, he said, often stayed for hours after their shifts ended to provide any assistance they could. There was also a patient who – when learning that his roommate had passed away and had no family – volunteered to say Kaddish on his behalf for the year.
Chesed Shel Emes has been operating for more than 40 years and consists of over 400 volunteers based largely in the Tri-State area, but also Miami, Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Those volunteers have seen their share of tragic incidents, including murders and road accidents, but nothing has compared to what has taken place over the last few months. While many members and their families suffered from the complications and difficulties of coronavirus, others were able to support their colleagues by going above and beyond every imaginable expectation in order to give every single Jew the final respect they deserve.