Liviu Librescu, a secular Jew in rural Virginia, received a hero’s welcome — and an Orthodox funeral service — in Brooklyn last week because of the kindness of strangers in Borough Park’s haredi community.
On Monday morning, April 16, the professor of engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg was shot to death during the murder spree of Cho Seung-Hui that took 32 other lives. By Wednesday morning the professor’s body, the first of the victims to be released by the state’s medical examiner, was in a funeral parlor in the Brooklyn neighborhood, on its way to Israel where Librescu had a traditional Jewish burial.
For Chesed Shel Emes, the Borough Park-based burial society that coordinated all the aspects of the Romanian-born hero’s final journey — his examination by Virginia’s medical examiner without an autopsy, his watching after death by a shomer guardian, his tahara ritual washing according to Jewish law, his transportation to Brooklyn and to JFK Airport, and the brief funeral service — it was all in a day’s work, says Rabbi Mayer Berger, a spokesman for the volunteer organization.
“We have stories like this almost daily,” he says. Most of the men and women for whom Chesed Shel Emes performs its sacred duties are indigent, anonymous, often without family. Librescu, who became a national figure overnight because of his bravery at the door of his classroom, “was the most famous person” helped by the organization.
Chesed Shel Emes (the name is Hebrew for true kindness, acts for which repayment or thanks are not possible), a 25-year-old, independent organization that has increased its level of activity in the last decade, worked with a pair of representatives in Virginia of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement to help arrange for the final speedy and kosher treatment of the professor’s body.
Early Tuesday morning, the day after the murder spree, Rabbi Shlomo Mayer, Chabad emissary at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, two hours from Virginia Tech, received a call from a Chabad rabbi in Israel, a friend of Librescu’s son, Arie. Arie Librescu was about to set out for the United States to deal with the medical examiner in Virginia and accompany his father’s body back to Ra’anana, in Israel, where the professor had lived after he was able to leave Romania in 1978.
“I was the closest rabbi to Virginia Tech,” Rabbi Mayer says.
He, a Romanian native, and Rabbi Yossel Kranz, director of Chabad of the Virginias, convinced Arie Librescu to stay in Israel; they would take care of the arrangements.
They drove together that morning to the medical examiner’s office in Roanoke. Neither knew or previously knew of the professor. The entire Jewish community of Virginia and West Virginia “is my mandate,” Rabbi Kranz says. “At a time like this, it’s very difficult for the family to stay on top of the many details that are involved.”
By the time they reached the Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office, Chesed Shel Emes Vice President Rabbi Edgar Gluck, with the help of the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office, had explained by telephone the Jewish prohibition against performing an autopsy on a Jewish person and the Jewish tradition of performing a burial the day of death — or in the case of Librescu, who would require transportation back to Israel, as soon as possible.
The Virginia agency expedited the examination of the professor’s body by X-ray and a minimally invasive removal of the bullets, says Rabbi Mayer, who with Rabbi Kranz watched the procedures and served as shomrim, reciting the traditional Psalms.
“Everyone was very nice,” Rabbi Mayer says of the Virginia employees, most of whom had not previously dealt with such details of Jewish law.
Rabbi Mayer called Marlena Librescu, the professor’s widow, to comfort her in Romanian and assure her that her husband’s body was being treated in accordance with Jewish tradition. He and Rabbi Kranz spent the rest of the day meeting Mrs. Librescu at her home, attending a Jewish community center memorial service, counseling Virginia Tech students and using political connections to facilitate the early release of Librescu’s body, and arranging for a Conservative rabbi from Roanoke to serve as a shomer near Librescu’s body in their stead.
By the time they returned late that night to their homes, the medical examiner had released Librescu’s body to Rabbi Isaac Lieder, a chaplain from upstate Rockland County who works with Chesed Shel Emes and the Israeli-based ZAKA organization. He and Moshe Silver, his assistant, had driven to Virginia earlier that day in Rabbi Lieder’s SUV.
They drove north through the night, with a police escort through Virginia, reaching Brooklyn by early morning. At the Shomrei Hachomos funeral chapel in Borough Park, Chesed Shel Emes volunteers would perform a tahara, wrap Librescu’s body in linen shrouds, and arrange for a funeral service.
A tahara, performed in silence except for a blessing that the deceased should go in peace on his or her final journey, is always done for traditional Jews. Using special cups of water, they wash the entire body, removing blood and other physical stains and cleansing it spiritually.
The deceased “should go up [to heaven] as clean as he came down,” Rabbi Berger says.
State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the largely Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood, received word of the upcoming funeral service for Librescu early Wednesday in Albany. He returned immediately to Brooklyn, and instructed his office to make sure that mourners from the area would be in the chapel. Hikind didn’t know the professor. The assemblyman came, he says, because Librescu was a Jew, because the professor had died as a hero. “This hero was coming to our community.
“The family had no one” in New York, Hikind says. A representative from the Israeli Consulate accompanied Mrs. Librescu to the funeral service. A capacity group of 350 people was in the chapel. Among them were students from the Ramaz day school in Manhattan and from the Yeshivah of Flatbush, and chasidim from Brooklyn.
None of then knew Librescu, who had no known connection to New York’s Orthodox community. Many of the mourners were, like the professor, Holocaust survivors, or came from survivor families. “People left their work” on short notice. “They wanted to show respect,” Hikind says. At the service, the strangers hugged Mrs. Librescu. They talked to her in English, in Hebrew, in Romanian. “All the people treated her as if she was their relative. I think she was totally stunned.
“I have never seen my community so moved,” says Hikind, who gave the eulogy for Librescu in the 15-minute service. Members of the community carried the plain, wide coffin, draped in black cloth, to the SUV for the ride to JFK Airport.
Rabbi Motti Seligson, a Chabad emissary based in Crown Heights, accompanied Mrs. Librescu on the flight back to Israel. Rabbi Lieder says he and Silver stayed with Librescu’s coffin “until it was transferred to the plane.”
Back in Israel, Mrs. Librescu called Rabbi Mayer, just to say thank you.
As usual, neither Chesed Shel Emes nor the funeral chapel charged for its work.
But, says Rabbi Berger, anonymous members of the Borough Park Orthodox community reimbursed Shomrei Hachomos for its expenses. “Total strangers took care of it.”