No one gets out of here alive. The only question is “who by fire, who by water,” say the services on the Days of Awe:
who at his or her time, who ahead of their time and who at 9:30 on a hot August night by a bullet fired in a liquor store hold-up, which is what happened to Yosef (Chester) Robinson, 34, the black hip-hop producer turned Orthodox black-hatter, who worked at the Nostrand Avenue store.
God decides who departs for the Other World, but pious Jews decide that no one departs alone. Even if you died a pauper, or without family, or so abandoned and anonymous that your “remains” would be sent to Potter’s Field, there are Jews among us who have made it their voluntary business to be an honor guard for the departed, to ensure a proper Jewish funeral, so that no soul is lonely, if only for those final moments above ground.
These volunteers whisper Psalms outside the refrigerators in funeral homes; they attend burials in the quiet of Staten Island’s Hebrew Free Burial graveyard; they took a plane from New York to Spanish Town, Jamaica, where Robinson’s body was lowered in the ground.
It was Chesed Shel Emes, a burial society founded by Mendy Rosenberg, a Vizhnitzer chasid who runs a Williamsburg tire garage, that took care of the burial arrangements. A member of the group told Zev Brenner, on his Saturday night WMCA radio show, that Chesed Shel Emes put out the word that they wanted to pay for the flight carrying Robinson and a minyan to escort him, and within minutes raised $5,000 for the burial of the black Jew whose fate broke the community’s heart.
Robinson “wasn’t even in the community that long,” said Brenner by telephone. “I stand in awe of the Chesed Shel Emes, their outpouring of love.”
Robinson’s family wanted the burial to be in Jamaica. Rabbi Kenneth Auman, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Flatbush, was in that minyan flying to Jamaica, fasting as if it was Yom Kippur in preparation for creating — somehow — a Jewish cemetery in Spanish Town.
Rabbi Auman tells us he never had to create a Jewish cemetery before, and discovered that the guidelines were vague, more in the realm of tradition than law. In Jamaica, Rabbi Auman and the New Yorkers conferred with Robinson’s Christian family who gave their “respectful consent,” said the rabbi, to Robinson’s wishes for an Orthodox burial.
The minyan placed cinder blocks around Robinson’s grave, creating a symbolic Jewish “cemetery” for the solitary plot, the cinder blocks fencing it off from the surrounding Christian graves. Under a blistering Jamaican sun, the perspiring minyan, still fasting, many in suits and hats and ties, pledged charity, and circled the grave seven times. Like a bride circling a beloved at a wedding, they sanctified the plot as forever a piece of Israel.
The family and the minyan shared the shovels, burying Robinson together.
Some in the minyan knew Robinson, others did not know him or did not know him well, but what they knew was this: He was a Jew, and this is what Jews do; they don’t let a Jew leave this world alone.
On March 26, Tibor Szekely, 53, a Hungarian immigrant, died alone in his Queens apartment. So alone, by the time all the legalities and technicalities were sorted out his funeral couldn’t be scheduled until two weeks later, April 11, coincidentally Yom HaShoah, somehow fitting for this son of long-departed Holocaust survivors. The Hebrew Free Burial Society claimed Szekely’s body, preparing him for burial in their Staten Island cemetery, Mount Richmond, a burial to be attended by no one but the society’s chaplain, Rabbi Shmuel Plafker, or so Rabbi Plafker thought.
Dr. Michael Heller, the supervisor at the lab where Szekely worked, learned that the burial would be on Staten Island, where Heller is a member of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue. Heller notified his shul. E-mails were circulated and two days later there was a small crowd at the cemetery, Szekeley’s co-workers along with the Staten Island Jews who carried the aron — the Hebrew word for casket, also the word for the Torah’s ark.
Most of those at the graveside never heard of Tibor Szekely until that weekend. They came because that’s what Jews do, those Jews who love another Jew, even sight unseen.
Amy Koplow, executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Society, says that prior to Szekely’s funeral “we had very little involvement with the Staten Island Jewish community. But as a result of Tibor’s funeral, volunteers have committed themselves to continue making sure that there be a minyan present” for every funeral that would otherwise be attended by no one but the rabbi.
“This is true chesed shel emes,” she added, using the Hebrew phrase meaning a holy grace, or a “kindness of (or for) truth,” truth being a euphemism for death. It was the same phrase that gave its name to the Brooklyn society that cared for Robinson. It is the ultimate kindness, she explained, because the deceased are no longer in the world of speech and can’t say thank you.
The original group, says Koplow, expanded from the Conservative synagogue and is now joined by volunteers from the Young Israel of Staten Island, an Orthodox shul, along with some Reform Jews, as well.
“There are now people who show up,” said one participant, “I have no idea what shul they belong to.”
Manny Saks, a congregant at Congregation B’nai Israel, said, “This is the greatest mitzvah that someone can do, and we do it rain, shine or snow.”
The other week, he said, rain was forecast for a funeral. “I teach sailing out by Flushing Meadows,” said Saks. “I said to one of the guys, ‘It’s not going to rain. I’m a sailor. I know.’ Sure enough, as we were lowering the body, the rain was pouring! We were covered with mud.” A Vietnam veteran, he spoke of the rain and mud with a smile, a battle story from a band of brothers.
“We even had some funerals for veterans here,” said Saks, “with an honor guard playing taps.”
“We get calls out of the blue,” he said, “plans get changed, it’s not always convenient, but by the time you leave the cemetery, you feel the aura of God running through your body. With every burial, there’s an enormous sense of holiness, like standing at Sinai, hearing the thunder.”
In the Young Israel of Flatbush, “Kaddish will be recited for Yosef Yehuda Ben-Avraham,” said Rabbi Auman, invoking Robinson’s Hebrew name. Returning from Jamaica, the rabbi, in mourning, lit a candle.
It’s what you do for family.