‘The weather is holding out on us,” an older volunteer says as he sits down.
There are about 40 years between this gentleman and myself, but we’ve both come to volunteer at Dorot’s Cemetery Visits program.
Now in its 30th year, the program pairs dozens of volunteers with city seniors who would otherwise be unable to visit the graves of their loved ones. And it provides transportation, prayer pamphlets, bottled water, snacks, stones, umbrellas, tissues and a helpful hand to escort them on their journey.
Our orientation passes quickly with directions and insights shared by the program’s coordinator, as well as advice from longtime volunteers.
Soon I make my way to a sedan waiting at the corner of 85th Street and Amsterdam. Our driver’s name is Adeef, a Palestinian man from Ramallah, now living in New Jersey, with five children of his own. His parents had died years ago and the car service he worked for had teamed with Dorot for these visits, and he always looked forward to them.
First we pick up Rose, who lives on the West Side. She will be visiting the grave of her husband, a Holocaust survivor who spent the war years in Siberia, as well as her parents’ graves.
Tillie on the East Side is next.
“I’m 92 years strong,” is the first thing Tillie said as she enters the car.
“God bless you,” Adeef replies.
Tillie runs her own travel agency, lives by herself, doesn’t own a computer but visits Dorot often and learns regularly through a telephone chevruta (one-on-one study) program. She challenges her Orthodox learning partner on these calls about what olam ha-ba, the world to come, actually looks like. We engage in that very conversation now en route to Queens.
I escort Rose to her parents’ graves as Tillie waits in the air-conditioned car with Adeef. I notice Rose’s father’s name on his tombstone: “Avraham Yitschak ben Yosef.” Avraham Yitschak happens to be my name, and my grandfather’s name was Yosef. This is certainly not an anomaly for Jewish families, but it still surprises me to see part of my own name on a tombstone for the first time.
At Tillie’s parents’ grave, she immediately bends down to clean up the leaves and twigs that have grown wild, even though she has paid for “eternal care insurance.”
I join Tillie as she reaches down in the dirt and together we pull away the weeds.
“Adam y’sodo me’afar v’sofo l’afar — a human’s origin and end is dust,” reads our High Holy Days. Those words feel particularly poignant in these days before Rosh HaShanah.
We arrive at the second cemetery searching for Rose’s husband’s plot. I have specific directions but Rose insists on instructing Adeef where to go.
“I know where my husband is,” she tells Adeef. “I know it’s here,” she says determinedly to me as we search through a section.
“They moved things around!” she exclaims. “There used to be a tree here. I just know he’s here.”
How can I argue?
“Rose,” I say, “we’ll come back here if we can’t find it in the next plot, alright? I promise.”
We make our way to the car and sure enough, at the section listed on Dorot’s sheet, is the tree Rose remembered, along with her husband’s plot. She cries when she arrives.
“You think they know I’m here?” Rose asks. “I don’t think so.”
We walk together in silence.
“You know you’re here.”
Rose takes my hand. “That’s true,” she says and returns to the car.
Once back in the car, it’s time to return to Manhattan. I pour water for all present and offer some to Adeef.
“No, thank you, I’m fasting,” Adeef says.
“Ah,” I remember, “Ramadan kar,” I say, wishing him a happy holiday.
We cross the Queensborough Bridge, enjoying each other’s company, asking questions about each other’s synagogues and mosque, learning about Rose’s granddaughter in college and Tillie’s Israeli grandchildren who she plans to visit soon.
After dropping Rose and Tillie back at their apartments, Adeef drives me to Dorot.
“May God bless our people with peace,” I say to him.
“I hope it, I hope it.” Adeef says. “Thank you for today,” he adds, clasping my hands together.
I enter Dorot’s building, grateful for my whirlwind New York adventure and thankful to Dorot for helping unite generations and faiths on a cool summer day.
Avram Mlotek is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He is a rabbinic intern at Hunter College Hillel and at the Carlebach Shul.