Some 400 family, friends and fellow congregants gathered at Lincoln Square Synagogue on a recent Sunday afternoon to memorialize a 47-year-old woman whose mysterious death on New Years’ Eve 13 months ago attracted tabloid headlines at the time, and again several months later when it was determined she had been murdered.
But it was the life of Shele Danishefsky Covlin that was the focus of the service at the Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side, where she was remembered for her warm, vibrant and compassionate personality and strong commitment to Jewish life.
One of the rabbis who spoke recalled that Danishefsky Covlin told the executive director of the synagogue at a Lincoln Square Chanukah dinner several years ago that if anyone ever expressed an interest in attending such events in the future but didn’t have the money, he should let her know and she would pay for it quietly.
A member of the board of the synagogue, she attended services regularly on Shabbat, often with her daughter, 9, and son, 4.
In addition to the air of sadness in the room during the service, there was a strong sense that the police investigation into her death would implicate her estranged husband, Rod, 36.
“May God avenge her blood,” asserted one of several rabbis who spoke, referring to the children as “orphans.” These were the most direct references to the tragedy that began when Danishefsky Covlin’s daughter found her mother’s body in the bathtub of their apartment, across from Lincoln Square, the night of Dec. 31, 2009.
Authorities initially suspected that Danishefsky Covlin, who was in good health, had hit her head and drowned accidentally. No autopsy was performed because she and her family were Orthodox.
But the fact that she was going through a bitter divorce proceedings and had allegedly expressed concern about being attacked by Covlin were among the factors that led authorities to exhume the body several months later, a highly unusual practice, at the urging of her family.
It was determined in April that Danishefsky Covlin was strangled. Covlin, though not charged, has been cited as a “person of interest” to the police.
According to newspaper reports, Danishefsky Covlin, a successful money manager, had an appointment to meet with her attorney the first week of January 2010 to have Covlin removed from her will.
Adding to the tragic circumstances, Covlin, who as the surviving parent has custody of the two children, along with his parents, has not allowed the youngsters to have contact with their maternal grandparents, or other relatives and friends, according to several people close to the situation who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivities involved.
A custody hearing is said to be planned for early February as members of Danishefsky Covlin’s family are contesting the current arrangement.
Covlin, who no longer practices Orthodoxy, according to synagogue sources, removed the two children from the Manhattan Day School, an Orthodox yeshiva, just before school opened last fall. They now attend a public school in Westchester near their father and grandparents.
“Shele would be devastated,” said someone who had been close to her. “She came from a very traditional family and wanted her kids at MDS, and to live Orthodox lives.”
“There is a very real sense of injustice in this community,” one Lincoln Square congregant said. “How long can this go on?”
At the conclusion of the recent service at Lincoln Square, family members announced the launching of a memorial fund that will recommend grants be made to Lincoln Square and the community of the Nikolsburg Rebbe.
Relatives have expressed interest in naming a portion of the new Lincoln Square Synagogue for Danishefsky Covlin.
The synagogue, whose new three-story building on Amsterdam Avenue and 69th Street has been delayed by financial problems, was rescued from a serious crisis last November when an anonymous donor offered to contribute $20 million for the completion of the construction, provided the congregants raise the additional $3 million necessary.
About half of those funds have been raised, according to Rabbi Shaul Robinson, who expressed confidence that the balance would come in before the April 30 deadline set by the donor.
The rabbi said the Danishefsky family’s initiative for a significant contribution “came from them entirely” and that they had approached him a number of months ago. “They want to help us, and they want to keep Shele’s name alive,” he said.