An excerpt from Rochel Berman's book from Urim Publications:
DIGNITY BEYOND DEATH: THE JEWISH PREPARATION FOR BURIAL,
DIGNITY IN THE WAKE OF TERRORISM
For Israelis and Americans, [terrorism] is the challenge of our time: reconciling fortitude with sensitivity.
Michael B. Oren (1)
Chevra Challenges Following Terrorist Attacks in Israel
Random and repeated acts of terror in Israel are an attempt to rob the Jewish people of their identity. Each terrorist attack on innocent civilians leaves in its wake blood, human flesh, and an array of body parts that often cannot be identified. The randomness of the victims, in fact, says that their identity is unimportant -any Jew will do.
Communal disaster transforms the Chevra Kadisha from an external agency into an integral part of the communal devastation. When life is filled with the constant fear of death, the line between victim and survivor becomes blurred. Chevra members, who are customarily providers can, in an instant, become recipients of service in precarious situations such as these. This is true in terrorist attacks as it was in the Holocaust, that greatest of all terrorist acts. Following a recent bombing in Israel, a mobile crime scene investigator said, "The victims of these terrorist attacks are absolutely innocent. They are our neighbors, our friends, our family, and they could even be our wives and children." (2) There is the constant fear that an investigator ”might come across the charred body of a friend or member of their own family, or set eyes on the head of a child that looks like their own." (3)
Within Judaism there are specific laws regarding the murder of Jews whose lives were taken by non-Jews expressly because they are Jews. The Code of Jewish Law states, "One who was assassinated by a non-Jew, although he did not bleed at all, should, nevertheless, be buried in the clothes which he wore at the time as a demonstration of wrath"(4). Rabbi Nossen Friedman of the Chevra Kadisha and Bikur Cholim of Boro Park interprets this as follows, "Any Jew who was murdered because he is a Jew, goes up to the Heavenly Court the exact way he was killed in order to make a statement about the sacrifice he/she has made in God's name ---Those that died dressed in the bloody garments of a soldier or a terrorist victim, died al kiddush hashem, to sanctify God's name, which constitutes man's ultimate purpose. This is viewed as a badge of honor."
President Abraham Lincoln struggled with this very issue. In the Gettysburg Address he speaks of the futility of attempting to sanctify a place where so many had died for their beliefs:
We can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow -this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here...(5)
Among the first-line responders to terrorist attacks in Israel are members of ZAKA (6) an organization established in 1989 to identify disaster and terrorist victims. Once the wounded have been evacuated, their mission is to treat human remains with utmost respect in accordance with Jewish law. They prepare the deceased for burial, assist in identifying the bodies and inform the next of kin. Motti, a member of the Chevra Kadisha of ZAKA, talks about the challenges he faces:
We collect every drop of blood and the smallest piece of a body. Every time a blood vessel bursts there is a cascade of blood. We have special materials that help us absorb this blood for burial.
If we know for certain to whom the blood and the body parts belong, we put them all together in a plastic bag for burial. When there is blood commingled from a number of deceased victims, then it is buried in one of the existing graves or in a separate grave called kever achim, the 'grave of our brothers'. A tahara is not performed on any person who is slaughtered because he/she is a Jew. Those who lose their lives in terrorist attacks and Israeli soldiers who die in combat are buried with their blood and their blood stained clothes.
I have been a member of the Chevra Kadisha for sixteen years. I have dealt with too many terrorist attacks. One is even too many. I once buried a father with two sons. They were wrapped separately, but the funeral was held at one time. I also buried a couple with three children. I identified their bodies because they were my friends. I knew the family very well.
It is also my job to inform families about the death of their loved ones. When you arrive, the family might be eating or watching television. They might be laughing. Then, in an instant, the devastating news destroys a whole family. Often the shock is so great that the family does not believe what happened unless they view the body for themselves. According to tradition, we allow them to do it because just as we believe in koved hameit, respect for the dead, we also believe in kavod ha’chaim, respect for the living.
This is confirmed by Israel’s National Center of Forensic Medicine, where all the dead are brought following a terrorist incident. To accommodate families a center has been built next to the morgue. Requests to view bodies or remains used to be rejected, but psychologists recommended otherwise. Dr. Yehuda Hiss, the pathologist at the Center says, "The families want to touch the body one last time to prepare for separation. If they don't see them, it is like a virtual death. They are right to ask for this." (7) Dr. Hiss goes on to explain that sometimes all that remains is a foot, yet they will want to touch or hug it because it is the only concrete connection with their loved one.
Terrorist attacks impede the biblical imperative to bury the dead quickly. It is enormously time consuming to connect the pieces of the puzzle represented by blood samples, body parts, hair samples etc. "The work of typing blood, winnowing out extraneous microscopic evidence, and connecting disparate leads is so tedious and time-consuming that an investigation of a suicide bombing can take months to close - if ever'' (8)
Despite the many hardships and frustrations, ZAKA volunteers continue their work with fervor and dedication because without them there would be far less individuality and dignity for the victims of senseless mass murder. Their experiences are so traumatic that they often seek counseling in order to put what they have witnessed into perspective, Matis, an Israeli who travels between Israel and the United States, explains how he became involved with ZAKA:
As I stopped for a traffic light in Jerusalem I noticed a bus just ahead of me. A terrorist appeared from behind the bus and began shooting people in the bus. Even though I was not trained, I got out of my car and began taking out the injured.
One of the injured I took out was a twelve year-old girl who died in my arms. A ZAKA volunteer came up to me and told me that every drop of blood that came out of her body had to be retrieved and buried with her. My clothes were full of blood and there was blood on the pavement. The girl was taken to the identification center and then to the funeral home for burial. I had to go home to change my clothes and to surrender the blood stained garments to the funeral home for burial with the child.
Since I got involved, I felt obligated to be present when the family was notified so I could tell them how it happened. I accompanied two other volunteers to the house. When we got there, we knocked on the door, but there was no answer. We decided to try the door anyway. When it opened, there were lots of people gathered and they started singing 'Happy Birthday' in honor of the girl's twelfth birthday. They thought she was on her way home and this was supposed to be a surprise. Usually ZAKA comes with a few people, one of whom is a psychologist to deal with the probable trauma. Some families become enraged and start throwing things and hitting, so that at least two or three people are needed to handle whatever comes up. In this instance, we chose to call out one family member to inform her. The person was a cousin of the victim. She began to scream and then the whole family came out to see what happened. You can't imagine the screaming and yelling and total shock!
We stayed about an hour and tried to calm them down and to help them with the funeral arrangements. The funeral took place the same day. I was supposed to leave Israel that night, but changed my flight so that I could attend the funeral. This incident totally changed my life. I feel that there is nothing more important than helping ZAKA in whatever way I can.
Bearing witness to the devastation wreaked by a terrorist attack is a very powerful motivation for becoming involved in the provision of aid to the shocked and unsuspecting victims. Yaacov, an Israeli was standing at a busy intersection in Jerusalem when a homicide bomber exploded himself in a car right in front of him. He recalls:
People began to run and ZAKA arrived on the scene. I stood there feeling very helpless. I wanted to be of assistance and I couldn't because I didn’t know what to do. It bothered me a great deal. At that moment I decided to become a volunteer in ZAKA.
I was trained to work with the injured and dead bodies. When the Number Fourteen bus exploded in Jerusalem (9), I received a call on my beeper. When I arrived on the scene and entered the bus, I saw people sitting in their seats with their heads blown off. There were many injured people who required first-aid. After we finished with the first-aid, we began to make 'body puzzles' from the limbs that had been scattered as a result of the explosion. The body parts that are matched up are placed in a large heavy plastic bag. Sometimes they are taken to a laboratory for DNA testing and identification. If we are sure we have the entire body, we deliver it to the Chevra Kadisha.
When someone dies and there is blood flowing, we absorb as much as we can with a damp cloth and it is buried together with the person. Many times after an attack, the bus is full of blood. Sometimes it's simply a sea of blood that has been shed from several people. We gather this blood and it is buried in a kever achim, a 'grave of our brothers'. This is, unfortunately a frequent occurrence. I remember the attack in Sabarro's (10). I saw one of our volunteers run out of the restaurant with the head of a little girl with long blond hair; he had taken the body first and left the head behind.
Whenever I come home from an incident I go immediately to take a shower. Sometimes I stay in the shower for an hour and still the smell doesn't leave me. I then go to bed and relive everything that happened; I can’t share it with my wife. I can't even speak to her. I can't play with the children. I can't talk and I can't even cry. And even though each ZAKA volunteer knows that someone has to do it, and we are the ones, I sometimes tell myself maybe it's enough. But still I return when I’m called. I have been doing this for five years.
There have been occasions in which visiting American students have been killed in terrorist attacks in Israel and the bodies are shipped back to their homes in the United States. Frequently, the local Chevra Kadisha does not have the skill or experience to deal with the remains. In these instances they usually consult with Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, the leading authority on how to prepare the most damaged of bodies for burial. Rabbi Zohn explains, "We won't wash the bones that are protruding, but maybe we can wash around them. We can't wash and dress the deceased as we normally would, if that would further damage the body. When there is tremendous physical trauma, we follow what customs we can. Earth from Israel and broken pottery are placed in the casket with the body...We will dress the deceased at least symbolically by laying the shrouds atop the body"(11).
In "Life Among the Bombs" (12), Michael Orens wrote: "Israelis provide the world with a model for maintaining normal life even under the pall of terror…we must go back to our jobs and our schools, demonstrating that terrorism will not defeat us. Still, not for a moment can we forget the emotional costs of our endurance."
Responding to the World Trade Center Disaster
Mass disasters place individual identity at peril. So desperate were those trapped in the World Trade Center towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, that some wrote their Social Security numbers on their arms in the event that that was all that was recovered. Rescue workers combed the tons of rubble for the smallest shred of identity. Family members carried posters with photos of their loved ones first to hospitals and rescue centers and then to memorials when hope was abandoned.
Almost immediately after the destruction of the World Trade Center, the New York Times began a daily feature, "Portraits of Grief," which provided readers with a photograph and a brief profile of those who lost their lives. They were stories of ordinary folks from all walks of life: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, good friends and good neighbors who worked hard, had interests, hobbies and aspirations for the future. Every day, I turned first to that page because it gave a human face to this unimaginable disaster and gave me an opportunity to grieve for each of those whose lives were cut short by this shocking act. Since most of their bodies were reduced to ash and rubble, they were not afforded proper burials. Reading about them was a way for me to invoke their names. Only a few of the many Jews who died that day had remains sufficiently intact to perform a tahara.
Armin Osgood, a longtime member of two Chevra Kadisha groups in New York City, including the one at Congregation Ohab Zedek, recalled doing a tahara on a man who died in the World Trade Center disaster:
The man, who was fifty years old and overweight, became winded as he attempted to make his way down the stairs. A non-Jew in the same stairwell, whom he did not know, stopped to help him and both men perished. He was identified because of information in his wallet and the description of his clothing. The body was found six months after the towers collapsed. Because of the degree of deterioration, there was not much we could do in terms of a tahara and we did not want to cause any further destruction of the body. I opened the body bag and laid the tachrichim on with his tallis and said the prayers. The tragic death of these two men has forged a close bond between the two widows.
From the time of death until burial there is an obligation to guard the body. (13) The practice, called shmira, is performed by individuals who read passages from the Book of Psalms as they sit with the deceased. This Jewish custom of guarding the deceased, prompted families of Jewish victims to request a shomer, a guard at Ground Zero and at the medical examiner's trailer where remains were being delivered. Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, director of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, made the request to the City on behalf of the families. Since there were chaplains and other people at Ground Zero, many of them reciting Psalms, the efforts to provide this service were concentrated at the medical examiners office. At first, several people from Rabbi Zohn's group as well as students from Yeshiva University took turns serving as shomrim. Before long there arose a groundswell of volunteers from Congregation Ohab Zedek on the Upper West Side of New York (14).
The task of organizing the volunteers fell to Armin Osgood. From September 20 to April 30, 2001 he juggled an around-the clock, seven-day- a week 200 person volunteer corps. This was a monumental task which completely took over his life. He said:
At the beginning, I didn't know for how long we would do it or what was going to be involved. We started with people from our shul and the word spread. People offered their services from all over the city. They ultimately came from Westchester, from New Jersey and from Pennsylvania.
Students at Yeshiva University's The Stern College for Women became involved because we didn't have any way to cover for Shabbos when Orthodox Jews may not ride in a vehicle (14). A young friend of mine who was already a shomer knew many of the students, whose dormitory was just a short walk from the Medical Examiner's Office. One day he called me on his cell phone and asked if I would like him to recruit them. I said, "Great idea!" Shortly thereafter, I got a call from one of the girls who said she had a list of students who would be available to do shmira over Shabbos.
From then on the security guard at Stern College escorted the girls every four hours throughout Shabbos to the medical examiner's office. The chaplains and police officers who were present at the site found it very comforting to have these young women reciting Psalms. One of the police women came up to one of the students and said, "I know you are saying Psalms. I have a favorite. Would you mind reciting it?" The student agreed. As the young woman recited the Psalm, the policewoman wept for her colleagues who had perished in the disaster.
For this situation, the usual gender rules of sitting shmira were waived by Dr. Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University. Normally, women sit for women while men can sit for any deceased person. "While the tradition is a peculiarly Jewish one, Dr. Lamm felt that the mitzvah reached across denominations. 'The idea that you can have companionship even in death is a very consoling thought, whether you are Jewish or not,' he said" (15)
Pearl, a comptroller who lives and works in Manhattan, felt that while she was personally spared from the tragedy, she still wanted to get involved in the post disaster relief effort. Friends who were serving as shomrim encouraged her to sign-up. She recalls her experience:
The first time I was apprehensive. In the beginning I was sitting in a tent with clear plastic walls and was literally starring at the refrigerator trucks that held the collected remains. It was overwhelming to think that they were actually the remains of living breathing people in those trucks.
As the effort increased, a trailer was set up as a chapel outside of the Medical Examiner's Office. I was usually there for the 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. shift when no one else was around. I liked being alone with no distractions because it enabled me to concentrate on saying t'hilim. The psalm that had the most meaning for me was Psalm 119. It goes through the entire Hebrew alphabet. I know when people go to the cemetery to visit the grave of a loved one; they say verses that spell out the deceased’s name. Since I didn't know whose remains were being brought in, I said the whole psalm so as to cover all victims.
May my prayerful song approach Your Presence, Lord that You grant me understanding in accordance with Your word. My lips will speak praise when You teach me Your statutes. My tongue shall proclaim Your word, because all Your commandments are righteous. Let Your hand be ready to assist me, for I have chosen Your precepts. I crave Your salvation, O Lord, and Your Torah is my preoccupation. Let my soul live and it shall praise You, and Your ordinances will assist me. I have strayed like a lost sheep; seek out Your servant, for I have not forgotten Your commandments. (Psalm 119:169-176)
Whenever a box of remains arrived at the Medical Examiner's Office there was a brief ceremony conducted by the police officers on duty. They would remove the flag that draped the box of remains, fold the flag and salute. When the vehicle arrived, I would always go out to watch because it was another way to pay respect to the deceased.
Sheldon, an investment banker, whose office in Lower Manhattan was evacuated on 9/11. He and his colleagues decided to donate blood, but were turned away from St. Vincent's Hospital blood center because there wasn’t much need for blood. Because of the nature of the disaster, most people either survived in-tact or perished in the explosion. Sheldon, who was eager to be of help, responded to the need for shomrim that was announced at a community-wide memorial service held at Congregation Ohab Zedek. In order to accommodate his work schedule, he, too, chose the late or early morning shifts to sit shmira. . He was struck by the bonding among peoples of all faiths who shared that hallowed space and the enormous respect the Jews received for their continued role in guarding the deceased. He shared his thoughts:
There was a lot of camaraderie among the people who sat shmira. When you got there you had to relieve someone, so you spoke to that person for a while and then four hours later, someone came to relieve you, so again you ended up chatting with your replacement. People were giving up a lot of time to do this and felt bound to all those involved, whether they knew them before this or not.
One day the family of a deceased Catholic firefighter came to pick up his body. The family was totally distraught. Since there were no other clergy present, Rabbi Alan Schwatz, the spiritual leader of Ohab Zedek, who was sitting shmira, approached the family and offered his condolences and prayers. The cold weather had already set in and the rabbi noticed that the grandmother of the deceased was trying to warm her hands. He reached into his pockets and gave her his gloves. As a pastoral offering, he recited the traditional Jewish memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim, in English:
Merciful God in heaven, grant perfect repose to the soul of the departed who has passed to his eternal habitation; may he be under thy divine wings among the holy and pure who shine bright as the sky; may his place of rest be in paradise. Merciful One, O keep his soul forever alive under thy protective wings. The Lord being his heritage, may he rest in peace; and let us say, Amen. The family was very appreciative and blessed the rabbi for his kindness.
The non-Jewish clergy came to the chapel primarily to console families. As the months drew on, and fewer bodies were being recovered, they no longer had a role. The fact that there was a Jewish presence to guard and provide comfort for the deceased long after the others were gone, placed those of the Jewish faith in the most positive light. The entire effort made all those that participated feel very proud to be Jews.
It is interesting to note that the initial fears and ultimate rewards of sitting shmira very much parallel the initial fears and rewards of those that undertake tahara. The shomrim all entered the experience fearful of sitting within sight of the trucks full of remains, just as those doing tahara for the first time are anxious about seeing a dead body, And just as those who do tahara come away feeling calm, peaceful and spiritually elevated by having brought comfort to the soul of the deceased, so did those who sat shmira. One student said, "Time completely stops. Now I understand what it is to pray with your heart." (16) Pearl said, "The time there was very absorbing and intense. All the crisis of the day seemed far less important." Another student said that she feels blessed to bee able to do something to help and prays for all the victims families, whether they are Jewish or not. (17)
The shmira continued for seven and a half months. Some people came only once, while others came back again and again because it was so meaningful and important to them. One man who was a regular called to say that he would not be able to come for a week but expressed a desire to return after the week was over. Mr. Osgood assured him that he would find a substitute and then asked if there was a problem. The man told him that his daughter had died and that he was sitting Shiva that week, but that he would like to return when the mourning period was over.
This endeavor came to a close when the number of recovered bodies began to diminish and fewer and fewer identifications were being made. The end coincided with the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, when the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva's students stopped dying from a plague that ravaged his academy. The concern expressed during the period of shmira crossed intergenerational lines and had interdenominational impact. In the words of Armin Osgood, "It's incredible that such a tragedy should bring forth such unity of spirit and caring."
1. Michael B. Orens, Op-Ed Page The New York Times, Life Among the Bombs, February, 24, 2004.
2. Samuel M. Katz, "The Terror Trackers", Moment, February, 2004., p.47
3. Ibid., p.47.
4. Rabbi Solomon Granzfried, translated by Hyman E. Goldin, Code of Jewish Law (Kitzur Shulhan Aruh) A Compilation of Jewish Laws and Customs, New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1961, p.100.
5. President Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November, 19, 1863.
6. ZAKA, the Hebrew acronym for Zihiu Karbonot Asom, Victim Disaster Identification.
7. See Greg Myre, "Israeli Pathologist Faces Grisly Task After Bombing," The New York Times, February, 24, 2004.
8. Samuel M. Katz, Moment, February, 2004 p.45.
9. The Number Fourteen bus was attacked by a homicide bomber in Jerusalem on February 22, 2004.
10. The Sabarro Pizza Restaurant was attacked by a homicide bomber in Jerusalem on August 9, 2001. Eighteen people were killed.
11. Shemay Israel Torah Netwook, http:/www.shemayisrael.co.il/bodysoul.htm.
12. Michael B. Orens, The New York Times, February 24, 2004.
13. The guarding of the deceased has as its underlying premise the physical and spiritual protection of the corps. The laws of shmira also apply to the Sabbath and festivals. See Berachot 18a, Shabbat 151b,
14. Julie Wiener, "Psalms for a Grieving City," The New York Jewish Week, September 6, 2002.
15. From sundown Friday until sundown Saturday, Orthodox Jews observe the rules of the Sabbath which prohibit any form of work including riding in a vehicle.
16. See Jane Gross, "Streching a Jewish Vigil for the Sept. 11 Dead", The New York Times, November 6, 2001.
18. Carol Eisenberg, ''Sitting Shimra,'' Newsday (Nassau Edition), December 1, 2001.