The Jerusalem Post
‘It’s about learning their names, how they lived’
24-year-old compiles tally of lives cut short by virus to give people ‘a space to mourn, a small measure of comfort’
NEW YORK – While most people hunkered down in their homes in March 2020 for what then seemed the foreseeable future, Tzali Reicher embarked on a new project to track every Jew who died of COVID-19.
The 24-year-old, who was then working as a Chabad researcher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, flew home to Australia before infection rates skyrocketed and travel restrictions began. He expected to stay home for a few weeks but stayed instead for five months.
Working from his parents’ house in Melbourne in the middle of the night in order to stay on an American schedule, and away from his nine siblings, Reicher set out to compile a list for Chabad.org, which now has close to 2,000 names – just a fraction of the lives lost – and is still growing.
Reicher compiles the tally of lives cut short by the virus by tracking obituaries and calling funeral homes. His list includes Holocaust survivors, parents and children, student and teachers, young and old, among so many others from around the world.
“Stuart Cohen, 73, New York, NY: Longtime cab driver with a passion for books.”
“Dusia Rivkin, 93, Brooklyn, NY: Hassidic matriarch, leaves hundreds of descendants, a New Orleans ‘Bubby’ who lived in Brooklyn.”
“Arthur Adler, 94, Teaneck, NJ: Lived ‘quintessential American life’ after escaping Nazi Germany on Kindertransport.”
“Efry Levy Azizoff, 66, Milan, Italy: Known as the man with the ‘warm smile’ at Noam Synagogue.”
“Alan Hurwitz, 79, Detroit, Michigan: Decades-long educator who became bank-robber ‘Zombie Bandit.’”
Reicher said he felt apprehensive at the start of the project that the undertaking would be seen as invasive.
“I was nervous to call the families who had just lost a loved one,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “I didn’t know if I would be interfering in their mourning. But it was such a positive reception. People are looking for a space to mourn and this gives them community and a small measure of comfort in the middle of a global pandemic. That motivated me to keep going.”
As coronavirus swept through New York City’s Orthodox communities in late March, Reicher learned of three Chabad colleagues, all young, healthy men, who were ill. The deaths were hitting closer to home.
SOON, WHAT he thought would be a one-month project turned into an all-consuming job. On some days in April, Reicher would add as many as 70 names to the list.
In May 2020, Reicher was introduced to his now-wife, Tali.
“Dating in the middle of working on this project was such a contrast,” he recalled. “During the day we would have conversations about life and marriage, and then at night I was contacting families and tracking deaths.”
The couple married in November.
“Learning about so many lives lost at a time when I was starting to think about beginning my own family really put the project in perspective,” Reicher said.
“These people had families, and their seats are missing at their family tables. The obituaries that include ‘devoted family man’ or ‘high-powered career person, but always made time for his family’ really stand out to me. This project has given me tangible lessons that I can take into my marriage.”
Chabad media relations director Rabbi Motti Seligson connected the project, called “Each Person a World,” with the June 12 anniversary of the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, who died in 1994. He said the idea was sparked from the Rebbe’s teachings on the proper way to memorialize lost lives.
“The Rebbe taught that the most meaningful way of remembering someone is by living by their example and learning how they lived their lives, trying to emulate the good that they did,” Seligson told the Post.
He noted that Chabad.org gets close to 54 million unique visits a year, adding, “With such large numbers turning to our site, we felt we should take on the responsibility of documenting how the pandemic has impacted the Jewish people and remembering all of the Jews lost to coronavirus. It’s about learning their names, how they lived and how they expressed their Judaism.”
Since the rollout of the vaccine, Reicher said, the number of names has dropped to two or three a day. But the work is far from over.
“There are still names coming to us and we’re still tracking deaths,” he said. “We’re going to keep going until there are no more deaths, please God. We’ve only included a fraction of the Jews lost, but the aim is to leave no one behind. Families have lost so much, and I just hope this helps them mourn.”