Tak­ing spe­cial care of dead in­side a des­e­crated temple

Group gath­ered bod­ily traces of 11 to ful­fill Jewish law

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - World & Nation - By Adam Geller As­so­ci­ated Press

PITTS­BURGH — As the fu­ner­als for the vic­tims of the Pitts­burgh mas­sacre be­gan, two rab­bis and five other vol­un­teers ap­proached the sawhorses cor­don­ing off the Tree of Life syn­a­gogue, and an FBI agent led them into the crime scene. In­side the des­e­crated temple, the men donned white foren­sic cov­er­alls, face masks and gloves, and set to work.

Ju­daism asks the liv­ing to take spe­cial care of the dead, and this group had a last, sa­cred duty to ful­fill: gather up ev­ery drop of blood and other bod­ily traces of the 11 peo­ple killed in the dead­li­est at­tack against Jews in U.S. his­tory.

“The Jewish law is that ev­ery­thing that be­longed to the body needs to be buried, so we do our best,” one of the group’s leaders, Rabbi Elisar Ad­mon, said last week.

The work is metic­u­lous and men­tally tax­ing, car­ried out with im­ple­ments as or­di­nary as wipes and pa­per tow­els.

Ju­daism is spe­cific about death and how it should be han­dled. When a loved one dies, re­li­gious law re­quires that rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the liv­ing ac­com­pany the body un­til burial. In a rit­ual known as tahara, the re­mains are washed and placed in a white shroud. Jewish law man­dates that the burial take place as soon as pos­si­ble.

But the scale of the vi­o­lence wreaked by a gun­man Oct. 27 had placed an ex­tra­or­di­nary re­spon­si­bil­ity on those ded­i­cated to this work, all vol­un­teers. The vic­tims in­cluded one of their own, Jerry Rabi­nowitz, a doc­tor who had worked with the group in the past to pre­pare bod­ies for burial.

Re­cov­er­ing and pre­par­ing a body for burial are tra­di­tion­ally done by the lo­cal chap­ter of the burial so­ci­ety called Chevra Kadisha, led in Pitts­burgh by an Ortho­dox rabbi, Daniel Wasser­man. He works along­side Ad­mon, who, as a mem­ber of Is­rael-based Zaka In­ter­na­tional, spent many years in his home coun­try re­cov­er­ing bod­ies at the scenes of ac­ci­dents and ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

All those vol­un­teer­ing earn their liv­ing do­ing other jobs. In ad­di­tion to Wasser­man and Ad­mon, who teaches at a lo­cal re­li­gious school, the group at the Tree of Life in­cluded a doc­tor, a house painter and a para­medic.

Their work be­gan hours af­ter the at­tack. Late that night, the FBI al­lowed Wasser­man and Ad­mon in­side the syn­a­gogue. The men drew them­selves a map, show­ing the pre­cise spot where each of the vic­tims was killed. Then they spent most of the night ac­com­pa­ny­ing the bod­ies as they were re­moved to the med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice.

“I’ve been to a lot of scenes, but these are peo­ple you know very well,” Ad­mon said. “It was very hard to see, like, peo­ple com­ing on a Satur­day morn­ing to a peace­ful place to get a con­nec­tion with God and the same mo­ment they got a con­nec­tion with God, an evil per­son came and in and said, ‘ Guys, just be­cause you’re Jewish, I’m go­ing to kill you.’ ”

The task of re­cov­er­ing re­mains, he said, is best un­der­taken with a min­i­mum of think­ing, and a fo­cus on the work it­self. FBI agents went to great lengths to ac­com­mo­date the vol­un­teers, bring­ing ad­di­tional light­ing into the room and pro­vid­ing safety cloth­ing and other equip­ment, Ad­mon said.

As the in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ued around them, the vol­un­teers fin­ished re­mov­ing what the could be­fore the last fu­neral Fri­day. The rem­nants re­cov­ered from the syn­a­gogue were not placed in the vic­tims’ cas­kets. They will be buried sep­a­rately at the ceme­tery, with mark­ers list­ing the names of the dead.

For the vol­un­teers, it pro­vides the sat­is­fac­tion of per­form­ing a cru­cial task. In the end, Jewish law will be ful­filled. But just as im­por­tant, Ad­mon said, re­cov­er­ing all traces of vic­tims and mak­ing them whole will “give these peo­ple the re­spect they need, be­cause it’s the min­i­mum we can do.”


Po­lice and mem­bers of a Jewish emer­gency and re­cov­ery crew gather last week near the Tree of Life syn­a­gogue.

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