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Israeli Pilot Killed in South Brunswick Helicopter Crash

The helicopter piloted by Josef-Ram Yitzhak, 44, of Kfar Yavetz in the Sharon region, crashed on the outskirts of Carnegie Lake in South Brunswick.

When a helicopter piloted by an Israeli spun out of control and crashed on the outskirts of Carnegie Lake in a wooded area of South Brunswick, it was through a relationship developed with its Jewish chaplain that local police were able to follow religious tradition while quickly returning his remains to his family.

Rabbi Mendy Carlebach, the longtime chaplain for its police department and the executive director of the Chabad of North and South Brunswick, used his contacts with Israeli authorities and misaskims in Lakewood and Brooklyn to properly attend to the deceased pilot, identified as Josef-Ram Yitzhak, 44, of Kfar Yavetz in the Sharon region.

South Brunswick Deputy Police Chief Jim Ryan arrived at the scene shortly after the late afternoon crash on August 31 into the canal off Carnegie Lake in Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park. He said the erratically flying helicopter was witnessed by a captain from the nearby Kingston Firehouse, who called it in to authorities. The firefighter and an arriving police officer were able to locate the helicopter and waded into several feet of water. After pulling the aircraft out to try and save its pilot, they found an Israeli identification on Yitzhak. However, because of his massive injuries lifesaving measures were futile.

Ryan called South Brunswick Police Chief Raymond Hayducka, who upon learning that the victim was Israeli, suggested he contact Rabbi Carlebach to ensure the deceased was handled in accordance with Jewish ritual.

“We made sure everything was done for his family,” said Ryan. “If there is one thing I would want his mother and sisters to know, it is that his body was never left alone. A police officer stood guard over him the entire time. We couldn’t change the outcome but we could make sure everything was done respectfully in accordance with his faith traditions.”

Ryan credited the department’s relationship with Rabbi Carlebach with helping to reach out to the Israeli police and added, “That speaks to the relationship we have with Mendy.”

“Everybody in this department knows Mendy,” said Ryan, whether they are a new recruit or a longtime officer, because he is fully involved with its activities and events.

Josef-Ram Yitzhak, an experienced pilot, was in the United States to gain additional flight training.

Rabbi Carlebach, who is also the administrator at Rutgers Chabad, left its New Brunswick offices immediately after being called and drove down to the accident scene near the Princeton border. “They had already covered up the body,” he said. “They wanted to make sure everything was done according to halacha.”

Yitzhak was an experienced pilot who had come to the U.S. only the week before to gain additional flight training. He was a pilot at Aerojet, according to his LinkedIn profile and was a certified flight instructor and air transport pilot.

The one-seater, single-engine Robinson R22 helicopter had taken off from Princeton Airport, about three miles away, just minutes before, and crashed into the canal about 3:45 p.m. Soon after, Middlesex County Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Lauren Thoma arrived and eventually took the body back to her offices in North Brunswick. Rabbi Carlebach said the burial society took possession of Yitzhak the next morning and the chevra kadisha performed the required tahara to wash the body.

Much like the police, he said Thoma was “very respectful” of religious traditions and, in accordance with the family’s wishes, no autopsy was performed.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Carlebach had called the two misaskims who were able to come with proper recovery equipment and provide additional lighting as nightfall began to set in. “They [the authorities] also appreciated the extra manpower provided to remove the body through the terrain,” he said, since the area was about a quarter-mile from the roadway accessible only by a trail.

Ryan said state Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Dist. 16) arrived to offer any assistance needed as responders waited for investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to arrive. NTSB officials have since revisited the site with police to collect more debris for their investigation. No cause for the crash has been determined although eyewitness reports and a video indicate the helicopter may have experienced mechanical failure.

Rabbi Carlebach, who is also a chaplain for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has contacts at the Israeli Consulate in New York and got in touch with the individual charged with handling such matters. A connection was quickly established between the local Israeli police and South Brunswick Police to notify the family in the middle of the night of the tragedy. Although the accident occurred late in the day on a Thursday, Yitzhak’s body was flown home that Saturday night and a funeral and burial took place Sunday.

Rabbi Carlebach praised all the local authorities for expediting the process so the burial could take place as quickly as possible. “What’s amazing here is that both the chief and deputy chief knew immediately to ‘let’s call our chaplain’ to ensure this is done with the proper respect,” he said. “It’s a testament to how important relationships are, because you never know when you’re going to use them.”

Among the agencies also providing assistance in the recovery were the Kingston Fire Department, Middlesex County Hazmat, Middlesex County Office of Emergency Management, Franklin Township Police and New Jersey State Park Police. Because of an algae bloom in the water, all those who went in for the rescue and recovery had to be decontaminated by the fire department.

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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