May 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Ultimate Chesed Shel Emet

Chesed Shel Emet, a true act of kindness, is what the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA) specializes in. HFBA has had the same mission since its formation by nine men on the Lower East Side in 1888: to provide a free, low-cost, dignified, and traditional burial for indigent Jews and for those without family/friends.

Amy Koplow, Executive Director at HFBA, notes that there is no typical client. However, around one-third of the clients are from the Russian Jewish emigre community. She added, “Many of the people we help are American born, or Holocaust survivors, or residents of nursing homes.” What most of them had in common was that they lived on the fringes of the community.

HFBA is unique in what it does in that it arranges burials and owns its own cemetery. Silver Lake Cemetery, located on Staten Island, was purchased by HFBA in 1892. The six-acre lot was filled in 1909 and is inactive today. During that same year, HFBA purchased the land for Mount Richmond Cemetery. The 25-acre cemetery, still active today, is also on Staten Island. The phone lines at HFBA are open 24/7 and each death-related call is answered by a human, not a machine. The calls come from many different sources–including chaplains, social workers, neighbors, building superintendents, clergy, public administrators, the city morgue, or the police department.

One might think that once that call comes in, it’s pretty straightforward. But it’s not. Koplow says, “We need to get authorization from a blood relative to bury someone. If none are found, then we need to get the permission of a government official who has determined there is no one else.” Koplow notes that many staff hours are devoted to doing detective-like work. Sometimes it can take days to verify details of a case. “We do extensive research in order to determine if they are eligible for our services, if they have family (who might have a plot already purchased for the deceased).”

The research is also conducted to determine a person’s lineage, to make sure they are Jewish, if there are any available resources. “We were organized as Jewish cemetery. With rampant assimilation, we need to make sure we are doing what we promised,” says Ms. Koplow.

Understandably, things can get gloomy. Koplow says the job can be very hard on staff members when some aspect of a case hits home. To keep staff motivated, Ms. Koplow says, “We try to keep a sense of humor, though it’s always respectful. Also people have days off and vacations, which they are encouraged to use.” Receiving letters of thanks and appreciation also goes a long way to keeping the staff positive. Koplow says her staff is excellent and they know “they are doing something good, and they go above and beyond to fulfill the mission.”

Teaneck resident Bryan Alter, a lawyer at Barclays, served on HFBA’s board for over 10 years. One aspect of Alter’s service to the HFBA’s board was to serve as an unofficial in-house council. He told JLNJ, “It’s a wonderful association that is small and under the radar, yet they do amazing and incredible work.”

As with most non-profits, the biggest challenge that HFBA faces is resources. It can cost $3600 to perform a burial. That includes funeral arrangements, tahara, coffin, grave, monument, and perpetual care in the cemetery.

In addition to organizing and handling burials, HFBA maintains its cemeteries and that means caring for the buildings and grounds. Some schools in Bergen County volunteer for HFBA. Students from Frisch, TABC, Ma’ayanot, Yavneh, and YNJ have all helped clear debris in Silver Lake Cemetery as part of school chesed projects.

Robert Mendeles, a mortgage officer and also a Teaneck resident, has been a board member of HFBA since 2012. Mendeles serves as the board’s recording secretary and strives to come up with creative ways to solicit money for the association and goes over fiduciary issues. “The work that HFBA does is unbelievable. They firmly believe that every Jew deserves a place to be buried.”

HFBA’s recent Chayei Sara campaign was held to raise awareness as well as funds. The association asked people to underwrite the burial costs for 10 funerals. The need at HFBA is near an all-time recent high. Ms. Koplow notes, “We have done 335 burials this year alone and our numbers have gone up 25% since 2008.” She attributes this to the economy and the fact that people are living longer and therefore have fewer assets when they pass.

So if you are considering making a donation to a tzedaka, try writing a check for HFBA. You’ll be performing the ultimate Chesed Shel Emet. For more information check out HFBA’s website at: http://www.hebrewfreeburial.org/.

By Larry Bernstein

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