While the rest of the South Florida Jewish community was preparing for the weekend, Mark Rosenberg, Dovi Katz and Chaim Markowitzwere up in Tallahassee. They were there to make a presentation to the commanders of the Police Departments and Highway Patrols of the State of Florida. Their topic? Jewish death.
Not a very cheerful subject, to be sure. But a very important one. Florida is the state with the second largest population of Jews in the United States, and inevitably there are fatalities that occur. There are specific laws and customs in the Jewish faith that deal with death and treating the deceased with dignity and honor. Mark Rosenberg is proud and privileged to educate and inform Florida state officials about these very significant issues.
Originally a native New Yorker, Rosenberg moved down to North Miami Beach five years ago. His passion is ‘chesed’, or helping others in need. While living in New York, he served as co-ordinator of the Boro Park Shomrim Civilian Patrol and had been involved in an organization called ‘Chesed Shel Emes – Kindness of Truth’ which cares for the needs of the Jewish deceased from death through burial. Chesed Shel Emes attends to more than 1,000 Jewish deaths annually, regardless of religious affiliation. Its all-volunteer staff of nearly 600 individuals will travel across the country, if necessary, to ensure that the deceased are buried with dignity and honor.
When he moved to Florida, Rosenberg recognized the necessity of establishing a chapter of that organization in this area. “When I moved down here,” he says, “I realized that you can’t run away from chesed.” So he decided to get personally involved and became Florida Division Supervisor of Chesed Shel Emes. “Just recently,” he says, “a young Israeli biker tragically passed away as a result of a motorcycle accident on I-95. An autopsy was prevented due to the intervention of Governor Rick Scott and his office”.
Jewish law strictly forbids autopsies to be performed, except under specific circumstances, as it is seen as a desecration of the body and painful to the soul. In this case, time was of the essence, as the weekend was fast approaching. Rabbi Schneuer Oirechman, Director of Chabad Lubavitch of the Florida Panhandle in Tallahassee maintains a close relationship with the Governor’s office. He was asked to intervene.
Rabbi Oirechman reached out to the Governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Mark Slager, who recognized the seriousness of the situation, and immediately contacted Julie Jones, Executive Director of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in the State of Florida. Jones got in touch with Colonel David Brierton, Director of the Florida Highway Patrol, who called Chief Miguel Guzman of the Southern Region, who in turn contacted Chesed Shel Emes. Guzman graciously offered to deal with the issue immediately. With the joint cooperation and support of all these agencies, the autopsy was avoided.
It was a swift and admirable display of teamwork, especially considering that it occurred on a Friday afternoon, immediately before the weekend. Says Rabbi Oirechman, “The Governor is sincerely committed to doing the right thing, both for the Jewish community as well as for all Floridians.”
After that incident, Colonel David Brierton, Director of the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP), and representatives of the Governor’s office, suggested that a meeting be held to prevent issues in the future. The meeting was coordinated by Elizabeth Denmark of the FHP. Present at that meeting were Colonel David Brierton, Director of FHP, Rabbi Oirechman, Rabbi Meyer Berger, Lieutenant Colonel Kelly Hildreth,Deputy Director of FHP, and Mark Rosenberg. At that meeting, Colonel Brierton suggested that Chesed Shel Emes make a presentation to educate Florida authorities about the needs of the Jewish community in relation to death. It was decided that a presentation would be made to all FHP Commanders of all regions. This way, they would be informed and sensitized to Jewish laws, customs, and traditions.
On May 24th, Mark Rosenberg made a presentation to the FHP Commanders of all regions of the State of Florida at the Florida Highway Patrol Training Academy campus. By all accounts, it was a tremendous success. It also represented a milestone in opening communications between authorities and the community. “Knowledge and information can make all the difference in the world,” Rosenberg says. “The authorities are here to help us. They are more than happy to cooperate with our religious needs. They just need to be trained and educated about the Jewish laws and traditions relating to death.“ Rabbi Oirechman also attended the meeting.
Rosenberg described the three specific needs that are of paramount importance in the event of death — expediting burial, burying the body in its entirety, and avoiding autopsies whenever possible. When authorities are educated about these needs they are invariably sensitive and cooperative. “Imagine a distraught family who discover that their loved one has passed on,” says Rosenberg. “Now that the proper authorities are sympathetic to their needs it will significantly ease their pain.”
After the presentation, Rosenberg, Katz, and Markowitz were thanked by Colonel Briarton and Lieutenant Colonel Hildreth. Then they made their way to the Ocala County Hilton and presented once again, this time at the MEC (Medical Examiner Commission) where all twenty four local Chief Medical Examiners in the State of Florida attended. Dr. Bruce Hyma, Chief Medical examiner of Miami-Dade County, and Chairman of the Medical Examiner’s Commission, had invited Chesed Shel Emes to speak to the Commission.
“It is crucial for the ME to understand the significance of this issue according to Jewish law,” says Rosenberg. “The ME should realize that we are not trying to undermine his or her authority. We are just trying to conform to Biblical laws that have been followed for generations.” The presentation was an opportunity to establish relationships so that all can work together for a common goal. Says Rosenberg, “The channels of communication are now open.”
Rabbi Meyer Berger is Director of Operations at Chesed Shel Emes headquarters. He is delighted with the recent developments in the Sunshine State. “Over 600,000 Jews live in the state of Florida,” he points out. “This includes hundreds of Holocaust survivors who have relocated to Dade and Broward counties. Every year there are fatalities that occur, whether in hospital rooms or on local highways. This presentation will help clear the air and increase sensitivity and understanding about the needs of the Jewish community in relation to death.”
Tallahassee is a seven hour’s drive from Rosenberg’s home in North Miami, but he says it was worth every minute. He knew he had performed the ultimate mitzvah, the quintessential good deed. Traffic on that holiday weekend was heavy and the hour was getting late, but he made it home on time. Most important of all, he felt confident that Jewish families who experience the death of a loved one will have an easier time dealing with their tragedy from now on.
Already, Chesed Shel Emes is reaping the rewards of its efforts. Just this week, a middle aged Jewish man died in a Jacksonville hospital. He had no children and no known next of kin. Ordinarily, cases like these are referred to the Public Authority. But Chesed Shel Emes reached out to Jacksonville’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Valerie Rao, who remembered Mark Rosenberg and his presentation and decided to refer the case over to them. Chesed Shel Emes stepped in and made the appropriate funeral arrangements. All because of a presentation that created an awareness among authorities about the Jewish community’s approach to caring for the deceased.