As 70 friends of the Chilean tour-bus crash victims converged for a memorial service at the Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe Township, NJ, the only sounds breaking the formal moment of silence were the muffled sobs of a community in shock.
Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky, leading the service, would offer nothing in the way of pat explanations. “We look to the Torah in a situation such as this,” he told the mourners, pointing to the Biblical account of the death of the two sons of Aaron, the High Priest. “Aaron’s response was speechlessness—the Torah tells us that he held his peace.”
As friends and community members make their way from one funeral to another, the sense of shock deepens. “The community is really traumatized,” said Rabbi Zaklikovsky early this morning as he headed out to Metuchen, NJ for the funeral of another two of the victims. “This is a development of active retirees who spend a lot of time together and become a family.”
It was a much-anticipated cruise for members of the tight, upscale Ponds development, and more would have joined but for “flukes” that ended up making the difference between life and death. Marilyn Brickel came in late with her reservations and decided to drop out when she was quoted a higher price. The Schutzmans would have joined but for a family bar-mitzvah that kept them home.
The victims were part of a 64-member group traveling Celebrity Cruises. Last Wednesday, after visiting the Lauca National Park in the Andes mountains, a privately owned tour bus carrying the 14 Americans back to the Pacific port of Arica careened off a mountain road and plunged 300 feet into a ravine. The driver, a tour guide and only two of the fourteen passengers, survived. Most of those killed had been thrown from the vehicle.
Though Judaism prescribes “a time to weep,” and “a time to mourn,” its laws concerning handling the dead and preparing the bodies for burial take precedence, and require supervision by a competent Jewish authority for procedures that are decidedly unfamiliar to Chilean mortuaries. Fortunately, Celebrity Cruise Lines knew to contact Rabbi Leibel Miller, who had a relationship with the cruise liner through past Kashrut consulting, and is also the Director of the Jewish Burial Society of Chabad-Lubavitch of Florida. Within hours, Miller was on a chartered plane for Arica.
In Santiago, Chabad’s Rabbi Menashe Perman had word of the accident, and contacted the authorities in Arica, imploring them to hold off with any procedures until Rabbi Miller arrived.
“By the time I arrived, the crash site was already clean,” says Miller, “the local authorities had already removed everything. They wanted to hold everything—organs, personal affects—as evidence, which was totally out of the question.”
Rabbi Miller went immediately to the Chilean District Attorney’s office with the cruise line manager, the ship’s doctor and the Vice-Council of the American Embassy. He was told that the Chilean authorities’ intent was to charge the driver with negligent homicide, and therefore to keep the organs for evidence. In addition, a wait of several days would be necessary to receive the dental records or fingerprints required to release any remains.
“This had the potential to be a tremendous disaster. The process of dealing with the red tape, especially in a remote place like Arica, could’ve taken weeks, and I was particularly worried because our tradition doesn’t allow for embalming.”
Miller proceeded to give the Chilean District Attorney a crash course on the intricacies involved in Jewish burial.
“I explained how the soul is brought down from on-high to inhabit the body,” he says. “I told them that the soul is aware of everything that happens to the body even after death, until it’s returned into the dust from which it was created.”
As Rabbi Miller continued his impassioned discourse, the District Attorney and his staff sat in total deference. As he finished, the District Attorney stunned everyone in the room—except Miller—by announcing that he would indeed bypass any further documentation and release the deceased to the Rabbi’s care under his own recognizance.
The bodies were flown to JFK, where Rabbi Zaklikovsky of Monroe Township, hometown to the victims, waited. As the plane touched down Friday afternoon, Rabbi Zaklikovsky climbed aboard, and said verses from the Psalms for the souls of the departed.
In keeping with Jewish tradition that requires the remains to be escorted until burial, he then followed the coffins onto the tarmac, watching as they were loaded into hearses to be taken away by their respective funeral homes shortly before Shabbos set in.
“It’s worth noting,” said Zaklikovsky, “that there’s no more awesome responsibility in Judaism than escorting a Jew into the next world.”
But in the spirit of Jewish tradition, and in response to an outpouring of calls by community members wanting to do something good for their grief-struck community, explained Rabbi Zaklikovsky, a tzedaka fund, the Ponds Memorial Fund was established. “People have expressed a desire to do something out of respect for those who’ve been killed, and for the community that suffered such a blow,” he said. “The mitzvah of tzedaka–a merit for the departed and a benefit to people of this community, seems most appropriate.”
with reporting by Yosef Moya