A Constant Vigil

Folks, in the hours that followed my beloved father’s death four weeks ago, my mother, brother and I finalized the arrangements at the funeral home.

For those who don’t know, I did not grow up in an observant home. However, I grew to be more observant than the rest of my family. Everything that I know is from reading and studying but it is not from any traditions that were followed in my home. Frankly, there is an awful lot that I don’t know and I am grateful for whatever I can learn. For example, I can not read Hebrew. I hope to resolve that some time this year. It is to Hashem that I attribute the fire and desire inside me that burns with love for Judaism and for Israel. There is, frankly, no one in my family who I can model myself after in this regard.

One of the things that I learned while reading articles on the web about being Jewish formulated the basis for one of the most important decsions I have ever made. At the funeral home, I requested that a shomer sit with my father’s body until the funeral would start.

I did not know of a shomer or the concept of a shomer before 9/11/2001.

I discovered what a shomer is when I read the following article in the New York Times three years ago, in the weeks following the terror of September 11th.

Here is the moving original article, originally published in the NY Times, Stretching a Jewish Vigil for the Sept. 11 Dead (registration required) or you can read it here as well.

This is what moved me, strengthened me and what made me, in spite of the hatred that millions have for Jews, so proud to be one:

In the darkest hours of the night, Judith Kaplan, dressed in her Sabbath finery, sat in a tent outside the New York City Medical Examiner’s office, singing the haunting repertoire from the Book of Psalms. From midnight until 5 a.m., within sight of trucks full of body parts from the World Trade Center, she fulfilled the most selfless of Jewish commandments: to keep watch over the dead, who must not be left alone from the moment of passing until burial.

Normally, this Orthodox ritual, known as sitting shmira, lasts for only 24 hours and is performed by one Jew, customarily a man, for another Jew. But these are not normal times. Thus the round-the-clock vigil outside the morgue on First Avenue and 30th Street is already in its eighth week. The three sealed trucks may or may not contain Jewish bodies. And the shomer, or watcher, is just as often a young woman as an old man.

Ms. Kaplan, 20, a senior at Stern College for Women, a division of Yeshiva University, is one of nine students who have volunteered for this solemn task on weekends, working in shifts from Friday afternoons until nightfall on Saturdays, the holiest part of the week. The rest of the time, the task is performed by scores of volunteers from an Orthodox synagogue, Ohab Zedek, on West 95th Street.

Devout Jews cannot ride on the Sabbath, putting the subway or taxis off-limits for the long trek from Ohab Zedek to the morgue. So the Stern students, whose dormitories are within blocks of the morgue, have filled the breach. They were recruited by Jessica Russak, 20, a student who takes the dawn shift, peeking out of the tent as the sky brightens to time her morning prayers.

Ms. Russak, Ms. Kaplan and the others have won blessings from Christian chaplains at the site, and their dedication has moved police officers and medical examiners to tears. The burly

state trooper who guards the area has learned the girls’ names, and a bit about their religion.

The young women have the full support of Dr. Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, who agreed without hesitation that the normal gender rules – women can sit shmira only for other women, while men can sit for any deceased person – could be waived under the circumstances. The school is also providing security guards to escort those who sit the late-night shifts.

While the tradition is a peculiarly Jewish one, Dr. Lamm said he felt that the mitzvah, or good deed, reached across denominations. “The idea that you can have companionship even in death is a very consoling thought, whether you are Jewish or not”; he said. Dr. Lamm called “the loving watching of the corpse a very human act”; and noted that the shmira is “the truest and most sublime”; of the 613 mitzvahs “because there can never be reciprocity.”

All of them had felt so helpless after the terrorist attacks. They donated money to the

Red Cross, but were turned away as blood donors or volunteers because those needs had quickly been met. Then came the pleas for Sabbath shomers. “This is something I can do”; Ms. Kaplan said. “And it’s surreal. You absolutely feel the souls there, and you feel them feeling better.” Ms. Kaplan made up slow, sad tunes for each psalm and sings them in a clear soprano, sweet as birdsong. If she mumbled them, without melody, Ms. Kaplan said, she might lose a word here and there and thus the full meaning of each line. By singing, she said, she is fully mindful. “Time completely stops,” she said. “Now I understand what it is to pray with your heart.”

Dad, I did this for you because I wanted you to feel better. I wanted you to feel peace. After your funeral, I felt that you were at peace. I felt you were at peace as I stood at your graveside and heartbroken, shovelled dirt onto your coffin after you were already lowered into the grave. I felt peace when I walked back to the car, turned and looked through my tears at the pile of dirt that was going to cover you once we left. I felt peace at your graveside. I believe you are at peace now.

I love you, Dad.

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