The Hebrew Free Burial Association Continued its Mission During the Pandemic
What has it been like to do the work of Jewish burial in New York City during the coronavirus pandemic? Through a professional acquaintance of David Harris, JCGC Executive Director, we took the opportunity to find out from someone who knows firsthand. Andrew Parver spared us a few precious phone minutes at home on a Sunday afternoon in late May, while watching his children play and doing chores.
Andrew first explains that he lives and works in the New York area, but he met David several months ago after visiting the graves of members of his wife’s family, in one of Jewish Cemeteries’ Covedale cemeteries. Andrew establishes his familial Queen City “cred,” saying that some Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chip had recently been delivered to him in dry ice.
Then he quickly turns intensely serious, because the purpose of our conversation is to explore his role as Director of Operations for the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA) of New York, specifically during the recent sustained peak of coronavirus deaths in early Spring 2020.
“There were days we did eleven funerals. We had deceased coming in around the clock,” Andrew recalls. Coronavirus deaths in the greater New York area were so numerous in April and part of May that HFBA buried four to five times more impoverished Jews per day than they typically would. And it’s the job of Andrew and his team to ensure that every decedent, no matter if they die utterly destitute and alone, receives the dignified burial called for by Jewish law, as quickly as possible.
That work of chesed shel emet, a holy mitzvah done for another that cannot be repaid, has recently been made almost unimaginably more difficult by the fact that COVID-19 is so deadly, not only for its victims but potentially for anyone around them as well. “This virus doesn’t care where you live, how much money you have. It’s a very scary virus,” says Andrew, adding that he hates to think about the things he’s seen. He pulls himself out of that train of thought by diving into what he and his co-workers have managed to accomplish under these challenging conditions.
They have done the following for up to eleven individuals daily, from anywhere in the greater NYC-NJ area:
*retrieve the deceased from wherever death occurred and transport to HFBA’s funeral home at Mt. Richmond Cemetery in Staten Island
*attempt to contact relatives of the deceased
*perform the ritual cleansing, wrapping in shroud or tallis, and prayer recitation known as tahara
*place the deceased in a coffin and perform the proper burial, with any family or other witnesses distanced inside their cars
*and finish all necessary government and administrative paperwork.
Of course, every step of this process has been achieved with all staff wearing PPE—masks, gloves, etc.—which initially was very difficult to obtain. Andrew feels that every member of his operational crew and staff can now feel comfortable that he or she is well protected.
Doing tahara has been suspended by many sectors of the Jewish community across America, including here in Cincinnati, as a difficult but safety-minded reaction to the mortal risks involved for the chevra kadisha individuals who take on the holy work. Andrew describes how his organization’s chevra kadisha “self-shrunk,” with younger members stepping up to let older members stay away, protected from the virus. They have formed small teams that always work together to limit exposures, doing their work efficiently and leaving quickly.
New York’s Hebrew Free Burial Association has managed to do this day after day in the pandemic, for little or no cost to any surviving family of the deceased, as is their mission. Andrew puts it in plain terms: “We bury Jewish people who have no family, no money, or little money. They don’t have a grave, they don’t have a plot, and especially here, if they don’t have that, they sure don’t have the, say, $8000 it can take for a Jewish burial. So, we help all people according to their need.” Like for Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati, fees that can be collected do not cover costs, and so donations must continually be relied upon to do the work of caring for the deceased.
New York’s HFBA is the largest Jewish free burial society outside of Israel, founded in the 1880’s on the belief that every person deserved a proper Jewish burial. It’s clear from Andrew Parver’s intensity over the phone that he embraces this goal wholeheartedly—he has in fact never had any other job in his career. It’s also clear that no amount of funeral director or cemetery experience could have prepared him for the sheer crush of deaths due to the pandemic.
Asked about any shortages he and his team have experienced, some of which have made national headlines, Andrew doesn’t hesitate. “Time! Shortage of time! Shortage of sleep! We’ve had staff working around the clock, and mind you they weren’t asked to! Saturday night would come, and the phone calls just began. Our people just innately knew how much there was to get done.”
Ironically, this year HFBA had just invested in a new walk-in refrigerated storage space large enough to hold four bodies awaiting burial, to make sure they would never be short of space, when the magnitude of the pandemic started to become clear. They immediately ordered a 40-foot refrigerated trailer outfitted with shelves for dozens of decedents, and there have been days when they needed every single shelf and then some. Their main funeral director also quickly purchased a very large number of caskets, plus HFBA obtained any others that nearby funeral homes could not take delivery of.
At one point in April they ran out of talliesim, prayer shawls in which male decedents are wrapped in within the casket. This had never happened before. Andrew put out a public call for people to donate any they no longer wished to keep. Literally hundreds arrived within a couple days, many with notes of appreciation that someone’s tallis would be put to good use.
Likewise, monetary donations have flowed in during the pandemic. Andrew gratefully acknowledges that Hebrew Free Burial Association has always received support from across the whole geography of the Jewish community, and that is especially important now. “People understand this is an unprecedented time and they have given generously. But honestly, even if they hadn’t, our feeling is, we must do what needs to be done, and we’ll deal with the consequences later.”
Although he clearly feels quite positive about what he and his organization have managed, Andrew Parver readily admits his fears that more of the same could lie ahead. “I do sort of feel like the worst is over, in that I’m proud of everyone who got us through this crisis, and got this sacred work done so well. But it’s no secret that there’s a fear of being put back into that difficult time, that as things open up, we will see deaths rise.”
“I would hope that nothing as serious as it will ever happen again, but I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done. Everyone I work with has done heroic work, they ALL were heroes these past couple months. People stepped up and did what they had to do without complaint, almost with —I wouldn’t say joy—-but with the understanding that they were doing sacred work.”
So, our conversation ended on as upbeat a note as the times allow. As the weeks and months progress, we will try to re-contact Andrew Parver for an update on his work with the Hebrew Free Burial Association in the greater New York area.