Many of the stories my esteemed guest shares with me are not for the faint of heart.
“One of the things Misakim takes care of,” Yanky Meyer, its benevolent founder, tells me, “is burying amputated limbs. We got a phone call about a young mother who had to have her hands and feet amputated. As tough as I am, I cried for a week. Her son’s bar mitzvah was coming up, but she said that she couldn’t make one because she just couldn’t face it. The bar mitzvah ended up being held in a beautiful hall and Avraham Fried came to sing. Who put that together? We did.
“I’ve stood at the exit ramp of airplanes many times waiting for people to come off so I could give them a besorah that wasn’t good. Whenever I have to tell a family that they’ve lost a loved one, all I can think is that in the next 30 seconds I’m going to turn their lives upside-down forever. It’s something that can never be undone. It hurts a lot, and there’s nothing you can do to comfort yourself when doing it.”
“And you walk around with that pain inside you?” I ask him.
“I sure do,” is his candid response. “Sometimes I see people on the street and I immediately recognize them and think, I was the one who informed them. Someone had to do it, and I was put into this position to do it, but it hurts. You can’t just ignore it. I invite these people to my simchos and they invite me to theirs, but it doesn’t cover up that pain. It’s there all the time. That’s the nature of it.
“The Eibershter made us in a way that we are able to forget things and heal over time, but it’s not as if I’ve only done this once and that was the end of it. Let me tell you a story:
“One time I got a phone call at 4:30 in the morning about a crib death. The race was on to be able to bring the child to kever Yisrael. We were finished by noon, after which a couple of us who were involved in the case went to daven Shacharis. At 12:25 we got a phone call about another crib death in the community, which is something that had never happened to us before. Two crib deaths on the same day? When we came back to the medical examiner a few hours later, a non-Jew in the office started crying when he saw that we had brought another baby who had died suddenly. These guys see bodies all day long—it’s all they do—but it still touched him.
“The next day I went to the house of the parents of the first baby while they were sitting shivah and I took them to the parents of the second baby. One father is a Gerer chasid and the other is a Litvak. They held each other, they cried together and they became best friends. Both tragedies took place on the same day, with a baby of the same age—their birthdays were almost identical—and the same number baby in the family. Everything was similar. I cannot give someone the kind of chizzuk that these two can give each other. I don’t know if they’re still in touch, but at that moment they were able to help each other. It’s taking chesed and passing it along. It’s priceless.”
More Than Tables and Chairs
“Most people think of Misaskim as the people who provide aveilim with siddurim, sifrei Torah and low chairs,” I say.
“That’s one of our biggest problems, because that’s actually at the bottom of the list of everything we do. The chairs only appear after everything else has been taken care of. For example, there was a bachur who passed away in Canada on a Friday a couple of weeks ago. He was a healthy boy from New York who simply collapsed while visiting there. The first thing we had to do was break the news to the parents. We have people who are trained to break the news in cases of tragedy. Then we had to find all the siblings and grandparents. Some of the siblings were on a flight to California, so we had to have people waiting for them in the airport to tell them to turn around. Then we had to deal with the medical examiner in Canada, which was very difficult. We had to get doctors from here to write letters; this went on until all hours of the night. It was a marathon but we weren’t able to get the body released before Shabbos.
“There were so many sh’eilos: What should we let them do? What can’t we let them do? How long should we fight with them? A lot of different rabbanim got involved. We also had to have askanim in Canada get in touch with politicians as well as consult with some Canadian lawyers. It was a whirlwind of activity, and at the same time we were trying to comfort parents who had just lost their son.