By Yaffi Spodek
Issue of June 12, 2009 / 20 Sivan 5769
Friday, June 6, marked the first time since Misaskim’s founding nearly five years ago that its warehouses were empty –– a result of an unusually high number of aveilim (mourners) in the Jewish community beginning shiva at the same time.
“Unfortunately, we got hit very hard this week,” explained Rabbi Yankie Meyer, one of the founders of Misaskim. “There were over 300 aveilim in 42 places, and we are working on replenishing... We just did pick-ups on Sunday so our supplies are automatically replenished.”
Some of these supplies — provided free of charge — include chairs, coat racks, air conditioners, siddurim (prayer books), Tylenol, water coolers and other amenities aveilim may require or request during the week-long mourning period.
Though Misaskim is best known for assisting the bereaved, the organization is also involved in a host of other Jewish communal services. Members of its
disaster recovery unit are trained and equipped to respond to scenes of fatal accidents, often stepping in to prevent an autopsy through interactions with medical examiners and government agencies. “These cases are where we actually spend the most time,” Meyer noted, “since it takes time to travel to the different offices.”
During a typical week, there are approximately 35 families sitting shiva in the local Jewish community, totaling between 150 to 200 people, Meyer said.
Though peak times often occur after holidays — the previous record was 250 aveilim in one week — Misaskim has always been equipped to meet the demand. Meyer attributes last week’s overflow to the fact that many of the 300 mourners were members of large families, leading to a shortage of shiva chairs, he explained.
“We managed to find some more shiva chairs in our warehouse in Lakewood,” Meyer said. “We had plenty of folding chairs, but we didn’t have enough shiva chairs. But by Sunday, we were fine.”
To store equipment, Misaskim operates warehouses in Brooklyn (which supplies to Long Island), Monsey, Lakewood and Kiryas Joel, serviced by close to 100 volunteers. The largest contingent of volunteers comes from Brooklyn, a demographic that Meyer hopes will change in the near future.
“We are going to be expanding within neighborhoods,” he told The Jewish Star. “Right now, we don’t have a lot of volunteers in the Five Towns, and we want to change that. For example, if we have an emergency at the airport at rush hour, we want to be able to send people from the Five Towns and all over, who may be closer than Brooklyn.”
Meyer estimates that Misaskim provided services to close to 10,000 people throughout the tri-state area in 2008. For any halachic questions that arise, the organization consults with Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, who heads a beis din (Court of Jewish Law) in Brooklyn.
A description of Misaskim from its web site, misaskim.org, is perhaps the best way to encapsulate what the organization is all about: “Understanding tragedy with compassion... Coordinating crisis with expertise... Throughout life’s darkest moments, Misaskim is a source of light and warmth, encouragement and direction.”
“For every tragedy, there is a completely different way to deal with it,” Meyer explained, “and whatever it is, we do it.”