Menachem Ziegelbaum, Beis Moshiach
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Kurtz of moshav Sdeh Moshe was born within the sheloshim of his grandfather, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Raskin. R’ Raskin was a distinguished Chassid in Kfar Chabad.
He grew up as a “good Kfar Chabad boy” and went through the system as a talmid of Tomchei Tmimim. After he married, he completed his army service where he served as a military chazan. His job entailed attending memorials and singing the “Keil Malei Rachamim.” In his words, “I considered it a shlichus to spread Judaism along with fulfilling my obligatory service.”
R’ Kurtz is a third-generation member of the chevra kadisha (burial society),“My grandfather worked in the chevra kadisha in Tel Aviv as did my father.”
He himself had no plans on perpetuating the family tradition, “My father never spoke about what he did.”
When he finished his regular tour of duty, he was offered to stay on in a permanent position joining the work of the chevra kadisha of the military chaplaincy.
“I never thought I would work in this field, I was not thinking along these lines at all, but Hashem apparently wanted otherwise.”
“When the offer was made, I asked my father: Take me to your friends in Tel Aviv and I will see how it works and then I’ll decide. I joined them for an entire day, saw what they did, and when I saw that I had what to contribute, I accepted the offer.”
R’ Kurtz worked for three years in this holy work under the IDF Southern Command, in the course of which he gained much and varied experience. He was involved with the deceased under complex circumstances and learned the secrets of the trade. This period included work during “Operation Protective Edge” (the Gaza War in 2014) and other military operations.
When he finished his military service, he joined the chevra kadisha in Tel Aviv, “This is the largest chevra kadisha in the country and the world. We deal with all the deceased of Gush Dan, that is, about a third of those who die in Eretz Yisrael.” His work includes tahara, levaya, and burial. This is sensitive work at a sensitive time with family members who are extremely sensitive. “It’s challenging,” he says.
As a Chabad Chassid, R’ Kurtz includes a shlichus angle to what he does. “A Chabadnik is a shliach wherever he goes and whatever he does.”
How does shlichus fit in here?
“Aside from the holy work with the deceased, there is also work with the living. When does an irreligious person encounter religious people? At a bris mila, a wedding, and a funeral. A bris and wedding are usually prepared for; you choose the rabbi and the atmosphere. When it comes to a funeral, the family are confused and feel lost.
“Recently, as the media has been badmouthing religious Jews, there have been times when there was more tension than usual and I had to soften that somewhat. This is the stage when I come and ask how the family is doing, share in their sorrow, and offer my readiness to answer whatever they want to ask. I offer the service albeit without a smile but with graciousness,” he says with the humor reserved for members of the chevra kadisha…
“There were funerals where the family members told me, ‘We don’t want any religious symbols.’ I responded, ‘Fine. There won’t be any shofars, no “lightning and thunder,” but if you want, you can recite a chapter of Tehillim silently or kaddish.’ I always try to add some reassuring words and when this is done pleasantly, it breaks the ice and people are appeased. I’ve had family members come over to me after a funeral and tell me, ‘It was perfectly fine, beyond our expectations.’ Or, ‘How did you conduct the funeral so well? We understood every word of the verses you said, we understood the significance of everything that was done.’ To me, this is the greatest kiddush Hashem. I think that I often succeed in my task of drawing people close.”
It was when corona was first making inroads in Eretz Yisrael and they were still trying to understand the nature of this mysterious virus that came from the East. At hospitals, you could see medical teams in protective gear from head to toe. About a week after Purim 2020, reports began coming in from Europe and the United States about huge numbers of sick people as well as many dead. News slowly began to filter in about large numbers of dead as a result of corona. The chevra kadisha soon realized that an emergency situation was looming, the likes of which they had never experienced and that they would have to contend with the unfamiliar.
When did you first become aware of the situation?
I know that discussions on the national level began to be conducted about how to handle the dead, since contagion is possible in contact with the dead. The initial guidance of the Health Ministry was unusual: Those who died of corona, so they said at first, would be brought to the cemetery directly from the hospital, without the tahara process.
Consequently, Rabbi Avraham Manlah, director of the chevra kadisha of Tel Aviv and Rabbi Yitzchok Gelbstein, director of the chevra kadisha Perushim in Yerushalayim, began hurried talks. It was not possible that a Jew, frum his entire life, would not merit a tahara before his burial.
In talks held with all official parties, the Health Ministry and the Religion Ministry decided to deal with those dead of corona with the same strict health regulations like those for medical personnel, with full protective gear. Four centers in Eretz Yisrael were established to deal with all those dead of corona. We are speaking of a few isolated facilities in which the chevra kadisha works that were especially set up for this.
“It is important to note the devotion of Rabbi Avraham Manlah who devotedly ensured the safety of the workers and their welfare while ensuring that the dead were dealt with, with the utmost respect and sensitivity.”
R’ Kurtz was appointed as the overseer of corona security and his job was to ensure that the team dealing with the dead were protected as they should be and underwent disinfection and that the tahara room was disinfected.
“The tahara was done as it was always done but with full protective gear. You had to put on the overalls with the air filtration system and layers of gloves, to ensure all was sealed. It is cumbersome and causes the work to be done more carefully.”
What other challenges did corona present?
There was a problem with identification. Some patients were in the hospital for weeks and their families were forbidden from visiting with them in fear of contagion. As time passed, the sickness made inroads and identification was difficult. Today, the hospitals are allowing family members to come in with the proper protection but during the first half of the year with corona, hospitals did not allow this.
Additionally, because of the danger of contagion, the family was not allowed to get close and identify patients. This is why there were instances in which family were unable to identify their loved ones. In these cases, my responsibility toward the deceased and his family was that much greater. I am the last one to deal with the individual … [He sighs.] No question, this is an era that will be remembered for posterity.
I mentioned to R’ Kurtz that in the early months of corona, due to the fear and uncertainty, funerals were held with few participants and in great fear.
“That’s impossible to forget. We would conduct funerals in twenty minutes without eulogies, with nothing, just kaddish, keria, the mourners standing at a distance, with hardly anybody else present since they were afraid to come. It was very sad.
“The situation was so awful that Pesach time, when the children put on the new clothes that my wife managed to buy before the chaos, I said, ‘Moshiach is coming; it’s about to happen.’ The feelings were at such a low point that it brought forth such a powerful emuna that the great hisgalus would happen seder night.
“I felt that this galus was so hard, a galus within a galus, such an insane situation, the likes of which we never had seen before so the Rebbe must come and it would happen any minute. It is hard for me to believe that it’s a year later and the Geula is still in the offing.”
At first, there were hardly any dead of corona in Eretz Yisrael while the virus struck full-force at Jews in Europe and the United States. Flights stopped and many bodies were brought for burial in Israel via private plane that relatives hired for thousands of dollars.
In the next waves, people were more careful and the death rate among religious Jews in those countries went down a lot. This affected our work but then the virus hit Eretz Yisrael.
When was the toughest time?
There was a time when every day there were fifteen to twenty taharos. That wasn’t easy, dealing with that with protective gear and with respect to the deceased while keeping to a schedule since family members were waiting. There was one Sunday when I went into the tahara room at nine in the morning and did not leave until five in the afternoon, all of it under heavy protection. I felt like the medical teams in hospitals who work for many hours in heavy, protective gear.
A doctor can finish his shift with some measure of success while you don’t have happy endings …
Right, but I know that despite the situation, I am providing the last respects to this Jew who died and it fills me with a great sense of mission. Our director calls us the “commandos of the chevra kadisha.” It’s a challenge that not all workers agreed to handle.
R’ Kurtz says that usually, in his region, there aren’t many taharos for religious people because of the type of people living in the cities he is appointed over. Now, when those who died of corona from all of Gush Dan come to him, he deals with many religious Jews including admorim, rabbanim, roshei yeshivos and upstanding people.
When you deal with Jews like these, do you feel differently about your work?
“Definitely. These are people whose words were listened to by thousands …”
The experiences that he has every day, several time a day, are difficult.
“Every day, I go to work and try to regard it as my first day on the job. There can’t be burnout and the work cannot be done in technical fashion.”
Despite the frequency, he finds himself listening to eulogies and being moved like at “funerals of Holocaust survivors, heroes, people who saved others with unbelievable self-sacrifice. I sometimes shed a tear when I listen. I sometimes tell the family, ‘I consider it a privilege to be with you as you escort this special person for the last time.’
“I recently dealt with the burial of a woman who was 99 which was followed by the funeral of a 23 year old woman who left a young child; it was heartbreaking. At one funeral they spoke about a fifth and sixth generation and at the other funeral, the same day, to hear young children saying kaddish … It’s hard to fathom.
“I’ve also seen families who quarreled for years and at the funeral of a parent they made up. This moves me every time.”
You say, don’t wait for moments like these to make peace …
Right! It gives you perspective on life. When I sometimes have an argument with someone, I say, “After what I’ve seen today, let’s look at this in perspective. Let’s keep the arguments for another time… [laughing] and it helps.”
R’ Kurtz himself had corona. He doesn’t know where he got it from (“Maybe at one of the funerals”). There were a few days with high fever, he lost the senses of taste and smell. “All in all, I made it through okay.”
You sometimes deal with people who, a week ago, thought they had another fifty years ahead of them and suddenly came to the end. Does this make you appreciate life more?
“Certainly, especially now, during the corona era when people had untimely ends within a few days. I see this every day and it provides a perspective on life. It makes me go home at the end of the day and kiss my children and say to Hashem, ‘Thank you for my being here with them so that I can provide them with what I am able to …’”
SHLICHUS WITH THE LIVING
In addition to his work with the deceased, R’ Kurtz deals with the living in his shlichus at moshav Sdeh Moshe, east of Kiryat Gat. The yishuv has about two hundred residents.
At his parents’ home in Kfar Chabad, they raised them for shlichus. His siblings are shluchim in Eretz Yisrael and elsewhere. Before he married, he knew that he wanted to go on shlichus but it took time until he found his place. In the meantime, he lived in Kiryat Gat.
“We knew that it was only temporary, on the way to our shlichus. Whenever I went to my parents in Kfar Chabad, I saw Sdeh Moshe.”
R’ Kurtz wanted to check the place out. He called some people who knew the place and he began doing some activities on a small scale. The yishuv reminded him of the atmosphere (and smell) of Kfar Chabad.
“Pesach marks two years that we are here,” says R’ Kurtz as he told me of the relationships he has developed with many of the people as well as members of the vaad.
This is not a religious moshav and the residents are absolutely opposed to religious life. There is no mikva and no eiruv on principle, “so that the religious folk won’t come and live here.”
Members of the municipal committee are among his friends but members of the corporate committee did not look favorably when this Chassidic family moved in.
“The head of the corporate committee, a farmer who grows grapes, really did not like the fact that we had arrived. One time, when I went to arrange water payment, I met him together with all the members of the vaad. ‘Why did you come here?’ he asked. That was my welcome.
“All the members of the vaad were sitting around him and looking at me, waiting to hear what I would say. I addressed Hashem in my heart, ‘Please give me the right words.’
“I said to him, ‘There is the scent of my childhood here, the scent of trees, the cows, the chickens, just what I’m used to and love.’
“Where did you grow up?”
“In Kfar Chabad.”
“If you are seeking the scent of your childhood, go and live in Kfar Chabad.”
I said, “You are equating the quality of life you have here?”
“He liked that I said ‘quality of life,’ and left me alone.
“Every Shabbos, I review sichos in the shul. I started shiurim that we have every evening, we started a children’s club, learn with children before their bar mitzva and do other programs that are suitable for a small moshav.”
When the Kurtz family recently had a new baby boy, the bris was held at the moshav.
“This is our first child born on shlichus,” says R’ Kurtz proudly. “We held a festive bris and brought my wife’s uncle, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman from Migdal HaEmek to be the sandak. Typically of him, he made a whole ceremony with the brachos that he gave the residents. The excitement level was high. It made a tremendous impact on them.”
A year ago, as R’ Kurtz walked to shul on Shabbos morning, a car stopped near him and the driver asked how to get to the shul. That Shabbos, there was a bar mitzva for one of the children on the moshav.
“I was unsure about what to do. If I told him how to go, I would cause chillul Shabbos and if I didn’t tell him, he would continue driving around.
“The driver was wearing a kippa and a tallis which was weird. From his question, I realized he was not an Israeli. In the end, I said, ‘I am going to the shul now.’ I don’t know whether he understood the significance of what I said but I had him escorting me all the way to the shul where I welcomed him with a hearty ‘shalom aleichem.’ It turned out he was a Conservative rabbi who was a friend of the father of the bar mitzva boy. He came from Chicago especially for this occasion. He listened to my speech and even asked questions.”
PROTECTING HEALTH AT ALL COSTS
R’ Kurtz’s shlichus is not merely an addition to his day job but is part of it. He helps other shluchim around the world who have to deal with the Jewish dead and don’t know what to do.
“They might be young shluchim who are forced to deal with situations like these for the first time in their lives and it can be traumatic.
“Five months ago, I got a phone call from Shmulik Vishedsky, shliach in Japan, who told me, ‘A Jew died. How do I sew tachrichim? What am I supposed to do?’ I sent him pictures of sample tachrichim and he took them to a local seamstress who made them. I also explained to him the entire tahara and burial process.
“I feel privileged to be part of the work of shluchim around the world. When we finished talking, I reassured him and said, ‘If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to call me.’ The funeral took place toward morning our time. The fact that he knew that he had someone he could ask calmed him. Afterward, he told me that it was the first Jewish burial in the city where he lives and the Japanese expressed their amazement at it.”
A shliach called R’ Kurtz from Europe with some questions about tahara.
“I explained it all to him. Two days later, his father had a heart attack and died suddenly. It turned out that the conversation with the shliach prepared him; he didn’t even know how soon he would need to use the information that he received.”
We hear a lot about the importance of taking care of our health. What do you say about that?
We must take care of our health. I am not a medical person but I’ve seen the sad results of young people who caught the virus and paid with their lives.
People must understand that we are fighting for our lives. It’s not a joke. We need to be most careful with the mitzva of “v’nishmarten me’od l’nafshoseichem” (take great care of your lives).
The magazine can be obtained in stores around Crown Heights. To purchase a subscription, please go to: bmoshiach.org