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More Than Just Chairs

While people think of Misaskim as the guys who bring accessories to shivah houses and post nichum aveilim notices, those are just the end products


Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab

 

Like most of us, Yanky Meyer will never forget September 11th, 2001 — the day the unthinkable happened. As a longtime Hatzolah member, Meyer — who later became founder and head of Misaskim — had always made it his business to stay with victims who didn’t survive and to coordinate efforts with other parties involved to ensure kavod hameis.He developed crucial connections along the way with city agencies, becoming a chaplain for multiple branches of law enforcement including the Port Authority. And so, 18 years ago last week, when terror struck on that fateful Tuesday morning with the breaking news that the World Trade Center had been hit by a passenger airliner, Yanky Meyer knew he had to be at the scene.

As he was racing toward Lower Manhattan, still unaware of the magnitude of the catastrophe, he saw the second plane fly straight into the South Tower. When he arrived — the towers not yet imploded — he stood by helplessly with other rescue personnel watching as people were jumping out of the buildings. Suddenly, the world around him was covered with a cloud of twisted metal and black choking soot. Making a human chain, he and other emergency personnel were able to cut through a building across the street, but as the second tower began to come down, he couldn’t outrun the cloud of ash that was closing in on him — until the hand of a nearby building superintendent reached out and dragged him into the relative safety of a basement, gave him a working cell phone so he could call his wife, and then brought him over to a sink with running water. It took close to an hour to cough out all the soot from his lungs.

But once he could breathe again, emergency services had to move into high gear with no time to waste. At first, the nearby Manhattan Community College campus was set up as an emergency room, and Yanky sped off to Brooklyn in a police car to load up a truck with medical supplies. He wound up staying on the scene until Shabbos, sleeping in his car and coming home just once to shower off all the soot and ash. For months afterwards Meyer was summoned back to the rubble in the middle of the night because, living as he did just six miles away, he was one of the closest chaplains to Ground Zero.

“Bodies and human remains were being found for months afterwards, and there was never a body removed without a chaplain present,” Meyer remembers. “You suited up and went down into the pit and didn’t know what you were going to find. We just kept going back and forth. There were many halachic questions that came up, and we tried different ways of finding information, like if someone had swiped their ID that morning to verify if he was in the building, so that his wife wouldn’t remain an agunah. We escorted bodies to the medical examiner’s office and cemented relationships we already had.”

Misaskim didn’t yet exist, but when it was established four years later, those connections made a world of difference.

According to Reb Yanky Meyer, the day we meet in Boro Park’s Misaskim office is pretty typical. He had just returned from Eretz Yisrael the day before, and since that time, he dealt with the deaths of three small children, the burial of a Jewish woman who perished in the California boat fire, and made a 108-mile round trip to get nine skids of school supplies to distribute to yesomim. Welcome to the world of Yanky Meyer, where Misaskim is about so much more than just providing shivah chairs and sifrei Torah for aveilim.

“Lost people think of Misaskim as the people who provide accessories for shivah houses and post nichum aveilim notices,” says Meyer, who is still part of Hatzolah and goes out on calls, “but those things are really the culmination of everything else we do, after everything else has been taken care of.” That could mean anything from breaking news to family members of a tragedy, to releasing a niftar across a border, or dealing with the medical examiner’s office. And that means cultivating relationships with law enforcement agencies and government offices and creating an awareness of the issues that are important to the Jewish community, especially with regard to kavod hameis.

When he was young, Yanky Meyer says he never saw himself spending his days and nights doing what he does now. He was just one of those guys who made it a habit to pitch in and roll up his sleeves when he saw something that needed to be done and, in addition to volunteering for Hatzolah, he spent his Thursday nights volunteering at Tomchei Shabbos and his Shabbos afternoons visiting the sick.

“I always liked helping a Jew, like every Jew does,” explains Meyer. “Every Jew has it in his heart to help a fellow Yid in some way, some more and some less, and that’s where it all started from.”

Chesed shel emes was never far for Yanky Meyer’s reality, even as a kid. His grandmother came to New York after World War Two and established the women’s Chevra Kaddisha of Boro Park, and he grew up in a home where it was an honor to care for niftarim — and where taharah keilim were kept in the family garage. The values that would one day give way to Misaskim were part of the upbringing he received from his parents — and so was the poise, dignity, and levelheadedness that Meyer is typically known for, even in high-pressure situations.

He still remembers the lesson he learned when someone close to the family passed away, and there were many arrangements that had to be made. “I came home from yeshivah, heard the tragic news, and immediately hurried over to the house of mourning to offer help. I ran all the way there and then ran up six flights of stairs to their apartment — I was young, energetic, and in a rush — and entered the apartment breathlessly, with a splash. My father was standing there and he looked up at me. ‘Nisht azoi kimt men arein tzu a niftar — that is not how one enters a house of mourning’ — with such haste, energy, and liveliness. He sent me back home.”

It was a lesson young Yanky never forgot.

Boro Park born and bred, Meyer attended Yeshiva Karlin-Stolin as a teenager, then moved on to a small local yeshivah called Ohel Yaakov, learned in Mir and Beis Medrash Govoha, and after his marriage to Gittel Glancz, he joined Hatzolah and opened up Paper Masters, a printing company that he stills run today. (His company name, he reveals, is actually what gave “Misaskim” its name. When he was looking to name his fledgling organization, he googled the name of his printing company, Paper Masters, and found an article by a person whose last name was Papermaster. “This man wrote that when his father died, the misaskim came to take care of him,” says Meyer. “He was referring to the people who got involved, and that described what we were, so the name stuck.”)

Going out on Hatzolah calls at all times of day and night, Meyer saw firsthand that death brought with it a long list of arrangements that needed to be coordinated, something that wasn’t being taken care of in any formal way. The number of requests that Meyer received for assistance continued to grow, until it became clear that a central number for people to call was needed for help setting up a shivah house, expediting burial, or dealing with a particular agency. Misaskim was officially founded in 2005 under the auspices of Rav Yechezkel Roth, who remains the agency’s rabbinical authority. It’s legendary chair gemach debuted at the shivah for Rebbetzin Zahava Braunstein a”h.

“We came in and people were blown away,” says Meyer. “Misaskim became a runaway train in the Tristate area because there was such a need.”

It might have started with chairs for shivah houses, but soon people began calling when they needed help with a levayah — this year alone Misaskim has buried 119 mesei mitzvah, often preventing cremation by picking up the tab to ensure that families will agree to a halachic burial.

Meyer says he can’t even count the times he’s stood outside the doors of the exit ramp waiting for family members to come off the airplane to give them tragic news about a loved one, or knocked on the door of a home to deliver a besurah he knows will change their life forever.

But having leveraged connections forged over the years to benefit the klal, Meyer is the first to ascribe Misaskim’s success to siyata d’Shmaya. He tells of how detectives were once called to a Boro Park home late at night after a baby drowned on Rosh Hashanah, and it soon became evident that the authorities suspected foul play. One detective informed Meyer that the Administration for Children’s Services had been alerted, and family members were being questioned repeatedly for hours.

“Luckily we were there to mediate and it was ruled an accident,” says Meyer, “but this family went through Gehinnom.”

Meyer recalls an incident where a New Jersey medical examiner he had been trying to contact for a long time reached out to him prior to the last Siyum HaShas to arrange a meeting. The medical examiner, Dr. Roger Mitchell, walked into the Misaskim office shortly after Meyer had learned of a frum man who died in Jersey City after choking on his lunch. Efforts to get the Newark Medical Examiner’s Office to forego an autopsy were not going well at all.

“He walked in and I said, ‘Doc, now you know why you’re here — before we do anything else, you have to get the body released,’ ” recalls Meyer. Dr. Mitchell made a few phone calls and it was soon determined that there had been no foul play and that there was no need for an autopsy.

“Why did he come exactly that day at that specific time when I’d been trying for ages to set up a meeting?” asks Meyer. “Because Hashem had a master plan — and today he’s the head medical examiner in D.C. and has been helpful to us countless times.”

In another case, a yungerman from Eretz Yisrael passed away on a Thursday night in Maimonides Hospital at 5:50 p.m., a day before Pesach. With the last possible pre-Yom Tov flight leaving JFK in less than two hours, things had to happen fast or burial wouldn’t take place until Chol Hamoed. Meyer put the necessary paperwork into motion, while arrangements were made to get the meis to the airport as quickly as possible. Providentially, high ranking members of the Port Authority Police Department — of which Meyer is a chaplain — were already at JFK, preparing for a papal visit scheduled for the next day.

“Everyone I needed to talk to was already there,” says Meyer. “They had guys at El Al cargo. They had guys in the terminal. They had guys everywhere.”

Rushing to make the flight, Misaskim volunteers had a scare when a scanner malfunctioned just as the aron was being put through, but they still managed to get the niftar onto the plane before the doors closed at 7:15.

“The only reason we made it was because the Port Authority brass was on the ground and in place,” says Meyer. “The Eibeshter sent the pope to New York so this yungerman could be buried on time.”

Misaskim has been involved in the legislative process on several occasions, including a successful effort several years ago to change a law giving mortuary schools the right to demand bodies for dissection if they remained unclaimed at the medical examiner’s office after 48 hours. Misaskim’s involvement in that law became what Meyer dubbed “the refuah before the makah” in the story that haunts him more than any other: the Sassoon fire.

It was March 20th, 2015, just hours before the heartbreaking Friday night blaze that claimed the lives of the seven Sassoon children, that State Senate Bill S3340 addressing unclaimed bodies was first introduced on the Senate floor by Senator Simcha Felder. Because the medical examiner’s office had been working with Meyer to bring the bill to the floor and amend the law, everyone in the medical examiner’s office felt a sense of camaraderie with Meyer and were happy to expedite the Sassoon burials, despite being woken up in the middle of the night.

Four-and-a-half years after the devastating fire, Meyer still gets emotional recalling the horrific scene with niftarim in four different hospitals.

“I’ve unfortunately been around many times when a child passes away and these weren’t the first children who passed away in a fire, but it was the first time I was in a room where a child died and there was not a single family member in the room to turn to,” says Meyer. It was only after everything had been arranged with the medical examiners that they realized there was another daughter in the burn center in Staten Island with no one to look after her. Meyer woke up another hospital liaison and the police drove them to the hospital to make sure she was getting proper care until family members could be there.

He was called into the 70th Precinct on Shabbos morning when the children’s father, who had been away for the weekend, was located. Shaking his head, Meyer pauses for a long moment before sharing how he broke the incomprehensible news to Gavriel Sassoon — the memory still painful for a man who typically remains unruffled by the worst of the worst.

“He was screaming and held onto me so tight I thought he would choke me,” says Meyer. “All of a sudden he stopped and said, ‘It’s Shabbos today. I’m not allowed to cry.’ ”

Another incident Meyer will never forget was that of a non-Jewish North Carolina coroner who had received the body of a man whose arm bore a numbered tattoo. Understanding that he was looking at a Holocaust survivor, the coroner reached out to a local rabbi who contacted Misaskim. It didn’t take long to discover that the man had authored a book espousing opinions that were antithetical to Yiddishkeit, and had asked to be cremated so that he could join his concentration camp-victim parents in the Olam Haemes in the same way they had gotten there.

“We called his kids and asked them why they were giving in to Hitler,” says Meyer. “We told them, ‘This is exactly what Hitler wanted, that there should be no remembrance of Jews who passed away. Why are you playing into that?’ ”

With the children’s permission, Misaskim volunteers picked up the body in North Carolina and transported it to New York for a taharah and a proper levayah. The niftar was ultimately flown to Eretz Yisrael for kevurah, with the family paying the burial costs.

“We were able to bring him to kever Yisrael,” recalls Meyer. “It felt like the Eibeshter was saying to him, ‘I know you have taanos on Me, but don’t worry, I’m still taking care of you.”

 

While people associate Yanky Meyer with mesirus nefesh for niftarim and their families, what many don’t know is that, due to his connections, and wide net of contacts, and organizational prowess, he’s one of the main liaisons when it comes to big-event security considerations. Large banners adorning the walls of Misaskim’s headquarters tell part of the story, with pictures of Misaskim-coordinated security at the 12th Siyum HaShas, the Citifield Internet asifah and the January 2015 funeral of an NYPD officer killed in the line of duty where Misaskim also served 6,000 cups of hot coffee. There’s also a powerful overhead shot of the Skulener Rebbe’s levayah last April — a virtual sea of black spanning several blocks as tens of thousands came to give kavod acharon to a Torah giant. (After staying up most of the night and spending most of his day ensuring that everything ran smoothly from start to finish, Meyer was off to his next event of the day — his own daughter’s wedding. Taking out his phone, he finds a picture taken by his children at the wedding hall: He’s dressed up in a black suit and hat with his feet up on a chair, catching a quick nap before the guests arrived. It was a rare photo of the man who never sleeps actually closing his eyes.)

It’s in those mega events for the frum community that have seen major security adjustments, and Yanky Meyer has been on the front lines of those changes.

“I remember the big logistical issue of the 11th Siyum in 2005 was getting Chazzan Helfgott out of the venue and over to the airport so that he could make his flight to Lublin,” he says. “But seven years later, in 2012, at private pre-Siyum meetings with the FBI, they were discussing the possibilities of an attack on the electrical or water grid.

“At the Siyum, there was a Middle-Eastern fellow standing in the parking lot taking pictures and within seconds, he was apprehended by law enforcement and taken to the debriefing room for questioning. He said he was a reporter, but he’d left his credentials at home. There were some tense moments there while that got straightened out — but in the meantime, they closed up the entrances and slowed the incoming crowd down.”

Meyer remembers how they pulled in another fellow from the parking lot, and when they interrogated him, he seemed to have trouble remembering his birthday, and even where he was from — Monroe? Yerushalayim? A real sweet Jew encumbered by problems. He was collecting money for his ailing wife and sick children, and the officials couldn’t communicate with him. “So I pulled out a hundred-dollar bill and said, ‘Listen, Reb Yid, take this money and stop collecting, they don’t want you doing that here.’ He agreed. The officers were flabbergasted at the concept of giving a panhandler a hundred dollars.”

Another international event of a decade ago was the gatherings for birchas hachamah on Erev Pesach in 2009. “Erev Pesach is a day that takes cooperation between our community and the police department, because of all the fires for bi’ur chometz,” Meyer explains, “so when we told them about birchas hachamah and what it entailed, they put on that what-will-the-Jewish-community-do-next expression. Many of them have no concept of a 28-year cycle, and here we were, maintaining a custom once every 28 years.”

But in the end, the large crowds, coming together for an elevated purpose, always leaves both ground staff and security officials astounded.

“I remember how after the technology asifah, one of the Citi Field personnel joked to me, ‘I wish you would have let us bring the Mets out onto the field that night — they never played in front of such a large crowd!’ ”

And the MetLife personnel are already waiting for the upcoming Siyum this winter. “At the last Siyum, one of them said to me, ‘Jack, you guys have got to start learning two pages a day, then the time between events will go quicker.’ ”

 

Meyer, who starts his day at the 6:20 a.m. daf yomi shiur and Shacharis at Congregation Mateh Efraim, is quick to credit his wife Gittel for being on board with the time commitments and hard work that are part and parcel of Misaskim, noting that it’s in her DNA as well. He shares that her grandfather, Rabbi Yaakov Shloima Friedman, was the address for bikur cholim and caring for almanos in his native Petach Tikvah, while her mother would become involved in tzedakah events organized by customers who patronized her paper goods store.

“How many Shabbos meals did she wait for me?” says Meyer of his wife of 35 years. “How many times did we have to go somewhere but didn’t because something happened that we couldn’t pass along to anyone else?”

Meyer lavishes the same praise on the wives of his 300 volunteers, who jump in when a family is faced with the ultimate bad news and is at a loss for what to do first. There’s a meis that needs to be prepared for the levayah, a death certificate that needs to be arranged, the actual levayah that needs coordination, notices that need to be posted, often myriad travel arrangements for family members arriving from abroad, and then, after everything else, the shivah, which has its own set of needs: sefer Torah, siddurim, chairs, Mishnayos.

When Misaskim is notified about a death, their first job is to expedite the bureaucratic process; they also offer chevra kaddisha services, preparing the body for burial, and can set up the levayah as well, working with the various Orthodox chapels across New York. And of course, they’ve revolutionized the shivah experience as well. No longer does the grieving family have to borrow chairs from one gemach and siddurim from another. Misaskim brings everything from air conditioners and water coolers to Tylenol (“People come home from the levayah with a headache, so this helps.”)

And when shivah is over, they don’t just walk away. Floors need to be washed, trash needs to be taken out, and if it’s Erev Shabbos or Yom Tov, that has to be taken care of as well.

“For a shivah that ends Erev Pesach,” says Meyer, “we don’t just pick up the chairs. Our guys get down on their hands and knees cleaning the floor, closing everything up for Pesach and kashering the kitchen.” In this past year alone, Meyer’s volunteers — involved in practically every tragedy that strikes the Jewish community — have made 2,404 shivah house deliveries, served 8,256 aveilim, prevented 252 autopsies and cremations, and provided outreach and services to nearly 2,000 yesomim.

Misaskim volunteers, always on the lookout for voids that need to be filled, have taken yesomim for new bikes and helmets because there was no one else available, and Meyer recalls an almanah who called at 1 a.m. to ask if anyone could take her to the country because her scheduled ride had fallen through.

“The dispatcher told her to go to sleep and not to worry about it,” recalls Meyer. “Where we were getting a driver from, G-d only knew, but the next day at noon there were two vans there waiting for her.”

Almonos and yesomim are treasured members of the Misaskim family, and Meyer confides that helping families move on after the tragedy of death is one of the best healing therapies for himself and his volunteers, who are inundated daily with dark and depressing realities that would send most people into a downward spiral.

Because for Yanky Meyer and his staff, the healing comes from following through to the end — sometimes with kochos you didn’t even know you have — and not from anything you get in return.

Meyer says the best piece of advice he ever got was from Agudah leader Rabbi Moshe Sherer. “He said, ‘If you ever expect a thank you for helping someone, you will always walk away disappointed.’ ”

And that’s why Misaskim, the organization he established and leads, seems to be everywhere, although their work knows no set hours or locations: Yanky and his team are available whenever a Yiddishe neshamah leaves its corporeal dwelling.

Oh, and they also have shivah chairs.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 778)

 

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