Growing up as a kid, I distinctly recall a large black box with a couple of low, stuffed chairs sitting in the corner of my shul’s social hall. This chevrah kadisha box, originally containing soft-covered siddurim falling apart and later upgraded to the ArtScroll Siddur Nechamas Yisrael, was spotted at shiv’ah houses across the neighborhood. Dealing with death is an uncomfortable part of life, and aside from the emergent scenarios – such the death of a loved one, and the family is therefore sitting shiv’ah – when the community springs into action, or the annual Chevrah Kadisha dinner, dealing with death is “out of sight, out of mind” for most people.
Yanky Meyer founded Misaskim to change all that.
Almost 20 years ago, Yanky paid a shiv’ah call to a friend and was saddened to see him sitting on a box in the living room. He purchased the now-ubiquitous plastic chairs and cushions. A warehouse space was arranged. Friends came and volunteered their vans. What started as a simple effort to make sitting shiv’ah just a little easier exploded. First expanding across neighborhoods in Brooklyn, then Queens and Long Island, it has now grown across the United States and around the world, with Misaskim garages, vans, and thousands of volunteers in Lakewood, Toronto, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Miami, London, and Manchester.
As the organization has grown, so has its mission and scope. Many volunteers are trained in search, rescue, and recovering bodies al pi halachah. After car accidents, storms, and hikers disappearing, Misaskim is one of the first to be called. Misaskim will coordinate with the local chevrah kadisha to arrange for identification and burial while preserving kavod ha’meis.
Mitzvah goreres mitzvah. In true Yanky Meyer fashion, Misaskim has gone beyond its original mission, and its volunteers, inspired by Yanky’s enthusiasm and sensitivity, have gone along for the ride. Oftentimes, Misaskim volunteers will show up at a beis aveil, clean the house, organize the chairs, post the time and location of the shiv’ah minyan, and set up a sefer Torah. Misaskim sends meals, and organizes Chol HaMoed trips (Project ABC).
The sight of a hearse or the city’s Medical Examiner van on the street does not evoke the same thoughts as a Misaskim van. This vehicle, bearing the organization’s logo, has become the symbol of Yanky Meyer’s values that began with a chair and a minyan, now offering comfort to the bereaved and, without doubt, the soul of their deceased loved one.
Project Yedid, originally envisioned to bring Yom Tov gift packages to y’somim, now sends back-to-school boxes, Chanukah packages, Purim packages, and cheesecakes for Shavuos. Kids get school supplies, books, toys, and treats. Last Chanukah, we delivered over 280 packages in Queens alone. Thousands of dollars were raised for Purim.
It’s terrible and tragic to lose a loved one. There’s nothing anyone can do to replace the void left behind by the loss of a parent, uncle, spouse. Misaskim aims to try to soften that blow, make things just a bit easier in that time of pain and vulnerability.
May the mitzvos done by the volunteers of Misaskim and chevros kadisha be a z’chus for an ilui neshamah for Reb Yaakov Michael ben Yisrael.
By Yedidya Hirschhorn