On the week following TEAM Shabbos, when many synagogues in Queens address topics relating to death and mourning, an opportunity to perform a kiddush Hashem arose, demonstrating that the community has taken the message to heart and rose to the occasion. “People want to do mitzvos; they only need the opportunity,” said Rabbi Yossi Mendelson of Congregation Machane Chodosh in Forest Hills.
On Thursday, December 20, Far Rockaway resident Lenka Markovitz-Eisenbergerova, 95, died at the Brookhaven Rehab & Health Care Center. With her daughter and granddaughter living in Europe and no son to say Kaddish, the staff quickly sent out notices online to ensure that a minyan would be present at her gravesite. “There are Holocaust survivors and elderly people who die all the time without any mourners present. It happens more often than we think,” said Jennifer Martin, funeral director at Schwartz Brothers-Jeffer Memorial Chapel in Forest Hills.
Quiet but memorable among her neighbors, she did not discuss her Holocaust survival but was deeply observant. She was born in Galanta, Slovakia, where the roundup and murder of Jews began in 1944 under the collaborationist Hungarian forces. With her daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter living in Europe, the funeral home waited until their arrival in New York to conduct the burial. “The granddaughter takes care of her mother, so it wasn’t easy for her to fly here,” said Rabbi Mendelson, who conducted the funeral.
From one Facebook group to another, the appeal to provide a minyan at Mrs. Markovitz’s funeral went viral. In Far Rockaway, the emergency services nonprofit Achiezer also sent out a notice to its supporters.
In the cold pouring rain on the morning of Friday, December 28, more than 150 people showed up to bury Lenka Markovitz. “There was a family plot at Union Fields Cemetery with one vacant spot. It was purchased for her,” said Rabbi Mendelson. Jews of all ages and backgrounds huddled around the gravesite as Kaddish was recited. “There was so much traffic to get in, the highway was blocked. Once inside the cemetery, there were cars everywhere along the cemetery road, a long line of bumper-to-bumper cars. It was as if it was a funeral of a famous person,” said a staffer of Brookhaven Rehab who attended the funeral. “Most people didn’t even know her name. There was a sense of urgency in the air to get there quickly and to reach the grave on time.”
The staffer noted that Lenka cried each year when Ani Maamin was sung at Holocaust commemorations, and it was also sung by Rabbi Mendelson at her graveside service.
Between his roles as a mara d’asra, a Chabad shaliach, and officiating at funerals, Rabbi Mendelson agreed that there are many funerals that take place without a minyan. After learning that there is no son to recite Kaddish, many of the mourners approached him asking for her name. Others offered to donate funds for the funeral. Many women were also in attendance to pay respect to a survivor. “Of course I was going to come. If it had been nice weather, more would have come,” said one mourner. “But when I saw it was raining I knew I had to come.”
Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal, whose district represents the largest Jewish community in Queens, also attended and tweeted a photo of the crowd. It resonated among his elected colleagues and Jewish community activists. Mi k’amcha Yisrael seemed to be the most common reaction. What other community would take the initiative on short notice in such inclement weather for someone whose name became known publicly as she was being laid to rest?
“This funeral inspired me to reach out to the community. When I know that there may not be enough people present, I will ask the family and then put out a notice,” said Martin.
Queens has more cemeteries than any other borough in New York City, with Mount Hebron Cemetery abutting Kew Gardens Hills, and the “cemetery belt” along Jackie Robinson Parkway being a ten-minute drive from the heart of the neighborhood; the opportunity to perform a mitzvah of chesed shel emes is very close to home, should the need arise.
By Sergey Kadinsky