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A Jewish Veteran’s Burial

Rabbi Jonathon Gewirtz, a regular contributor to the Front Page Magazine, has an expansive smile and a heart as big as Mount Everest. I made his acquaintance a couple of weeks ago, when he personally came to my home on an errand for a friend in Tennessee. Gewirtz regaled us with stories of the people he’s met, the places he’s been, and the hashgochah he personally witnesses all the time.

Those who look for mitzvos tend to find them. The more we chase after chasodim, they more often they will come our way.

One such powerful opportunity occurred last Tuesday, when Rabbi Gewirtz chanced upon a post from a woman in Florida undergoing chemotherapy treatments. The ailing woman, Gloria, wrote that her father, Max, whose full name was Mordechai Zev Wolf Landman, had just passed away in Tampa, Florida. He was being buried the following day, on Wednesday morning, at the Veteran’s Cemetery on Brick Church Road in New Hempstead, NY.

“I can’t attend the funeral, because my doctor won’t let me travel,” said Gloria. “Yet I know my father would have wanted a minyan at his gravesite. If anyone reading this can arrange for ten men to be present, I will be very grateful.”

Rabbi Gewirtz explained what happened next.

“I was forwarded this post by a friend of a friend, who is part of our Keren Dovid Winiarz Group. We try to post divrei Torah and spread words of kindness to keep the memory of this special Yid, who was tragically niftar in a car crash last winter, alive.

“When I heard the details and realized that this elderly veteran would be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery, not according to halachah, I was very upset. I hoped that we could still do something in the remaining few hours until his funeral to make things right. I tried to reach the daughter, Gloria, in Florida through her cousin Rivka in Brooklyn. I quickly learned that the family had no money to pay for a Jewish burial, and that Max would be buried next to his late wife, Ida, who was laid to rest in 1979 at the Frederick W. Loescher Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Spring Valley.”

Rabbi Gewirtz was very disturbed to hear that Max, who had become interested in his faith later in life, and in fact had his first bar mitzvah aliyah last year at the age of 95, would not be buried k’halachah. In fact, the only Jewish man who would be present at the ceremony was Rabbi Daniel Pernack of the Beth Am Temple in Pearl River.

He spent the next few hours on the phone, calling Chesed Shel Emes, the Hebrew Free Burial Society, the heads of the Rockland Chevra Kadisha, and other askonim. Time was running out, and the immediate family could not be contacted. Rabbi Gewirtz continued exchanging messages with Rivka, a cousin of the deceased, but she did not have the authority to make decisions on their behalf.

In the end, just moments before the funeral, Gewirtz learned that it was too late to make any changes; the funeral would take place at the veteran’s cemetery, with the Reform rabbi officiating. However, all was not lost. With the help of a group of dedicated Yidden who showed up to pay their final respects, Max was buried k’halachah.

“We had sent messages to various shuls the night before, telling people when the levayah would take place,” said Rabbi Gewirtz. “In the end, about thirty people showed up, so we had three minyanim. You had to see what this looked like. It’s a small cemetery, but there was a line of cars around the entire perimeter. There were men in suits, chassidishe rekels and jeans, young and old. People who… cared kept on coming.”

As an army veteran, Max was buried with a full military ceremony, including the ceremonial gunshots. However, at the end, when he was to be lowered into the ground by the cemetery groundskeepers, the participants asked if they could be the ones to lower the casket, according to halachah.

“At first, the groundskeepers refused, since according to the rules, only they could handle the body. We begged and pleaded with them, explaining that this was a very important Jewish ritual that would mean a lot to the family. In the end they gave in and allowed two Yidden, shomrei Torah u’mitzvos, to help lower him into the ground. We covered the body with earth and said Kaddish at the gravesite.”

Throughout the ceremony, Gewirtz was Face-Timing with the niftar’s daughter in Florida. “At one point, I stopped with a shovel full of dirt and said to her, ‘Gloria, this is Jonathon. I am putting this one on for you.’”

Glorida emotionally thanked the participants for helping her father merit a Jewish burial.

Reb Aron Benzion Wieder, Rockland County Legislator and a well-known Monsey askan, was one of those who received the message about the funeral. “I only heard about it ten minutes before one, when the ceremony was called for,” Wieder told the Yated. “Apparently, this man was elderly, 96 years old, and only one of his six children [is] still alive. He [has] grandchildren, though, who were interested in seeing him brought to kever Yisroel. Though I was very busy that day, I made a decision to attend and give him his final honor. Many other Jews felt the same way.”

When Wieder arrived at the beis olam at the corner of 306 and Brick Church, he did not see any cars or signs of activity. “I quickly realized that this was not taking place in the Monsey beis olam, as I had thought, but in the military cemetery on Brick Church Road. I drove up the street and saw a couple of cars in the parking lot. Then I heard gunshots and realized that this was a regular military funeral.”

Benzion Wieder was awed and inspired by the amount of people who had taken time off their workday to give this elderly veteran his kovod acharon.

After the ceremony, Kaddish was said and Rabbi Jonathon Gewirtz delivered a eulogy for Mordechai Zev Wolf Landman a”h, a devoted father of six and grandfather of sixteen.

“I mentioned the weekly parshah, Matos, which talks about soldiers of war because Hashem appreciates those who serve, and how Mr. Landsman was a man of service,” said Rabbi Gewirtz.

After the levayah, Rabbi Gewirtz spoke to Rabbi Ephraim Pessin to confirm that although the niftar was not brought to kever Yisroel, everything was done l’halachah.

“If he had a proper taharah, which he did, and he was buried in a pine box, which he was, and if he was lowered into the ground by people who are shomer Shabbos, which he was, and if he was covered with dirt by Jews, then it is a proper kever Yisroel,” he explained.

The deceased veteran’s granddaughters, Kim Valdez and Lauren Sherman, were moved and inspired by what occurred.

“My heart was so full when I saw what was happening,” said Lauren. “We were so touched by everyone’s generosity and the outpouring of time for a total stranger.”

May the memory of Mordechai Zev Wolf Landman, who served his country faithfully, be blessed.