Early Sunday morning victims’ bodies were still inside Congregation Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha in Pittsburgh as investigations remain ongoing. Rabbis Daniel Wasserman and Elazar Admon, members of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox Chevra Kadisha (Jewish Burial Society), outlined the process of what will follow.
“Rabbi Admon and I were at the scene [Saturday evening] and honestly, it was a courtesy from the FBI and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police,” said Wasserman, rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation in Squirrel Hill.
The two rabbis spent roughly 30 minutes inside the synagogue, along with members of the FBI.
“We walked through the scene, we saw the victims, we are waiting for the FBI to call and let us move the bodies,” Admon said in the early hours of the morning on Sunday.
According to Admon, the first step will be to move the victims’ bodies “in a respectful way, according to our tradition.”
Once the bodies have been removed from the building, community members may come and “walk along with the van to be melave, to accompany, the bodies,” said Wasserman.
That practice shows honor to the deceased, he explained.
“Step two, which is whenever the FBI allows it, is the cleaning of the scene to preserve all blood and body tissue for burial,” added Wasserman.
We want to “make sure whatever we can gets buried with the body,” added Admon, who previously performed similar practices in Israel as a member of Zaka, a network of voluntary community emergency response teams.
Wasserman said the third step is to try to ensure that autopsies are not performed, as Jewish tradition generally views the procedure as an act of desecration of a body. Autopsies, however, are routinely performed as part of criminal investigations, and in certain cases, rabbinical approval has been granted. Ultimately, said Wasserman, a lot will hinge on each family’s preferences.
When the bodies get released from the medical examiner, the families will make decisions on which funeral homes to use and the role a chevra kadisha will play. In addition to the burial society run by Wasserman, there is another non-Orthodox one in Pittsburgh.
“Traditionally, somebody who is murdered, purposely, you don’t do a full tahara,” said Wasserman, referring to the process of ritually washing a body. “In this situation, if there are going to be autopsies, it’s complicated and we'll figure it out, to whatever degree families want.”
Representatives from Zaka and other burial societies have offered to send supplies.
Admon noted he has been in contact with former colleagues about assistance and steps forward.
“Right after Shabbos I spoke with Zaka in Israel and Zaka in New York,” he said. “We discussed all the details we can regarding people who may want to fly the bodies to Israel, how the Israeli government can help us. I am in touch with everyone.”
While the Israeli-born rabbi has dealt with the aftermath of terrorist attacks before, this one was different.
“It was terrible. I came home and started crying,” he said. “There were people with a tallis. People in the shul sitting and davening who got killed. There were chumashim next to victims. It’s terrible to imagine how a person could be so evil and just run after people just to make sure they die.
“To think in our safe space, you go to shul to connect with God, and in the middle of that you have a person who comes to kill you because you are a Jew. It’s terrible to think about it.”
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