A rabbi and rabbinical student drive 230 miles to provide a traditional burial
When Rabbi Chaim Schmukler of Chabad of New Mexico in Albuquerque received a call from a Jewish man telling him that his homeless brother was in the city morgue in Amarillo, Texas, awaiting imminent cremation, the rabbi knew he had to act fast.
He immediately called his brother, Rabbi Bery Schmukler, in Las Cruces, some 225 miles to the south and just 45 minutes from the Texas border. The clock was ticking as the time for cremation approached, and Rabbi Bery moved into action.
“The man thought maybe we could say Kaddish for his brother,” Rabbi Bery told Chabad.org. “He wasn’t expecting that we would actually bury him.”
But the rabbis knew that a proper Jewish burial was essential. Rabbi Bery called a funeral home in Amarillo to have the body transferred to the Jewish section of a natural burial ground in Belen, N.M.—a five-and-a-half-hour drive. He then set out on the three-hour drive from Las Cruces to meet the hearse driver.
Schmukler, co-director of Chabad of Las Cruces with his wife, Chenchie, sees Divine Providence at work throughout the whole process. Pinchus Sudak, a yeshivah student from London, was staying with the Schmuklers for a few days while on his way to the National Parks. The rabbi included the young man in the mitzvah of chesed shel emet—a mitzvah for which there is said to be no repayment in this world, only the next.
“We packed the car with 20 gallons of water, cloth, a shroud and soil from Israel—all needed for a kosher burial—and we set out on the 230-mile drive,” said Schmukler.
The rabbi notes that people often chose this burial site since no coffin is required, it is in a natural desert setting, and the cost is lower. The deceased was laid to rest in the Jewish section of the cemetery.
“We did the purification on site, cleaned the body and did the taharah on the desert floor,” recounted Schmukler. “We dressed him, said the prayers, and buried him in a shroud and tallit. The driver was watching in awe. He just had to see what we were doing. He even took my phone to take pictures.”
While this was the first time that the rabbi supervised a burial in the desert, he has organized funerals for elderly Jews in Las Cruces, a well-known retirement community given its warm weather and affordable cost of living. “We have a lot of seniors here and have saved some from cremation,” he said.
Schmukler estimates that 1,000 Jewish families live in Las Cruces, a town of 110,000 people. The Jewish community includes retirees, professors at New Mexico State University and medical students at the nearby Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine at New Mexico State University. Tourists also often pass through on trips to the Southwest.
Schmukler’s Chabad House is one of four in New Mexico. In addition to his brother Rabbi Chaim Schmukler’s Chabad House in Albuquerque, which he co-directs with his wife, Devorah Leah, there are Chabad centers in Santa Fe and Taos.
“It felt like we were able to help a Jew when nobody else could,” said Rabbi Bery Schmukler. “It is about being there for another person. I hope it will inspire people to know that there are mitzvah opportunities out there.”