For Some Jews, ‘Missing’ Is Not ‘Presumed Dead’

October 11, 2001

Mechel Handler sits in his living room before a wall of Jewish holy books. Outside his home in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn is parked his Chevrolet van, covered with the fine gray ash of the World Trade Center’s remains.

Rabbi Handler, the executive director of Hatzolah, one of the largest private ambulance services in the country, picks up a creased piece of paper. On it appear 13 names he jotted down on the morning of Sept. 11. “It was only subsequently that we realized the importance of it,” he says.

The list contains the names of some of the many people who called his service or their loved ones from the burning Twin Towers. Though all of them died, their phone calls were not made in vain. The calls will go a long way toward enabling their families to mourn them in accordance with Jewish law and making it possible for their surviving spouses, should they wish, to remarry someday.

According to the Talmud, the encyclopedic 1,500-year-old body of Jewish law, if a married man disappears, his spouse is deemed an agunah — unfit to remarry unless a beit din, a rabbinic court, is able to satisfactorily assume the death of the husband.

Exactly one month after the fall of the towers, an estimated 4,815 people remain missing. How many of them are Jewish, how many of these would have observed the agunah law and how many the tragedy potentially rendered agunot are not yet known. Nor has the traditional Jewish community figured out as yet how to uniformly determine who will be freed from agunah status. “You can’t say, `It was a massive disaster and everyone is dead,’ ” says Jay Levinson, a retired Israeli police officer who specialized in victim identification. “You have to go to a beit din.”

On Sept. 20, leaders of the Jewish community met in midtown Manhattan. They included representatives of the ultraorthodox Agudath Israel, the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, and the conservative Rabbinical Assembly. (The Reform movement interprets the law of agunah more liberally and defers to the medical examiner’s office in establishing death.) Together, they came up with a plan: They would jointly compile facts about the last hours and moments of the deceased and then independently rule on those cases in their constituencies.

The first order of business was getting a grasp on the number of Jews potentially missing. Mordecai Dzikansky, a New York City police detective assigned to the Manhattan South homicide squad, and an orthodox Jew, pored over the missing-persons reports. Roughly 1,700 people listed the religion of the missing person; of those, as of yesterday, some 10% were Jewish. (Likely, only a small percentage of that number would be concerned with the agunah issue.) And the New York Board of Rabbis sent messages to all of its members of all denominations asking them to forward the names of missing people.

The fact-finding centers on the answers to two questions: Were the missing men in the Twin Towers on the morning of Sept. 11? If so, might they have gotten out?

The Jewish community has turned for help to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, owner of the World Trade Center, hoping for phone records and logs of who swiped their cards entering the building. At the same time, the Beit Din of America, the rabbinic court affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America, has sent out questionnaires to its member rabbis attempting to confirm that the missing were in the Trade Center when the towers were attacked. One question reads: “How do you know that the missing person was in the building that day?”

The Jewish community, hoping to speed the process along, is proceeding on the assumption that bodies will not be found. If bodies, or parts of bodies, are found amid the rubble, confirming deaths will be easier. Many rabbis hold that DNA, for example, can be used to identify a disfigured body (though Moshe Klein, a rabbinic authority in Israel, ruled in February that DNA must be seconded, even by circumstantial evidence).

Some in the Jewish community who lost loved ones in the attack do not have to wait for any more details to be found. Their rabbis have already ruled that the death of their loved ones can be proved in accordance with Jewish law. Shimmy Biegeleisen, for example, a vice president at Fiduciary Trust Co. International, called home many times that beautiful morning one month ago, at first simply to remind his wife that a painter was coming to the house. Thus a mundane moment put an end to the uncertainty that plagues so many others.

The Beit Din of America has already received 13 completed questionnaires. As it weighs the cases, it will look elsewhere for help. It has received a book from Mr. Levinson, the retired Israeli police office, titled “Aspects of Disaster: Victim Identification in Jewish Law.” It will peruse rabbinic writings after World War II, when bombings and extermination camps left untold numbers of families with missing loved ones. And it will try to fit the cases born of the World Trade Center disaster into the Talmudic scenarios when death can be assumed, such as mayim she’ayn lahem sof (waters without end) and kivshon ha’aish (a furnace of fire).

In the end, it is the hope of the Beit Din that religious ritual and law will be a balm to suffering, not a stumbling block to healing.