Wednesday morning, the week before Passover, I received a phone call informing me that my friend, Ariel Pesach Pietrodrachi, had died. He was 51 years old. It was a shock even though I knew he had recently been hospitalized, but since he was last at our Shabbat table, I lost contact. I felt terrible that I hadn’t reached out to this sweet, sensitive soul. He died alone. Compounding the tragedy, there was now a problem in obtaining permission for burial. I assumed the worst; that because Ariel Pesach was a ger tzedek (a righteous Jew by choice), there might be a “problem” with his conversion. With our faith’s respect for constant attention to the needs of the dead and our alacrity to bury as soon as possible, this seemed an outrage.
Ariel Pesach arrived in Israel about two and a half years ago. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Aaron Pollack. He had been working in the hotel industry in Europe, his family was in Montreal, Canada and he was in the process of completing his gerut (conversion) from Catholicism at a Beit Din Meuhedet Le’Giur before making aliya.
To learn more about his chosen faith, people, and country, Ariel Pesach applied and was accepted to a yeshiva, Machon Meir, in Jerusalem. His rabbi was Menachem Listman. Rabbi Listman remembers the qualities that made Ariel Pesach so special. “He was articulate, intelligent, extremely polite, and with a fine sense of humor. He was grateful for everything and everyone, true hakarat hatov, even when things became difficult for him.” He was older than most of his fellow students, in possession of an academic mind, and had a broad knowledge of history, particularly the Christian world. Finding work and dating were challenging, yet he never complained. Whenever I would see him, he always had a smile on his face. He believed that everything would work out. He was just so happy to have found his home, here in Israel.
From Wednesday morning on, I kept checking in to find out if there was permission yet for burial. Finally, at 11 A.M. on Friday, I received word: 1pm at Shamgar. Friday, Erev Shabbat, is a special time with much to do, but this Friday was also Erev Passover, when we were burning the chametz (leaven) and preparing everything for the seder.
I arrived at the Beit Levaya (funeral hall) a little before 1 P.M. I was concerned that we wouldn’t have a minyan (prayer quorum), but as we gathered to start, there were close to 50 people. It was now that I learned what really had transpired to delay and eventually permitted the burial.
Rabbi Halpern is responsible for the French Hill community where Ariel Pesach lived, and he spoke first. From the moment Ariel Pesach was found, Rabbis Halpern and Listman were actively involved in solving a series of issues. The major challenge was not the conversion, but that since there was no nuclear family, according to Israeli law, parental consent was required. After receiving the shocking news that her son had died, Ariel Pesach’s mother decided that she wanted her son’s body returned to Montreal to be buried according to Catholic rites.
Help was needed. Rabbi Jacobson from the Montreal community was enlisted and he sprang into action. Over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, and with the help of a Catholic priest, Rabbi Jacobson was able to convince the family to permit a Jewish ceremony and burial. Then, with the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) in Israel donating their services, an anonymous benefactor stepped forward to provide the funds for a plot.
The next hurdle was last minute paperwork and on Friday morning at 7:30 A.M., Rabbi Halpern solicited the help of Knesset member, Rabbi Meir Porush, who within two hours had Ariel Pesach’s body released for taharah (ritual purification).
After Rabbi Halpern finished speaking at the funeral, Rabbi Listman offered moving words on behalf of his former student and then took upon himself the responsibility to say kaddish (mourner’s prayer).
During the times of our two Temples, the Korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) was offered on Erev Pesach. On this Erev Pesach, Ariel Pesach Pietrodarchi was laid to rest among his chosen people on the Mount of Olives. May his memory be for a blessing.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions. HaOhel’s latest venture is Threshold, fostering Jewish Educational Entrepreneurship.
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