by COLlive reporter
Helping out one Jew has led a Chabad rabbi in New York to help another – this one his own flesh and blood.
When Rabbi Avrohom Richter, Director of Chabad of Howard Beach in New York, was asked in an email to help translate a tombstone from Hebrew to English, he gladly agreed.
“I am very interested in Jewish history in general and genealogy in particular,” noted the rabbi who also serves as the Supervisory Chaplain in the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, NY.
After helping out that request on a Friday in May 2014, Rabbi Richter ventured to do a quick internet search for deceased members of his own family.
Among others, he searched for Henry Dienstein, a first cousin of his grandmother who was buried in Wood National Cemetery, a United States National Cemetery located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“I was shocked to see that atop his tombstone was a Christian cross,” he told COLlive.com. “Although I never met this relative, I was quite sure that he lived and died as a Jew.”
“My first plan of action was to verify that he was indeed the right Henry Dienstein,” he said. “I discovered a number of old documents in which the dates of birth and death matched. These documents clearly indicated that Henry was Jewish and was even married by an Orthodox Rabbi.”
His next step was to contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). An official there replied that their policy is that headstones are not changed 50 years after the person’s passing.
Quickly glancing at the photo of the headstone, Rabbi Richter noticed that it was just shy of three weeks to the 50 year deadline. Private Henry Dienstein, who fought in the U.S. Army in World War II, passed away on June 17, 1964.
“I sent all of the documentation I had to the VA and awaited a response,” he says. “They claimed that the deceased’s brother, John Dienstein requested that a religious symbol be displayed on the tombstone, but they could have easily misread which symbol he wanted.”
In any event, the Veterans Affairs Dept. said that any change must be filed by a relative closer than a first-cousin-twice-removed. Rabbi Richter then contacted Rabbi David Niederman, Director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, who got the office of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand involved.
In addition, thanks to a little detective work, Richter was able to find John Dienstein’s now elderly daughter, who confirmed that her father would have never requested a cross as the religious symbol for her uncle’s tombstone. “She further stated that she was at his funeral and that it was officiated by a Jewish Chaplain,” he says.
On June 5, 2014 which was Motzoei Shavuos, Rabbi Richter received an email. “It was from the cemetery stating that my request to change the tombstone had been granted and that a new tombstone with the Star of David will replace the old one.”
But the “most amazing thing of all,” Rabbi Richter says, is that the new Jewish tombstone was switched on the same week of Henry Dienstein’s 50th yartzeit anniversary on the 7th of Tammuz.
Richter’s colleague Rabbi Moshe Rapoport, Program Director of Chabad’s Peltz Center for Jewish Life in Mequon, WI, was present for the hakamas matzeiva, the unveiling of the corrected tombstone and to say a prayer for the deceased.
“I see this as the fulfillment of the verse in Torah that ‘During this Jubilee year, you shall return, each man to his property’ (Behar 25:13). No Jewish soul is ever lost,” Rabbi Richter concludes.