by Rabbi Mendel Rivkin
We often hear the expression “truth is stranger than fiction.” I have a story to share that is a perfect match. It is a tale that combines amazing Divine Providence, selfless devotion to good deeds and the inexplicable sad story of a Jewish woman named Leah.
This week, through the efforts of several devoted members of our community, a Meis Mitzvah – a deceased person with no one to arrange their burial – was given a full Jewish burial. Leah Shpock-Luzovsky passed away in Jackson, Louisiana.
The only known relative, her Israeli brother Yitzchak Shpock, immediately contacted Chabad after he was informed by the Israeli Consulate of her passing. Uzzi Kehaty and Rabbi Zelig Rivkin worked diligently with Adam Stross, a member of the Chevra Kaddisha, to arrange for a Jewish burial. Sandy Lassen of the Chevra Kaddisha was involved as well with arranging the details.
Marshall Gerson, of the Beth Israel Cemetery (an affiliate of Beth Israel Synagogue – president Roselle Ungar) graciously offered a free burial plot. In the end, the combined efforts of these and other devoted members of the community, ensured that Leah was given the optimum Jewish funeral & burial as she was escorted to her final resting place, with Rabbi Yossie Nemes officiating.
Who was Leah Shpock and how did she end up in Jackson, Louisiana? How did Yitzchak know Chabad in New Orleans? Leah served in the IDF during the mid to late 1950s. Upon completing her army service she was awarded a full academic scholarship to Berkeley. Sometime during or after her four year stint at Berkeley, Leah experienced a severe mental breakdown. One can only speculate that the rampant hard core drug use in that era contributed to her situation. Somehow she wound up in New Orleans and lost all contact with her family in Israel.
In 2007 Yitzchak Shpock arrived at Louis Armstrong Airport looking for his sister, Leah, who had disappeared over 40 years earlier. The last known address he had for her was the Hummingbird Motel on Julia St. in Downtown New Orleans. As he took his place in the taxi line, Divine Providence took over. Of all the cab drivers in NOLA, he was picked up by an Israeli, Kotel Sadrusi. Kotel assessed the situation and brought Yitzchak directly to Uzzi Kehaty’s New York Camera on Canal St. Uzzi arranged a place for him to stay – with a couple of young Israelis who were working in New Orleans. So after being in NOLA for 30 minutes Yitzchak already knew 5 people and all of the spoke Hebrew.
After settling in and getting to know the Chabad Uptown community, he headed to the Julia St. address that he had. The hotel no longer existed but some of the shop owners on the street seemed to remember an individual who fit Leah’s description.
One kind women, Martha Owens, took a real interest in helping Yitzchak track down his sister. It turns out that Leah was a New Orleans street personality well known as “the bead lady” for over three decades. Though she had not been seen on the streets for ten years, many people remembered her. Where was she now? It was like searching for a needle in a haystack.
With the dedicated help of Julie Powers of the Coroner’s office, who was helping to locate people that were missing since Katrina, the search began in earnest. Finally, using a lead from the Social Security Admin, Leah was located at the East Louisiana State Hospital – a state psychiatric ward in Jackson, LA. Martha Owens escorted Yitzchak to Jackson to see his sister. She was too ill to be moved to Israel.
Leah Shpock passed away last week. The “red tape” of government agencies did not allow them to make an oversees call. Finally Julie Powers was informed and she enlisted the Israeli Consulate who called Yitzchak. The wonderful people involved in helping Yitzchak find Leah, Martha Owens and Julie Powers, and those that arranged for her proper Jewish burial, were present at her funeral where they wrote the final chapter of this story of sadness, true kindness and Divine Providence.
One more thing we learn from this story is that no matter what a person looks like externally, inside there is a Neshama for which heaven and earth were moved to ensure that its final journey would be the one that a Jewish soul deserves. The individuals involved in this story shared with me how moved they are to be a part of the Divine Plan in helping another person in this way. May Hashem bless all of them in the merit of their Chesed Shel Emes – true kindness to someone that cannot reciprocate.
– Rabbi Mendel Rivkin is program director at Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana.