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Friday, September 13, 2002 Tishrei 7, 5763Israel Time:  23:03  (GMT+3)
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At Ground Zero, rabbis are trying to free the widows
By Anshel Pfeffer

A representative from the Beit Din of America, the supreme halakhic court for Orthodox Jewry in the U.S., is in Israel collecting rabbinical opinions on eight cases of men missing in the World Trade Center disaster.

The purpose is to declare those eight men dead, according to the halakha, thereby allowing their widows to remarry. Jewish law is extremely strict about the problem of agunot, meaning "abandoned wives" requiring incontrovertible proof that a man is dead before allowing the woman to be declared a widow, eligible for remarriage. The term also applies to women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce.

There is no estimate on the number of Jews killed in the terrorist attack. In the seventh question in a form used by New York City Hall to collect information from relatives on missing people, relatives were asked to indicate religious preference. Only 30 percent responded to that question. Nor do the last names of the missing dead provide an accurate method of determining who was certainly Jewish.

Some Jewish organizations tried to prepare a list of Jews killed, based on family reports, but there was opposition inside the community, in the name of equality, a sacred American principle.

Religious organizations have begun establishing forums for solving the halakhic problems resulting from the disaster. The Conservative Movement established a halakhic committee and Reform rabbis ruled that the New York municipality's death certificate would suffice to establish that a person indeed died in the disaster.

As of December 24, 563 death certificates had been issued based on identification of the bodies. As of that date, there were 3,111 people missing and presumed dead from the Twin Towers, and from the airplanes that crashed into them. Since many bodies were obliterated, city hall decided to issue death certificates to any family that declared that it lost someone who was in the World Trade Center on that day. By the end of December, 1,947 such certificates were issued, but those certificates are not sufficient for the Orthodox halakha.

In the days immediately after the attacks, 18 families called on New York area rabbis, asking for halakhic guidance about their missing loved ones. Their questions related to issues of burials, mourning and inheritances, but the most difficult question referred to the matter of the wives, who, if they are Orthodox, will need permission to marry from a rabbinical court that declares them to be widows. In many of the cases, the widows were young, recently married women.

One of the relatively easy cases was handled by the Belzer Hasidic court. Shimon Begelzein was a vice president of a financial company in one of the towers and managed to make a number of phone calls from his office after the plane struck and he realized he would not get out alive. He called to bid farewell to his wife, and then called a friend, asking him to serve as a shaliah, a proxy who would divorce Mrs. Begelzein before the rabbinical court. The Belzer court ruled that the phone calls placed the deceased in a place that nobody would survive, and released the woman from her bonds of marriage to him.

Ten cases went to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, which represents modern Orthodoxy in North America. Two cases were solved relatively easily after bodies were discovered and identified by coroners. The court was left with eight cases of missing men, and asked to declare them dead.

To help solve the problem, Dr. Jay Levinson, a former CIA and Israeli police expert in document forensics who has lived in Israel since the early 1980s, was called back from Jerusalem to New York five days after the disaster. Levinson, who retired from the Israel police force in 2001, helped the rabbis create an infrastructure for collecting evidence that could help prove the missing men were indeed dead.

"Without any physical remains, we needed to collect as much evidence as possible that would indicate where the missing person was in the building and why he couldn't get out alive. In effect there were two goals: to release the agunot so they can remarry, which is a halakhic need, and to collect enough evidence to ease the minds of the families, which the rabbis needed as leaders of the community."

The evidence was collected by a group of rabbis who worked at several levels. In coordination with the police and city hall, general data about the disaster were collected. A religious Jewish detective from the New York police force was appointed to coordinate activities with the authorities.

Much effort was made determining those areas of the building where it would have been impossible for anyone to survive. In the northern tower, that meant anyone over the 92nd floor, and in the southern tower, anyone over the lower 80s. "The fact that someone was on a floor from which nobody survived was corroborating evidence for determining death," says Levinson.

On another level, the rabbis searched for as many details as they could collect about the itinerary that September 11 of the missing person. They looked for computer records for parking, phone calls, credit card activity and vehicular movement, up to and including verifying that a car indeed stopped to pay the toll on the highway into the city that morning. Much effort was also put into finding eyewitnesses who could confirm that a person was indeed seen in the building that day.

After three months of intensive detective work, the UOR rabbis had enough data on seven out of eight cases. The next stage was to convene a three-rabbi halakhic panel, headed by Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz of the Beit Din of America, to rule in the widows' cases.

At that stage, Schwartz's deputy, Rabbi Mordechai Willig of Yeshiva University, was sent to Israel to consult with leading halakhic experts, including Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and Bnei Brak posek Rabbi Shmuel Vozner, as well as army rabbis who specialized in the identification of bodies.

The Israeli rabbis are being asked if the evidence collected so far is enough to declare the women free to marry, or whether other avenues of investigation should be pursued. And they're also supposed to suggest ways to deal with the eighth case, in which there is not enough documentation, so far.

Some 11,000 body parts have been collected from Ground Zero, and New York city hall has called on relatives to provide DNA samples, such as a hair from a comb, to help identify the parts.

Almost a year ago, Vozner, considered the leading halakhic judge in Bnei Brak, ruled that DNA could be submitted as evidence in a halakhic court for the purpose of identifying a dead person or drawing a connection between body parts so they can be buried together, and, significantly, for the purpose of determining whether a person is missing or dead. The DNA evidence can thus be considered "close to a clear-cut sign," a halakhic level of evidence that with circumstantial evidence can be used to free a woman from the bonds of being an aguna, an abandoned woman unable to remarry until her missing husband is determined to be dead - or has granted a divorce.

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