My dear friend Reuven died tragically in early August of 2019. His Hebrew name was Reuven Uriah. Born Ronald Moore, he was 61 years old. These are the dry facts, but I want to talk about the wet ones; the ones that make the tears flow and have left so many of us wondering and sad.
I need to talk about how many miraculous events have happened around his death and following his death. These stories are the ones that are a testament to his spirit and to the Holy energy present in everyday folks doing good. His life is also something to honor and speak about. Reuven lived his life humbly and with so much kindness and enthusiasm. He was interested in all things green and growing and all creatures two legged or four legged. He was always into music and loved Jewish people and history. He was full of bouncy energy, like a boy in a man’s body. He was on the spectrum and although he described himself as autistic his brain injuries were also the result of severe beatings from his childhood. These are more wet facts.
Reuven navigated his injuries and his differences with the help of so many folks. Why are some people able to solicit kindness and others not? Reuven’s behavior could be irritating, due to his brain injuries and how they manifested. Nevertheless, he was more interested in helping people than in being helped. He was always singing and dancing and getting folks to enjoy something outside. He would offer to take people on walks in the wilds of Humboldt County, along the cliffs in Trinidad, and in the Redwood Forest. He loved to swim in the ocean, lagoons or rivers. Happiest outdoors, he gamboled about like a mountain goat.
In the Jewish community, he was lucky enough to have a member of Temple Beth El as his landlord for over twenty years. This mensch (good person) gave Reuven a great deal on rent, so that he could live on the pittance he got from being on Social Security Income. Reuven always grew a garden and supplemented his meager food budget with things he could grow. Farmers locally, like Eddie Tanner from Deep Seeded Farm and others helped Reuven as well. He loved Kathy Mullen’s Kneeland Glen Farmstand and many, many others in the local community were generous with him.
Reuven’s own generosity was immense and, even with his very limited resources, he would help anyone, in whatever ways he could. For most of his life he was tremendously physically fit and able. Most folks remember him at a yoga class, dancing on the plaza during farmer’s market or at a local music event, hiking in the redwoods, biking to Trinidad and generally being an example of physical fitness. Mike Reinman and his family were his longtime friends, Osher Zelig Galambos, also a dear companion, and so many others gave Reuven bicycles, food, shoes, clothing, vacations and companionship. Although Reuven was surrounded by folks who loved him, he still felt very alone much of the time.
He was deeply held and loved by two Jewish communities here; the more Orthodox Jewish Community Chabad of Humboldt County and my congregation Temple Beth El. He was also involved in B’Nai Ha Aretz out of Southern Humboldt. Over twenty years ago, I remember driving with him to services in Garberville when I first started wanting to observe where Naomi Steinberg would be offering services. Reuven and I loved the singing, chanting and meditating that was happening there. When Rabbi Naomi became the rabbi at Temple Beth El, Reuven would come with me to services there. He would help me lead services when I was officiating as a Lay Leader. When Chabad came to Humboldt, he began to split his Jewish time between the two communities.
Originally from Flint, Michigan, he grew up poor and battered with his sister Deborah, and brothers Daniel and Joseph. At the age of thirteen he was rescued from this painful home situation when he was offered a full scholarship at a religious boarding school in New York, run by the Chabad community. Reuven felt that being here in Humboldt county, surrounded by nature was part of his healing and integral to his well-being. He loved the fellowship of Chabad that he found here as it linked him to his childhood, the parts that had good memories for him. Reuven was not a traditional guy, he swung across the spectrum in many ways. He loved being able to worship and dance with all people of all sizes, colors, persuasions or religions.
You can hear his unique perspective on life and understand some of who he was by listening to this interview of him done by The Humboldt Lighthouse.
As a volunteer member of Temple Beth El’s Hevra Kadisha (Jewish Burial Society) Reuven helped me prepare many Jewish men for traditional burial according to Jewish law. This is not something easily done. It requires tremendous presence, kindness and dedication. He would always say when we were done: “Next time for a Simcha.” A Simcha is a joyful event. When I was leading services at Temple Beth El, he would help me set the tables and make our space beautiful to honor the Sabbath. Creating sacred space with room for laughter and song came easily to him. He was on hand to help build my Sukkah/outdoor sacred structure for the holiday of Sukkoth. He was always there for whatever was needed by me or anyone and it gave him joy to offer.
Losing his physical presence is still something with which I have not come to terms. I keep thinking I see him walking down the road or on his bike. I keep thinking I’ll run into him. But, he’s left our shore for the greater Shore of Heaven, probably late on Saturday afternoon, August 3rd. He was last seen dancing and enjoying himself at the Saturday Farmer’s market in the morning. Someone overheard him say he was planning to go for a walk/swim at College Cove, one of his favorite Humboldt spots. He must have lost his footing while walking, either going down some embankment for a private swim, or just too close to some edge. We will never know where or why he fell, but fall he did and that fall was fatal. He was alone and for many of us, this is the most painful part and certainly everyone’s worst nightmare.
Despite having fallen to his death, along a part of our coastline where folks are not found due to the rocks and tides, Reuven was found. It’s a miracle his body was recovered and how that all unfolded is just one of many miracles surrounding his end of time on this earth. As a Jewish person, miracles are common occurrences. Judaism is full of stories about our teachers, prophets, simple folks and even animals who embody or cross over between this world and the next to bring us closer to Olam Ha Bah/ The World to Come.
Sukkot, a fall Harvest Festival, is a taste of the world to come. There is no door making it open to all who want entry. It is a place of peace and sharing of stories and food and joy.
So, back to the wet story of Reuven’s miraculous water rescuers. There is a local group of kayakers called the Sunday Services group. They ocean kayak on Sunday mornings as their religious service. By chance on Sunday, August 4th, 2019 they headed north towards College Cove. They could have gone a different direction that morning, but they didn’t. They spotted his body in the ocean amidst some rocks in a very hard to get to place. They radioed the Coast Guard and the Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff asked if they could retrieve the body. These are trained kayakers and they carry ropes and other things for towing someone in the water in case one of them gets injured, or in this situation to rescue a body.
I was crying so much when I heard this story for the first time that some of the details may not be 100 percent spot on. But basically, the kayakers were asked if they could tow Reuven to College Cove beach where a group of search and rescue team folks could meet them. No one knew who the man in the water was at this point. The kayakers were asked to keep him in the water until the team of rescuers could meet them on the beach. This ended up taking two hours. So, the ten kayakers formed a circle around Reuven and guarded/held his body in the ocean waves for two hours, forming a Holy circle of Shomrim (those who guard the body of the dead). This is extraordinary on so many levels. They knew nothing of Reuven’s religion or about Jewish practices, nevertheless he was given the most sacred circle of Holy attendants. They were his first guardians and they performed this kindness among the crashing waves of the ocean at risk to themselves and in a truly magnificent way. Who gets this kind of escort to the other side? Reuven, that’s who!
Due to the diligence of several of Reuven’s friends, who sought these kayakers out, to try and understand what happened to Reuven, we were able to learn of this rescue. This has been important as members of our community have tried to piece together as much of the details as we could to navigate our pain around his ending. Some email excerpts from the kayakers help illustrate how truly incredible finding and retrieving his body so quickly was.
“This morning we did paddle north for the first time since Reuven’s death. We slipped along the shore line where we had delivered Reuven’s body to the Sheriff. At this moment I was struck by the beauty and peacefulness of this place. This for me was significant as from this place he could continue his journey to be reunited with his community.We then went on to the place we had discovered his body. You should know that this is an area that we are not able to paddle in and explore very often. It can be quite dangerous because of the reefs and the ocean conditions here. How fortunate that we had a calm day for discovering Reuven.” ~ Mike 8/26/19
“I showed Noah the spot where I first noticed something unusual in color, investigated further, and found his friend. Described the orientation of the body and pulling it away from the reef with my paddle. Then how I yelled for Larry and your immediate call to the coastguard and the method of us towing him to college cove. Then we took Noah to college cove and showed him where and how long we waited with the body. Noah is very comfortable in the water and can now take others to the spot. He also can take people to right above the spot on a trail he claims he, Reuven, and others frequented. This area has a good view of the spot without getting close to the cliff edge. Also, when we arrived at Reuven’s location I placed flowers (from Noah) on the water per his wishes. Everything went well and I feel Reuven’s community can now take over…” ~Bruce 8/26/19
The local news was full of the story about this unknown man being found. It took the Jewish community a few days to put the pieces together. One of Reuven’s longtime friends, who had been very concerned about his whereabouts, called the police and made a missing person’s report. Then we were told that the body found in the water was Reuven. The local Chabad rabbi Eliyahu Cowen and some of his community went to the coroner’s office to confirm his identity. Another heroic set of events then ensued.
In the Jewish tradition we do many extremely time sensitive practices around death. We do not leave our dead alone from the time of death until the time of burial. We sit shomer. The word shomer means guard. So, we guard the person with our presence. We recite psalms and make sure nothing untoward happens. Then we ritually wash, purify and clothe the person in a shroud and wrap them in a sheet like a cocoon and place them in a plain pine box, or in Israel, just in the ground without the casket. Men prepare men and women prepare women. When we are washing, we always protect the dignity of the person and cover their genitals and breasts. We recite words from the Torah, specifically the Song of Solomon/Song of Songs, exalting each part of the body. Here are some excerpts that we say.
“….Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
behold, you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats
leaping down the slopes of Gilead.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in rows of stone;
on it hang a thousand shields,
His legs are alabaster columns,
set on bases of gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
choice as the cedars.
16 His mouth is most sweet,
and he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend…”
And, so in this way, the final body experience a person has is this loving honoring of their body. The quotes above are just a few examples. The whole process takes anywhere from two to four hours and requires three or four people. Because Reuven was found and retrieved by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s department, he was at the Coroner’s in Eureka. In order to sit Shiva we had to arrange with them to have folks in their front entrance be able to sit and recite psalms. The local Sheriff and Coroner and all of their staffs were amazingly kind and accommodating. Search and Rescue folks who are usually volunteers also deserve praise for their service.
When the Coroner’s office was closed we set up chairs outside the building. This huge feat was accomplished via Facebook and word of mouth and the organization of this was done by a local doctor from the Chabad community. Rabbi Eli also helped the coroner find Reuven’s next of kin, because Reuven had been part of the Chabad community and they have connections everywhere, so rabbis were called in Flint Michigan to get the phone numbers for Reuven’s sister Deborah who lives in NY. The coroner could not release Reuven’s body to us until permission was granted by his family. It took hours to figure this out and we were all in shock and mourning at the same time. Once Rabbi Eli had spoken with Deborah, a new set of tasks was set in place which had to do with getting a burial plot for Reuven that was kosher by Orthodox Jewish standards.
As a Jewish Renewal and Reform Jewish woman, this is not a requirement of mine nor of my community, but it was for the Chabad community. Since they also loved and claimed Reuven and had the resources to purchase a plot quickly, they started that process. At first we thought we’d have to send Reuven to the Bay Area, but this didn’t really sit well with all of us who knew and loved him. This was his home, his beloved home. He was not a city guy, he was a country man, a wild earth loving man. So, Rabbi Eli and his community set up a fund and raised enough money to buy ten plots at the Trinidad Cemetery. These plots then had to be roped off and consecrated as Jewish land according to very specific rules. All of this took place in the course of two days, which would take most folks weeks to get done.
Jewish tradition mandates burial within 24 hours of death, which we could not do, because of laws around bodies found not in the care of a doctor when they died. The need for all the local agencies to complete their investigations so Reuven’s body could get taken to a mortuary where we could prepare him for burial was just one part of this process. Then, without ever having done so before, Rabbi Eli and two other men from the Orthodox Jewish Community lovingly prepared Reuven’s body for burial. Temple Beth El provided the casket and shroud for Reuven, who had no money or family to pay for the cost of his burial and funeral needs. Chabad created a fund to cover costs as well and between our two communities coming together in his honor and memory, he was lovingly and traditionally cared for. The same woman who had arranged around the clock sitting shomer while Reuven was at the Coroner’s office coordinated it for us at the Ayres Family mortuary where we prepared Reuven for his final physical journey.
He was found Sunday morning August 4th. He was identified positively on Tuesday by our community. He was released by the coroner on Wednesday late afternoon. He was prepared for burial on Thursday and his burial was in Trinidad on Friday August 8th at 3 p.m. We cannot and do not deal with death on the Sabbath. So, getting him buried before the Sabbath began on Friday evening, August 9th was critical.
There were over 150 folks at his burial service led by Rabbi Eliyahu Cowen. It felt right to put Reuven to rest in the sun at the top of the Trinidad Cemetery. We then could begin to grieve and mourn, having dealt with the very intense details around his dying and getting him laid to rest. Rabbi Eli talked about how we were “tucking him into the earth he loved.” He gave a beautiful eulogy.
Dear friends of Reuven’s, Amanda Devons and Jerrylyn Rubin, were traveling in Israel when they learned of his death and saw my post on Facebook alerting folks about where and when events were happening. Amanda volunteered to write the obituary that ran in the Mad River Union. She did this from Israel, where she felt so bereft over his death, and wanted to honor him from afar. Folks from Israel, New York, Europe and all over the world have mourned his death and all have had stories about how he improved, helped or informed their lives and made their time on this earth more joyful. He was probably a Lamed Vavnik: “The Tzadikim Nistarim (Hebrew: צַדִיקִים נִסתָּרים, “hidden righteous ones”) or Lamed Vav Tzadikim (Hebrew: ל”ו צַדִיקִים,x”36 righteous ones”), often abbreviated to Lamed Vav(niks),[a] refers to 36 righteous people, a notion rooted within the more mystical dimensions of Judaism.” ~Wikipedia
What’s critical here is that the Holy One hides these folks, even from themselves. It is thought that it is only because of these 36 humans that the world continues to spin. If we are kind to them, things improve on planet earth. If we are cruel to them or harm them, this is not good for us or the planet.
Because Reuven’s burial happened right before Shabbat those of us who are observant all had to rush home to make Shabbat. See my blog post: Shabbat Structre, Simply Divine Spiritual Technology) for more of an understanding of how the Sabbath is observed. Before leaving the cemetery, we let folks know that a memorial would be held on the following Tuesday at the Arcata Vet’s Hall and that all were welcome. Again, this was organized quickly by the Chabad community and enabled folks from all over, who loved Reuven and were not Jewish necessarily, to come and pay homage to him.
Our Rabbi Naomi Steinberg also organized a series of memorial events for the Sheloshim (30 days) from death observations. We traditionally sit shiva which means we mourn for seven days from the time of burial in the home of the mourners. Since Reuven’s next of kin were very far away, different members of the community hosted dinners or times during the first seven days and the Tuesday memorial was one of those. It was at this event that so many disparate groups of folks came together to honor his life and memory. This is where the kayakers were told to come to learn about the man they’d rescued. It’s also where I heard their story for the first time. Their truly spectacular kindness and efforts on behalf of an unknown body floating among the rocks and waves of Humboldt County is a testament to their goodness and the miracles surrounding Reuven.
It’s taken me three months to write this piece and to navigate my tremendous grief. I’m still sad every day. At the Sheloshim observances we did a joint Chabad and Temple Beth El clean-up/pick-up trash in Sequoia park as a way of honoring Reuven’s memory. Being outdoors and doing good were ways to not only remember Reuven but make our sadness for his loss into something positive for the earth. This is also a traditional Jewish practice around death, to donate your time or money to a cause that would have been supported by the deceased. We also had a final coming together back at Temple Beth El where folks could share again, or for the first time, their memories of Reuven. And this was followed by a potluck meal, which Reuven would have thoroughly enjoyed.
Photo of Reuven by Blessing Mae
As I sat in services for Yom Kippur and we read the names of all our beloveds who have died during the Yiskor/Memorial service. I cried again for the loss of this man from my life and the lives of all our communities and from his siblings’ lives. I still feel his presence and continue to beseech him to act on our behalf and help us take better care of each other and this earth in danger. If anyone can make miracles happen from across the bridge between this world and the next one, it is my dear beloved brother Reuven. In his absence, we all of us who love him, or who are moved by this story, must commit anew to being kinder to each other and more flexible with one another’s differences and finally to skip and cavort and laugh and honor and protect the earth, and all her creatures, as if she was our most beloved dance partner. As Reuven would insist,
“Next time for a Simcha!”
May you be comforted among all those who mourn and let us say Amen.
This article was originally published over two weeks in the Mad River Union.
Part One on November 3, 20019: https://madriverunion.com/rounding-and-reeling-for-reuven/
Part Two on November 9, 2019: https://madriverunion.com/rounding-and-reeling-for-reuven-part-2/