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God’s Garbage in New Jersey

Residents paid a rabbi to bury damaged ritual objects. But it’s illegal, and thousands of trash bags remain in limbo.

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Larry Simons of Lakewood, N.J., walks along bags of religious articles, shaimos, unearthed off Vermont Avenue in February. Rabbi Chaim Abadi buried tons and tons of religious articles illegally off a dirt road that extends off Vermont Avenue. (Courtesy of The Asbury Park Press)
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Last month, several thousand trash bags filled with sacred texts appeared on the side of a road in Lakewood, N.J. Among the texts are damaged prayer books, torn and rotting Torah scrolls, tattered ritual fringes (tzitzit), and countless other religious artifacts that members of the Lakewood Jewish community had discarded. These bags comprise only a small fraction of a larger collection of identical plastic bags sitting in a fleet of trailers down the road also waiting to be dumped. Altogether, there are over 10 trailers of bags parked and scattered beside the road.

Although this surely seemed mysterious to average Jerseyites, the origin of the bags can be traced to the Jewish tradition of burying all sheets of paper bearing the name of God—known as shaimos—a legal requirement that traces back to the Talmudic Tractate Shabbat, which forbids the destruction of such materials. The resting places of these stashes of “sacred trash”—where they are supposed to remain forever—are called genizas.

The particular load in Lakewood has a history that stretches back to 2010. In the spring of that year, Rabbi Chaim Abadi—a real-estate developer who also runs a Jewish youth program in Lakewood—allegedly recruited contractors to dig up an unknowing resident’s property in order to bury the bags there. Abadi reportedly charged Lakewood residents up to $30 for each bag he removed from their homes, in exchange for which he promised a halachically pure burial for these texts. When the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection learned of the dig from a series of Lakewood residents, the agency feared that the contents of the haphazardly dug and unsanctioned grotto could begin to contaminate the region’s water supply. So, they gave Abadi two months to clear out. Sixty days later, he still wasn’t able to find a suitable place to move the bags. Now the illegally buried shaimos sit abandoned on another person’s driveway.

In the three years since the DEP told Abadi to get rid of the documents, he has been fined more than $10,000. Abadi once even tried to claim to the state that he owned the land himself, which the state was able to disprove quickly.

Though not all shaimos wind up on the side of a Jersey road, similar mishaps have become more common. Every Purim and Passover—times when many Jews choose to bury their shaimos—a small number of scammers often take advantage of Jewish populations in Brooklyn and charge a fee for collecting shaimos with no intention of doing anything but dumping it in the East River or leaving it in an alleyway. Though shaimos dumping operations can range from the malicious to the simply foolish, complications inevitably arise because the DEP simply does not allow citizens to bury their own garbage. The Solid Waste Management Act, first signed by the DEP in 1980 and amended several times since, explicitly prohibits this. The act states that improper and unregulated disposal of solid waste poses a series of threats to general public health and is thus unlawful.

Problems with finding a place to bury shaimos are circumvented in a number of ways. An organization known as Shaimos.org, or Israel Bookshop, sells shaimos boxes, which the recipient can mail in to a depot once full. Shaimos.org generates most of its business from New Yorkers (six of eight pick-up locations are in New York). But when I called the organization, also located in Lakewood, nobody would tell me where the boxes were ultimately buried. At first the spokeswoman told me she had no idea and then insisted that I tell her why I was curious. It was only after calling the owner of a much friendlier bookshop in Manhattan, J. Levine Judaica, who had seen Shaimos.org boxes, that I learned the final destination for these boxes is in Sugar Rove, Penn. That information is printed directly on their product—yet nobody was willing to tell me this basic fact.

I spoke to owners of West Side Judaica, which acts as a shaimos drop-off for locals, and where I bought the Tikkun I used to prepare for my bar mitzvah. When I tried to ask them questions about their shaimos process, they grew quiet. Before rushing me out of their store, they told me only that a man came and picked up their shaimos. “He’s from Lakewood,” one employee said. “Or from Monroe,” he added a second later. They said they didn’t know his name.

This wasn’t the last time I heard of the nameless shaimos pick-up man. The person I spoke to at the Jewish Theological Seminary Library told me that they did not have their own geniza, but that instead someone— whose name he said he didn’t know—came by every so often to pick up the shaimos left beside the Xerox machine in the library.

When I called Yeshiva University’s library, I was transferred to another department, and then finally, when I spoke to someone who knew about shaimos, they told me the same story. “A man comes and picks it up.” When I asked if, by chance, they happened to know his name, I heard what had become a similar phrase: “I don’t know his name. He comes and takes it, that’s all we know.”

It seems improbable that, since two of the most prominent Jewish educational institutions in New York don’t have someone on staff responsible for shaimos, neither has taken greater interest in finding out exactly who the freelancer is, or what he does with their holy texts. I learned later, through a receptionist at JTS, that their shaimos man is named Aaron Taplin. But when I called all three of his cellphones multiple times, they all went to voicemail, and all of his mailboxes are full. I finally managed to reach an employee on his cell phone, but he didn’t seem to know what happened to the shaimos either.

Shaimos policies at various Manhattan synagogues underscore how difficult it is to practice shaimos in New York and explain why many do not collect the sacred documents at all. Temple Emanu-El has its own cemetery and therefore can bury shaimos without interference from the DEP. A new geniza—Beth Genizah Olam—was opened recently in Monroe, N.Y., right beside the Kiryas Joel cemetery. The geniza was approved by the DEP with the help of Assemblyman Dov Hikind of District 48. His district extends between 65th Street and 39th Street in Brooklyn—70 miles away from Monroe. Neither Hikind, nor a representative of Beth Genizah Olam, were available to speak to me. When I confessed to the owner of J. Levine Judaica that it was nearly impossible to find out where or how it was buried, he simply told me, “There’s clearly a reason nobody seems to have answers and doesn’t want to tell you anything.”

In short, the refusal to reveal facts suggests that it may ultimately be infinitely easier for bookshops and universities and civilians not to know who the shaimos pick-up man really is. It is more convenient to turn one’s head and look away when he comes to take away sacred trash. It is easier to abide almost comically to a code of silence as indefatigable and as irritatingly impenetrable as any Sicilian omertà. Nameless shaimos men are perhaps a well-known, trusted mainstay of Orthodox practices—trusted to obey the laws of the Torah and to follow tradition by any means they may find necessary. And as for the laws of the DEP, well, those begin to feel relatively inconsequential.

But a tragic consequence of not knowing where shaimos goes is that the texts themselves can never be used to trace the lives of Jews in New York. The Cairo Geniza, which was a collection of more than a quarter of a million Jewish texts found in a several genizas, allowed scholars to study the entire history of Jews in Egypt. If there is no way to know where the sacred texts go, they may never be recovered. Part of the history of contemporary Jews may become lost somewhere in a pit in upstate New York or in New Jersey.

***

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Mark K. says:

I doubt that the NJ DEP and its NY equivalent operate under the same laws, rules and guidelines. The conflation of the policies of the two agencies in this article leads one to question the thoroughness of the rest of the reporting, even as the rest of what is written here seems quite plausible.

    Grigalem says:

    The author did not conflate the two. Read it again (or read it completely for the first time).

    Lakewood is in New Jersey, and New Jersey laws were violated by
    Rabbi Chaim Abadi.

    The reporting is 100% accurate.

      Mark K. says:

      The problem, as I see it, is that paragraphs 3 and 4 are clearly talking about R. Abadi’s run-in with the NJ DEP. Paragraph 11 is clearly talking about the NY State DEP (“Temple Emanu-El [of Manhattan] has its own cemetery and therefore can bury shaimos without interference from the DEP. A new geniza—Beth Genizah Olam—was opened recently in Monroe, N.Y., right beside the Kiryas Joel cemetery. The geniza was approved by the DEP with the help of Assemblyman Dov Hikind of District 48.”)

      The question I have relates to paragraph 5 (“a small number of scammers often take advantage of Jewish populations in Brooklyn and charge a fee for collecting shaimos with no intention of doing anything but dumping it in the East River or leaving it in an alleyway. Though shaimos dumping operations can range from the malicious to the simply foolish, complications inevitably arise because the DEP simply does not allow citizens to bury their own garbage. The Solid Waste Management Act, first signed by the DEP in 1980 and amended several times since, explicitly prohibits this. The act states that improper and unregulated disposal of solid waste poses a series of threats to general public health and is thus unlawful.”)

      This paragraph follows paragraphs 3 and 4 which are talking about the NJ DEP, but the paragraph itself is talking about Brooklyn and the East River. Furthermore, the link is to the environmental laws of Pennsylvania (which were enacted by the PA state legislature, not the PA DEP itself.) So, when the article is talking about the DEP at the end of this paragraph which one is it really talking about? And, why would the rules of any one of these state DEP’s apply to the others?

      Furthermore, if the problem with burying shaimos is that it represents illegal landfilling of solid waste in the various states, one would also have to research whether burying shaimos in a human cemetery is legal in each of these states separately, and one would have to look into whether one can legally transport shaimos from state to state without all kinds of licenses. I’ve never really thought about any of these matters (except that our Rabbis in NJ always admonished us not to create new shaimos because they were very hard to dispose of properly), but now that I see that it is a matter of the environmental disposal of solid waste, I (for one) am left unsatisfied with the unsupported presumption that the rules in NJ/NY/PA can just be treated as an interchangeable set.

      I think that the article raises several other interesting issues regarding shaimos, and the rest of the claims seem quite plausible to me, but, as I said above, the sloppy looking reporting of the governing environmental laws makes it hard to trust the research that went into the rest of the story.

Shani Abelson says:

That we Jews dump our sacred texts with no more thought to their destination than that of our household trash is deplorable. Another sad reality, obvious to anyone who casually peruses the ‘shaimos’ box at his/her local shul, is that many of these siddurim, chumashim, etc., are in perfectly usable condition and just need some TLC. There are Jews in other parts of the world, whose access to sefarim is limited, who would go to great lengths to get their hands on some of the stuff we in the West carelessly discard. A shanda.

    Indeed…and it’s particularly vexing that a venerable institution like JTS isn’t more conscientious about shaimos.

      Grigalem says:

      How would you know what the JTS and Conservative synagogues do with shaimos?

      What does it have to do with this story?

      BTW – When we bought new Etz Chayyim Chumashin our congregation gave some forty worn Hertz Chumashim to a nearby Jewish congregation at Fort Leonard Wood.

41953 says:

More Orthodox mishega! Save what may be of historic value and recycle the rest.

    Nurit says:

    the one problem with that is what is of historical value and who chooses? In the Cairo Geniza the most interesting documents were receipts and bills of sale that would never have made it to a Geniza if it wasn’t for the fact that Egyptian Jews apparently put G-ds name on everything they wrote. Many conservative shuls in the south have these green geniza projects that solve both sides of the problem. I think it has more to do with laziness and a culture of complacency.

fromidwood says:

having been to several burials (for the dead, not the shaimos) the chevrah kaddisha / burial society, with the permission of the family, often includes a bag or two of shaimos.

Nurit says:

Jewish Community building 101: 1. build a mikva, 2. Build a shul, 3. Build a geniza, 4. Build a graveyard 5. build a yeshiva/seminary 6. have kosher businesses (butchers, grocers, Judaica shops etc.) If you have 1,2,4,5 and 6. but don’t bother with 3 your sort of missing the plot. If Lakewooders are so frum that they start Passover cleaning in the attic, have color coded dishes and argue over if its ostentatious for a yeshiva bocker to wear a blue shirt as apposed to a white one, you’d think that same franitc energy would be put towards knowing that the sacrid name of HaShem is not being dumbed in a bag at on the side of the road by some nameless dude.

    Grigalem says:

    He is not nameless. He is Rabbi Chaim Abadi … of their community.

41953 says:

Responding to Nurit–we now have computers for receipts, bills of sale and the like.
It is mishegas because there may be 100 copies of the same prayer book, one or two of which can be stored for posterity, but the orthodox object to destroying or recycling ANY of them because they have the name of God in them. That only makes a difference if you are a fanatic.

41953 says:

Why am I a fanatic. What is the rationale for finding the land to bury countless copies of texts just because they contain the name of God? Because some rabbis said so 2000 years ago?

    Grigalem says:

    And for 2000 years thereafter.

    If you don’t like Judaism you can always leave. And take your psychotic hatred of rabbis with you.

    You might like Navaho sweat lodges.

Good reporting Alexander Aciman! Saddening and maddening information.

wanderinghebrew says:

This is an utterly distressing story. I don’t remotely understand the writer’s
conclusion in the last graph. You think the worst part of this is that we are
losing a historical repository of the future? I don’t think there will be
anything to learn about the lives of Jews today from our geniza trash.
We live in the digital age. What upsets me about this situation is 1) Yet another scam
using religion to make money on gullible people; 2) The moral opacity of
following the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law (People at JTS
aren’t even asking who the “geniza man” is? If we can’t trust our
seminaries to be monitoring the ethics of their own actions, who CAN we
trust?); and 3) The fact modern-day orthodox laws are still not grappling with the
crisis of environmental pollution. At the end of the day, what good is any
religion if it doesn’t advocate for the very planet we live on?

Sandra Price says:

I am most disappointed by Jews sniping at fellow Jews in the comments. While the practice of burying all paper containing the name of G-d obviously poses some environmental and space problems, the origins of the idea are at least understandable, whether one agrees with them or not. There are so many non-Jews sniping at us, can’t we try to find understanding and consideration amongst ourselves? It’s almost like people who are not Orthodox are waiting for any excuse to pounce those who are, and vice versa. It breaks my heart. Really.

ajweberman says:

what if you have a Hebrew ebook with the name of God in the text. Are you not allowed to delete it?

Hershl says:

A rabbi lies? A Chabadnik tells a lie?

I can’t believe it.

Not.

    Michael Sedley says:

    what does Chabad have to do with this article? Were any of the individuals or institutions mentioned Chabad.
    Chabad may or may not lie, but what does it have to do with this article?

Janice Urbsaitis says:

“God’s Garbage” was actually laced with New York City’s solid waste garbage as is shown in this video of the 2010 contents of the Illegal Landfill on Vermont Ave.in Lakewood, NJ. The garbage was bagged on site and buried later so the old sofas, baby seats, cribs, cinderblocks and tires were known to be there as they went into the shaimos. When forced to clean up, these items conveniently “disappeared.” The Rabbi claims he does not have enough money or space for the remaining shaimos but he can use the money he earned carting NY solid waste garbage and he can bring it back to New York where it belongs. This was chutzpah, not shaimos. Central New Jersey is not New York’s illegal solid waste dumpsite. All of the items seen in this video were dumped there at the time of creating this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swJO99s1_LE

2000

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God’s Garbage in New Jersey

Residents paid a rabbi to bury damaged ritual objects. But it’s illegal, and thousands of trash bags remain in limbo.

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