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.
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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