Standing at an open grave in a Newark cemetery on May 21, Kalman Carmel of Maplewood realized that despite all his planning, he had not considered how to lower into the dug-out hole the many boxes of sacred books he had brought to the site for burial.
Friends and fellow Boy Scouts who had come to help made suggestions, including tossing the books in from above or lowering them down with ropes. Kalman offered to jump in and place each volume by hand to ensure they’d all fit. His father vetoed that idea. “The soil can cave in and you’d be buried,” warned Matt Carmel.
As he considered his options, Kalman knew that whatever solution he chose, completing the project would clinch his quest to become an Eagle Scout.
Kalman, now 17, joined Troop #118 when he was in the first or second grade. The Jewish group, affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America, originally met at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union (now Golda Och Academy) in West Orange, but now is based at the Kol Rina independent minyan in South Orange.
Now, as he prepares to graduate from Columbia High School in Maplewood, Kalman is one of three in the troop who expect to earn the Eagle Scout rank this year — joining the roster of 18 boys from the troop who have become Eagle Scouts since its establishment in 1995. Only 4 percent of Boy Scouts nationwide achieve the status annually.
To attain the rank, a scout must complete a service project, earn certain merit badges, and demonstrate leadership in other areas of life. The project must be created and led by the scout and cannot be part of something that already exists, like an annual blood drive. It cannot benefit the Boy Scouts or be a fund-raising project, and it must involve peers outside of the Boy Scouts.
Kalman’s project had three parts. First, he taught students at the Jewish Learning Center of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, where his family belongs, about the practice of placing sacred books in a genizah. Next, on the grounds of the synagogue, he led students in a largely symbolic burial of texts, for which he crafted a box and created the ceremony. Finally, with the help of his troop and other friends, he cleared out two closets containing tattered prayer books and other texts and brought them to the Linith Hazadek section of Union Field Cemetery in Newark that had donated a plot for the burial.
According to Jewish law, anything printed with God’s name in Hebrew and other sacred writings that are no longer usable cannot be discarded in the trash. Rather, they must be preserved in a separate storage area. “Genizah” means “reserved” or “hidden” and refers to the area; however, a genizah can also be underground.
At 8 a.m. on May 21, Kalman and his friends began pulling boxes from the closets at Beth El designated as a genizah. Troop leaders Rabbi Lisa Vernon and her husband, Mike Schatzberg, were on hand to answer questions, but it was Kalman who directed the operation.
They loaded box after box onto a handcart, took it up in an elevator and out to the cars and vans waiting in the parking lot, then came back for more. The group included Kalman; his friends Julia and Craig Binder of Maplewood, and Andrew Padilla of Maplewood; and three fellow troop members, Adiel, Josh, and Danny. (Scout rules prohibit last names of troop members from being printed.) The troop has a total of seven boys, ages 11-18.
“It’s really cool to see these kids start out needing so much direction and by the time they are doing their Eagle Scout projects, they are ready to give it,” said Vernon. “A lot of kids pass through our troop; many do not stay.” But in those who do stay, she said, “you see growth, development, and maturity,” as they become “fine young men.”
The genizah project was one of several suggested to Kalman when he got in touch with his synagogue in the fall to see what they might need and they showed him the cluttered closets. “I must have been in a cleaning mood that day,” he quipped.
Kalman said the project has a deep personal resonance for him. His grandmother, the last of his grandparents, died in January, just a few weeks after he had decided on the genizah project. He brought four boxes of unusable texts to her funeral. “I thought it would be a good idea to have these books buried with her,” he said. Burying sacred texts with a loved one is considered a great honor and a sign of their righteousness.
Her name, Lena Gall, is also inscribed on a small wooden plaque at the site where the symbolic burial took place on May 7 at Beth El. In addition to burying books, the ceremony also involved planting a tree to mark the location. The sign is just in front of the tree. “I don’t know how long the sign will last, but the tree will be there,” Kalman said.
At the Newark burial on Sunday, Bennett Epstein, of Sanford Epstein Inc., the company that manages the cemetery, helped resolve Kalman’s dilemma. Epstein looked at the boxes of books — with more to come — and at the space in the grave, which had been dug to double the depth of a regular burial site. After considering the situation, he suggested that they toss in the boxes that were already there and that his team would take care of any remaining issues the next morning.
So Kalman gave directions, and the books went to their final resting place. As the caravan of cars returned to Beth El to retrieve the rest of the texts, Kalman could finally exhale, knowing that his Eagle Scout goal was secure.