Miraculous Turn of Events Led to Jewish Burial in Houston

In an act of musical chairs, Rabbi Yitzchak Mendel Wagner of Krefeld, Germany, was seated beside Rabbi Dovid Goldstein of West Houston, TX. What resulted was an eleventh-hour arrangement of kvuras Yisroel for Goldstien’s uncle.

By Noa Amouyal – Chabad.org

Before Danny Carson of Galveston, Texas, passed away last month, he and his wife decided that he would be cremated. But it was an unlikely pairing of two rabbis—one his nephew from Houston, the other a stranger from Germany—who were able to help steer his Jewish soul in its heavenward path.

“Danny Carson wasn’t overly observant of Judaism,” Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, co-director of Chabad of West Houston, said of his uncle. Yet when Carson was laid to rest, he had a proper Jewish burial with a minyan, where they said Kaddish and a chevra kadisha ensured all was done according to halachah.

Goldstein’s push and pull with the Carson family around religion was not a new dynamic.

When Goldstein and his wife, Elisa, moved to West Houston in 1998, the rabbi made it a point to have a relationship with this side of the family, despite their distance from religion.

To that end, Goldstein found ways to respect their wishes but also introduce certain mitzvos into their home, like showing their son how to put on tefillin. When Carson suffered a massive heart attack more than 10 years ago, Goldstein prayed with him for a swift recovery.

“I wanted to give them some sense of Yiddishkeit,” Goldstein explained, adding that many of his overtures were often rebuffed.

Which is why he wasn’t surprised and initially didn’t object when he got a call from his aunt saying that Carson had died and the funeral would be a perfunctory service, followed by his body being cremated.

“When my aunt told me about the cremation, I asked if this was a matter up for discussion, and she said ‘no.’ So I decided to drop it,” he said.

A Visiting Rabbi From Germany

The Carson family would have gone through with their plans if it wasn’t for Rabbi Yitzchak Mendel Wagner, rabbi of the Jewish Community of Krefeld, Germany, who was touring the Houston community. He was having lunch with Goldstein, who told him about the cremation—and took the news as a call to action.

“I always felt that everything we do, everything we see is governed by Hashgachah Pratis or Divine Providence,” Wagner said, referring to the notion that every particular movement of a created being has a connection to the intent of the creation as a whole. In other words, everything we witness has some sort of greater meaning where we have a duty to carry out G‑d’s wishes.

“We have to open our eyes to see it, but it’s important to understand that there are no random coincidences in life,” says Wagner. “If you hear another person’s problem, it’s a sign that you were put in front of that person to help them. Otherwise, the problem wouldn’t reach your ears.”

Initially, Wagner thought his purpose of being in Houston was to continue his successful tour speaking about the legacy of Kristallnacht and how Jewish life is resurging in Germany despite the efforts of the Nazis. In fact, he had reached out to Rabbi Goldstein a few months before to coordinate a meeting so he could speak to the Houston community about the subject.

Leaves Blowing in the Wind

The two planned to meet for the first time at the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in New York in November 2023. Given the chaos inherent in meeting a specific person in a sea of thousands, they were not able to connect, and Wagner was resigned to the fact that they’d have to meet on some other occasion.

At the closing-night banquet, when Wagner approached the registration desk to ask for a seat, they told him there was none available even though he had made a reservation well in advance.

“At that moment, I saw in my mind’s eye a tree from which a leaf slowly sails to earth, and I hear the holy Baal Shem Tov explaining to his students that nothing in life happens by chance, not even a leaf falling from a tree. In the Baal Shem Tov story, a small worm lies on the ground under the leaf and is protected by it from the burning sun,” he recalled.

“OK, surely there is a deeper reason, so please give me another place, anywhere,” he told the person staffing the desk.

Sure enough, they found a table for Wagner. Once he got himself situated, a rabbi from London asked him if he was alone at the table, and if he would mind switching so he could sit with his family. Shrugging his shoulders, Wagner said “yes” and sat at his new table. Once seated, he glanced at the name tag of the man beside him and saw that it was Goldstein.

“More than 6,000 thousand people from all over the world attended this banquet, and of all people, I was sitting next to Rabbi Goldstein. There is no such thing as a coincidence. The leaf is approaching the ground,” he said.

While traveling to Houston, he assumed the moment of Divine intervention stopped and ended with his meeting Goldstein at the banquet.

The Leaf Lands

“But when I overheard this conversation, the leaf landed. I realized that there was no reason for my visit to Texas other than to stop this cremation. We immediately drew up a contingency plan together and put forward the best arguments” against going through with the cremation, Wagner explained.

The argument that drove the point home was a key component in Wagner’s lecture about what Nazis did to the bodies of dead Jews. “They burned us. Just like Hamas did on Oct. 7. We can’t allow our fellow Jews to inflict the same brutality our enemies did to us.”

It was that argument that Goldstein believes may have swayed his aunt to change her mind.

“I texted my aunt and said I’m sitting next to a German rabbi who is an expert on Kristallnacht and the Holocaust. He is devastated every day that Jews were cremated in the ovens. He is pleading with you to not do what the Nazis did,” Goldstein recalled.

“That morning, she texted me saying she’ll ask the funeral director to delay the cremation and that I should try to make arrangements for a Jewish burial if I could help get the community to assist with the cost.”

It took a few hours and many phone calls, but Goldstein was able to secure the burial through the generosity of the Jewish Family Services of Houston to ensure that Carson was given a proper Jewish burial.

“In all honesty, if Rabbi Wagner didn’t nudge me, I would have let the matter go. I’ve stopped cremations before, of course, but I didn’t want to fight with my own family,” he said. “At the end of the funeral, my aunt came up to me and said she was so happy we did this for him. She didn’t have the money. She revealed that when I first messaged her, she was upset and talking about the Holocaust touched a nerve. But she took the time to process what I told her and realized it was the right thing to do.”

“Ultimately, this is what the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] teaches the shluchim. We’re here to serve every Jew from the day they’re born to the day they die and beyond. We’re here to help the neshamah on its journey to get closer to Hashem,” Goldstein said. “From teaching the aleph-bet to educating a woman as to how to go to a mikvah or helping Jews have access to Jewish education, we want to be a resource for Jewish life.”

As for Wagner, he never once doubted why he came to Houston or that his visit would be a meaningful one: “I knew we’d be successful because Hashem put me here for this. The lesson here is that if a message comes to you, it is your obligation to take action.”

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