A Williamsburg man in his mid thirties placed his fully loaded tallis bag containing his tallis and two pairs of tefillin into a storage cubby at the Brooklyn Satmar Lee Gardens synagogue on Lorimer Street. What happened next seems impossible to comprehend.
The bag, which contained the man’s bar mitzvah tefillin, as well as his chosson tallis, somehow found itself stuffed into an already crowded portion of the storage wooden unit. Protruding the way it was from the cubby, it was only a matter of time before the laws of gravity took over and surveillance video at the synagogue captured images of the bag falling out of the cubby and landing directly in an adjacent trash can, without anyone noticing.
Once someone thought to review the synagogue’s security footage, the mystery of how the tallis bag had disappeared was solved and the next chapter of the story began to unfold: locating the missing items.
The New York City Department of Sanitation and Councilman Stephen Levin both got involved in the hunt for the missing tallis bag. Eventually it was determined that it was in one of 32 containers that were being shipped to Waste Management’s Fairport landfill, located southeast of Rochester.
By Monday morning a group of 30 volunteers from Brooklyn had traveled more than 300 miles to Rochester and were ready to start searching through an ocean of garbage, aided by 40 temporary workers.
Officials at Waste Management pulled all 32 container loads that had arrived from the area and gave the group a location where they could search through the trash, one container load at a time.
By Tuesday night the group had searched through 16 containers of refuse without finding the missing tallis bag. With inclement weather forecast for Wednesday the men, who hadn’t expected to be in Rochester for more than a day, made the decision to head home and plot their next move.
According to Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the original plan had been for the group to return to Rochester next week, but the idea of having someone’s tallis and tefillin laying in a garbage dump was too horrifying to contemplate.
“When the people left on Tuesday they were heartbroken,” Rabbi Niederman told VIN News. “People jumped in and said that they couldn’t wait till next week, knowing that these tefillin were just laying there in the garbage.”
From a purely halachic perspective, Rabbi Yair Hoffman noted that there is no obligation to rescue the missing tallis and tefillin, while it is certainly a praiseworthy to make the effort to retrieve them from the landfill.
This morning a group of 15 volunteers were back to resume their search, accompanied by 50 hired workers, according to volunteer Joel Stauber.
“The teamwork here has been unbelievable,” said Stauber. “It was hard to see how the people at Waste Management were devastated when we left on Tuesday.”
Nicole Fornof, a communications manager with Waste Management, said the facility is doing all that it can to aid in the search and is offering a $1000 reward to the person who finds the missing tallis bag, an amount that has been matched by a private donor from Brooklyn.
Area residents have also been doing their part to aid in the search.
“We’ve had folks from the local community reaching out and offering their help,” said Fornof. “We have also had people from other religious communities offering to do whatever they can, people offering hospitality and hotels offering accommodations. We have even had people walking in and asking if they can help search. There have been a lot of people who are willing to chip in.”
Watching the search unfold has been an uplifting experience, said Fornof.