Noach Gross was born at 5:35 a.m. on Jan. 31, 2019, at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Montgomery County. Four pounds, 10 ounces. Eighteen and a half inches long.
He never took a breath.
Hours earlier, while Julia Gross was in the 35th week of her pregnancy, Noach’s heart had unexpectedly stopped beating.
Gross and her husband, Eugene, were devastated. They held their stillborn son, but knew that burial arrangements must be made as soon as possible, in accordance with Jewish custom.
Through a local rabbi, the Grosses were referred to Joseph Levine & Sons, a family-owned funeral home that has been serving the Philadelphia area since 1883.
They expected, based on their conversations with a rabbi affiliated with the funeral home, that Noach, their third child, would be buried in an individual grave in a section for stillborn babies at a cemetery in Lakewood, N.J., with the assistance of the local chevra kadisha, a Jewish burial society.
“We thought they would take care of everything,” Julia Gross said. “Everything seemed very legitimate.”
But a couple of weeks later, Eugene received a text message from a rabbi requesting $150. It seemed to them like an unusually small payment, and there was no documentation. They became suspicious of how their son’s burial had been handled.
“Something is off,” Julia Gross recalled thinking.
When they found the strength to visit Mount Sinai Jewish Cemetery a few months later, they asked gravediggers where they could find the section for stillborn children. No one seemed to know.
“You go to the cemetery and you think you’re visiting your son’s grave — and there is none,” Julia Gross said.
The Grosses, who live in Elkins Park, started making calls. Joseph Levine & Sons funeral home referred them to Rabbi Chaim Parnes, of the Lakewood Chevra Kadisha, an organization responsible for preparing bodies for burial in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Parnes was evasive, Julia Gross said, but once they got an attorney involved, the rabbi agreed to meet the parents at the cemetery. He pointed to an area next to the parking lot and said Noach was buried “somewhere over there,” she said.
Another rabbi who was involved in Noach’s arrangements told the couple that the area Parnes pointed to at Mount Sinai was used for many stillborn children, infants, and fetuses. When they inquired about reburying their son somewhere else, the rabbi said that was impossible because they might dig up other bodies, too, she said.
“We were just horrified,” Julia Gross said, “that our baby would have been thrown into a mass grave.”
Nearly 19 months later, the Grosses still haven’t received any documentation of where exactly their son is buried. They have filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia and started a “Finding Noach” Facebook page in June that is now followed by almost 2,000 people.
“The agony for Julia and Eugene is that they lost their beautiful child twice,” said their attorney, Bryan Lentz. “They held him in their arms in the hospital when he was stillborn and after that, they don’t know where or what happened to him. And they are understandably tortured by not knowing.”
Julia Gross, 34, a teacher working toward her Ph.D., said she has been contacted by other women who have had similar experiences at Mount Sinai cemetery and have been unable to locate their children’s graves. Most are afraid to speak out for fear of being ostracized by their Orthodox Jewish congregations, she said.
In an interview with The Inquirer, one Orthodox Jewish woman, who this year gave birth to a stillborn baby late in her pregnancy, said that when she inquired about the location of her baby’s grave at Mount Sinai, Parnes, the rabbi, refused to tell her. She, too, had expected that the baby had been buried in an individual grave with a documented location.
“What they are doing is not right,” she said. “I’m having a hard time because I cannot have closure. I’m getting no answers to my questions.”
The mother asked that her name not be printed because she would be shunned by her religious community: “It’s stepping on very dangerous ground to come out in the open and speak up.”
The burial practices followed by the chevra kadisha in Lakewood, an Ocean County town with a large concentration of Orthodox Jews, is rooted in an era when the infant mortality rate was much higher. Jewish parents were expected not to mourn stillborn babies or those who lived 30 days or fewer, or to know where they were buried.
Most Jewish denominations no longer adhere to those practices, and instead give parents the choice of whether to mourn a deceased infant and have a tombstone.
When the Grosses sought documentation of their son’s funeral and burial, they were provided with a letter from Rabbi Shmuel Hartman, of Jewish Funeral Services of Brooklyn, to Joseph Levine & Sons stating: “Our funeral home assumes all responsibilities from transfer to burial if a proper burial permit has been issued.”
The letter, however, is dated Jan. 30, 2019 — the day before Noach was born. Julia Gross said it was unclear why or how a Brooklyn funeral home became involved, or took over the arrangements.
On the disposition/transit permit signed by Levine’s funeral director, a cemetery official is also supposed to sign to certify that the burial has been completed. That section was left blank.
“Things started to become fishier and fishier,” Julia Gross said.
The Grosses’ lawsuit, filed in March in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, alleges that Joseph Levine & Sons “failed entirely to supervise the burial of Noach.”
Joseph Levine & Sons declined to comment on the allegations due to the ongoing litigation but said in a statement that it followed all laws and regulations and “the expressed wishes of the Gross family.”
“We hope for all those involved that this issue can be resolved quickly to allow the family to continue on their journey of healing following their loss,” the statement said.
This week, the funeral home filed a court motion denying all wrongdoing but stating that if any negligence occurred it was the fault of the cemetery and Jewish Funeral Services of Brooklyn.
The consumer affairs division of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office closed a 2019 complaint against Mount Sinai cemetery without taking action because it is a religious cemetery that does not have a certificate of authority with the New Jersey Cemetery Board, according to Gema de las Heras, a spokesperson for the division. The nature of that complaint was unclear Wednesday.
“Consumers reporting a problem or concern involving religious cemeteries that do not hold a Certificate of Authority may be advised to refer their complaint to the religious organization that operates the cemetery,” de las Heras said.
In 2018, a New Jersey funeral director filed a complaint with the state cemetery board alleging that Parnes and other Orthodox rabbis had been “hijacking” funerals in the Lakewood area and conducting “unlicensed” funerals by not using a funeral director, as required by law, at Mount Sinai.
The funeral director documented in his complaint a 2018 instance in which, he said, Orthodox rabbis “badgered” a Lakewood woman who had wanted to cremate her husband — in violation of Jewish law — until she agreed to have him buried at Mount Sinai.
Parnes, the same rabbi who handled the Grosses’ burial, came to pick up the man’s body, and represented himself on the release form as being a representative of Jewish Funeral Services of Brooklyn, records show.
“If they find out there is going to be a cremation they will come in droves,” said the funeral director, who asked that his name not be printed out of concern it could affect his business.
Judy Welshons, executive director of the New Jersey Cemetery Association, a trade group, said she found the allegations involving Mount Sinai to be concerning. Even a religious cemetery not regulated by the state cemetery board should still maintain accurate records of “who is being buried and where they’re being buried,” she said.
“What you’re telling me is scaring me a little bit,” Welshons said. “If we’re allowed to just bury people wherever we want I don’t want to think about the type of chaos that would cause.”
Parnes, who is listed on the National Association of Chevra Kadisha website as the chairperson of the Lakewood Chevra Kadisha, could not be reached for comment. A man who answered his cellphone asked what the call was regarding, then said Parnes was “quarantined overseas” and unavailable.
Hartman, the rabbinical adviser for Jewish Funeral Services of Brooklyn, located on Coney Island Avenue, could not be reached. A man at the funeral home, who answered the phone last Thursday said: “He’s not here today and tomorrow’s the sabbath, so you just can’t reach him.”
Officials at Mount Sinai Jewish Cemetery, located between Lakewood High School and a small farm, could not be reached.
In a July 2019 letter to the Grosses, Rabbi Schmuel Tendler, of the congregation that runs the cemetery, said Noach was “buried in accordance with the strictest standards of Jewish Orthodox Halacha and tradition.”
Michal Raucher, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, said most denominations of Judaism are moving away from the old tradition of burying stillborn babies in unmarked graves without the parents’ involvement.
The Conservative movement, for example, created new regulations in the 1990s that include the option of naming stillborn babies and burying them in an individual marked grave or a family plot, Raucher said.
Even among some Orthodox Jewish congregations, there is now more awareness of a family’s pastoral needs surrounding stillbirth, miscarriage, and infertility. There is even openness to holding a funeral for a stillborn baby and putting up a tombstone.
“There has been movement on this issue and recognition that pregnancy loss is real and tragic and people need support,” Raucher said.
In 2014, the Israeli government implemented procedures requiring that fetuses between 12 and 20 weeks receive a marked burial plot. In cases of older fetus deaths and infants that died within 30 days of life, parents also have the option to be present at the funeral. The changes came in response to parents like the Grosses who were angry about the use of mass graves and not being able to attend their child’s funeral.
More progressive Jews do not typically follow the Orthodox tradition when it comes to burying stillborn babies and young infants.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman, founder of the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha in Philadelphia, said progressive rabbis are more sensitive to mourning parents than the Orthodox rabbis who buried the Grosses’ son.
“We would spend time with the family and baby, making sure they got to say goodbye, making sure they had the kind of burial arrangements that they wanted and needed,” said Holtzman, who has presided over funerals for stillborn babies. “This poor family got caught in the cross fire.”
Julia Gross said she has been tormented by the thought that their son’s burial was apparently handled so nonchalantly, or that he may have been buried in a mass grave. All they have is his small memory box that was provided as a gift from the hospital. A photo. His footprint. His birth date. They still want answers.
In July 2019, when they visited the area in the cemetery where they were told Noach and others were buried, the dirt and grass were surrounded by a short, makeshift white fence.
They returned last month. The fence is gone. The grass has regrown. More than a dozen bushes have been planted over the same patch of land.