Some of the details are still murky. What we know is that it happened during Hurricane Irene.
Actually, it was after the worst of Irene had apparently passed. At about 11 a.m. on Sunday, August 28, I felt safe enough to leave the house (where we had no electricity), get in my car and drive to my office where there was electricity, to catch up on some work. Little did I know that around the corner from my home a horrific tragedy was about to take place, and the victim was not only my neighbor but my friend, Moshe Yosef Reichenberg.
At about 2 a.m., early Sunday morning, as Irene raged through our sleeping, wooded neighborhood in Rockland County, an hour north of New York City, there was a loud “boom!” The storm had brought down some high voltage power lines at the corner of Merrick and Union. The transformer had been damaged, shooting sparks in all directions like a fireworks display.
Moshe Yosef was awakened by the blast, quickly put on a bathrobe and ran outside to see if anyone needed help. His house was one street over from the danger of the sparking transformer, yet he ran out into the night worried about his neighbors’ safety. That’s who he was. If anyone embodied the biblical ethical imperative “not to stand idly by one's neighbor's blood,” it was Moshe Yosef.
At that time, no one's blood had been spilled.
He met up with a neighbor who’d also heard the blast, came outside, saw the damage and called the police to report the danger. But it was a night of downed wires and trees all over the area, and no vehicles were dispatched at that time. After realizing there was nothing more to do, Moshe Yosef went back home.
He was a black-belt in martial arts and a handyman.
The next morning, he went off as usual to pray in one of the local synagogues. And as he did every morning, after prayers he studied Torah for a while. I'm not sure if he went home first or directly to the house where the transformer had fallen, but around 11 a.m. he arrived at his neighbor's house. Besides being a very caring man, Moshe Yosef was a black-belt in martial arts and a handyman. He probably went to see if there was anything he could do now to help.
Indeed, there was a problem. The transformer wires had fallen in front of a house that had a wire metal fence, commonly found in suburbia. I'm not sure if the live wire was actually touching the fence or in a puddle nearby. Whatever the case, the 6-year old boy who lived in this house had wandered too close to the fence.
This boy’s parents no doubt took precautions and warned their child. Nevertheless, as little children are sometimes wont to do, this boy apparently got curious. He certainly knew nothing about metal conducting electricity. Before anyone could do anything, he touched the metal fence.
The boy immediately went into shock. His hands pulsed with electrical current, unable to unclutch themselves from the metal.
The boy’s father immediately ran over to pull his child from the fence. The boy's entire body, though, was now electrified, and when the father grabbed him he was thrown backwards, falling unconscious to the ground. The father's arms were burned, but as a doctor later told him he was saved by the large rubber boots he had been wearing.
There are no eyewitnesses to what happened next. But when the father opened his eyes, he saw his son laying unconscious, yet no longer clutching the fence. However, Moshe Yosef Reichenberg was on the ground, his face expressionless, his body smoldering.
Although EMTs arrived quickly at the scene, it was a few hours before anyone could even touch Moshe Yosef's body, which itself was electrified.
In losing his own life, Moshe Yosef had somehow managed to wrest the boy from the fence and save him. It was the ultimate selfless act by a man whose life epitomized selflessness and sacrifice.
Who can retell your greatness, Moshe Yosef?
Moshe Yosef Reichenberg was raised in a typical American Jewish home. In his 20s, he diverted from the paved path of college and professional career to take up with passion the inheritance of his forefathers.
Moshe Yosef was a true role model. His legendary smile and joy for life were infectious. Even his Torah teachers looked up to him as their teacher in how to have faith in the face of extreme hardship. And Moshe Yosef had hardship that would make most of us break.
His autistic child is the happiest person on the planet.
Among his life challenges, he has an autistic child. And yet, I once remarked to Moshe Yosef about this child, "He is the happiest person on the planet."
Moshe Yosef himself embodied simcha, joy. It was not a simcha born of material plenty or carefree living. Rather it was a simcha born of deep faith. People talk about being close to God, but Moshe Yosef truly walked with God. We could see it on his face, all the time, no matter what else was happening in his life.
Years ago, his house had caught fire, taking along with it all his worldly possessions. All that mattered to him was that his wife and children were safe. The next day, he remarked to one of his closest confidantes, "I've never been happier. Now all I have is God."
It was not just talk in Moshe Yosef. It was the result of working on himself all those years, learning and living Torah and having it sink into his bones.
Widow and Orphans
I attended the shiva. The outpouring from our community was enormous. But even so, the scope of the tragedy was overwhelming.
One of his non-observant relatives told me that although she doesn't pretend to understand God's ways, it was apropos that he died the way he did, after a morning of praying, learning Torah and then making the ultimate sacrifice for someone else's child. He died in the highest state of purity, she said.
I myself couldn't stop thinking about his kids, especially the two youngest boys, a 12-year-old, and one who turned 11 on the third day of shiva. What a way to celebrate a birthday.
I looked at these boys and cried. I am still crying. The family has enormous financial needs. The community – us, you and I – are going to have to scramble mightily to meet them. Because the children are suddenly bereft of a father.
Yes, they have their Father in Heaven. Moshe Yosef would have been the first to say that. But Moshe Yosef was everything to them. He cannot be replaced. And so I am crying. We are all crying.
At this time, the books of life and death are opened.
What a person does in life echoes to eternity. Moshe Yosef's echo will resound in the loudest way forever and ever. I have not even scratched the surface of how truly great his life accomplishments were. These boys, as well his his teenage daughter and righteous wife, will always have his memories and his legacy.
This is a time for us, the living, to pick up the slack however we can. A special annuity fund has been established that will secure the future needs of the family, and the costs of special education for their autistic son. A group of dedicated financial trustees have been appointed to administrate the fund on behalf of the Reichenberg family.
At this time, when the books of life and death are opened, and the scribe is writing all our deeds for good or bad, I make a personal plea to open your heart with the utmost generosity. This is what Judaism is about. Helping others in their time of need. The Reichenbergs time of need is upon us.
Donate online at here, or send your generous support to The Reichenberg Fund, c/o Rabbi Jonathan Wosner, 3 Manor Drive, Monsey, NY 10952, USA.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 845-232-0067