The rain had been falling steadily, only getting worse as the night wore on. Our family was making our yearly trek from Toronto to Brooklyn to spend the holiday of Sukkot in the presence of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Despite the weather, my father, Rabbi Dovid Schochet (who passed away earlier this year), was making good time and we were on the final leg of our journey until fog moved in like a black wall and enveloped the roadway. With almost zero visibility, he continued at a slower pace, but then the car began to rattle incessantly before breaking down completely. There was no help to be found at that hour on the desolate freeway between Schenectady and Albany, but luckily there was a brightly lit motel a short distance away. Soaked to the bone, we quickly checked in, grateful for shelter.

Within a few minutes, everyone was asleep except for my father. A sense of foreboding coupled with the eerie screeching of an owl sent shivers down his spine. As the first light of dawn broke, something compelled him to step outside into the chilly air. He was surprised to discover a military cemetery in the gloom behind the motel. Virtually all the graves he could see were marked by crosses, but upon further investigation my father found one marker at the end of the second row with a Jewish star on it. He realized that Divine Providence had led him to this place so that he could pray for this poor Jewish soul. My father said some Psalms and then it was time for us to repair the car and move on.

For the rest of the trip, my father’s mind was on that poor Jew surrounded by crosses.

Not long before, a teacher at Toronto’s Eitz Chaim school, whose family was not religious, had mentioned to my father that his parents were buried in a non-Jewish cemetery in a small town in Canada. My father emphasized to him the importance of rectifying the error, since it is very painful for the soul of a Jew to remain there. It is considered a great act of kindness to transfer the body to a Jewish cemetery.

Traditional Jewish burial gives the soul great comfort and provides the transition it requires to enter the spiritual world. In fact, establishing a Jewish cemetery and burial society is one of the first priorities for a new Jewish community, preceding even the establishment of a synagogue.

Also at this time, my father was in the process of directing a community in South Africa with setting up a Jewish cemetery.

With all this in mind, he could not forget the Jewish soul isolated in a sea of crosses in the cemetery behind the roadside motel.

A few years later, on yet another trip to Brooklyn an unexpected early snowstorm caused us to take a break once again. Upon checking in to the closest motel my father realized that strangely we were in fact in the exact same location where our car had broken down previously. He understood that this was no coincidence; as complicated as it would prove to be, he needed to do something about this poor soul.

Upon arriving in New York, my father contacted an attorney friend who could assist with the legalities. The lawyer explained in order to exhume the body, a permit was required from the state registrar of vital statistics or from the clerk of the municipality where the dead body is buried. Legal next of kin were the ones who could apply for the permit and needed to verify that no other family member objected to the disinterment.

Contacting the family is a sensitive matter, reopening an old wound. But after several months of making every effort possible, my father was able to track down a great-nephew of the deceased. It turned out that the family was unaware of where this man was buried, as they had lost contact with him when he intermarried many years earlier. They were happy to cooperate. An official request was submitted and quickly approved.

A few weeks later the body was brought to a Jewish cemetery in Queens. As my father and a few others looked on, a lost Jewish soul was welcomed home and finally laid to rest as a Jew, as no doubt he would have wanted.

Postscript: My father shared the details of this story with me just a few weeks before his passing. When I shared it with members of my family, my brother-in-law had the following to add:

A hospital roommate of our father had passed on and his family invited a representative of our family to the graveside funeral. My brother-in-law attended and was saddened to see a lone Jewish grave in the non-Jewish cemetery. This anecdote now inspired him to make the effort to reach out to the next of kin, and he is currently in the process of arranging for the deceased to be buried among his people.

Who knows if my father was directed by Divine Providence to that remote motel not once but twice, just to accord a fellow Jew the spiritual benefits of Jewish burial, and this story waited for decades to be told just so that the favor could be passed on to yet another Jewish person…