When a rabbi, a police sergeant, the mayor and an entire community get together, beautiful things happen that can provide a silver lining to even the most tragic of events.

It all started on a Sunday morning in early August. Chana Chaiton, co-director of Chabad of Robbinsville, N.J., with her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Chaiton, answered an urgent call from a community member. It was Joel Semmel, sharing the unfortunate news with the Chaitons that his wife, April, had just passed away, and this was his first call for help.

Longtime residents of Robbinsville, the Semmels were a happy family with Joe and April at the helm, and their four children in tow: Brandon, 15; and a set of 13-year-old triplets, Ashley, Brianna and Andrew. A dedicated and adept mom, April was the matriarch of her boisterous bunch, appearing for a while on a local television program to show the world what it’s like to raise triplets, along with another sibling.

While April had been dealing with medical issues, living with bilateral sciatica in both of her legs for the past several years, her sudden passing in August, just before she turned 52, was a tremendous blow to her husband and children. With few resources and far too much to deal with at once, Semmel turned to the Chaitons for help. His first and immediate concern was the funeral.

“I very much wanted to bury her in the Jewish tradition, but I was simply unable to afford it,” he said. “The rabbi immediately set to work on it, assuring me that April would be taken care of with little to no cost.”

And that’s exactly what the rabbi did. After a flurry of phone calls, Chaiton was able to secure a burial spot not too far away—free of charge, thanks to the local chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society). The very next afternoon, Aug. 5, the rabbi officiated at the funeral service.

Joel and April Semmel. She was featured on a local television program to show the world what it’s like to raise triplets, along with another sibling.
Joel and April Semmel. She was featured on a local television program to show the world what it’s like to raise triplets, along with another sibling.

Yet another challenge immediately followed. After a few inquiries, it became clear to the rabbi that the Semmels weren’t in the position to host the seven-day mourning period (shivah) in their home. Without giving it much thought, he and his wife offered to host it for them.

And here’s where the community started to show its mettle.

“We were expecting around 30 people, with maybe enough men to scratch together a minyan (the required Jewish prayer quorum for services),” said Chaiton. “Let’s just say that as the evening turned out, there were about a hundred people in our home; we didn’t have to worry about a minyan.”

Indeed, the house was filled to the brim with community members of all backgrounds. Family, friends, the superintendent of the school, classmates of all ages—the support was overflowing.

A Community Rises to the Occasion

Sgt. Thomas Egen is a friendly, principled, neighborhood cop who knows pretty much everything about his beloved community. Every summer, he hosts the yearly “Police Youth Academy” in the Robbinsville Police Department, showing children the ins and outs of a police station, some of their regular activities, and the basics of good discipline, safety, maintaining good company, CPR and more. It is at this program that he got to know the Semmel children, as they were yearly participants.

“From day one, I could see they were good kids, and I took a liking to them,” said Egen. “They were special kids. When I heard the tragic news, I reached out to the rabbi right away to see what I could do to help.”

Little did he know that he would become a major source of aid.

Rabbi Yaakov and Chana Chaiton, and their children.
Rabbi Yaakov and Chana Chaiton, and their children.

The sergeant initially offered to take the children to the movies, get them some lunch, go for walks—whatever he could do to help ease their load and bring back some sense of normalcy. But after more talks with Semmel and the rabbi, it became clear that much more was needed.

It happened when Semmel arrived at the rabbi’s house to return the chairs lent to him by an organization called Misaskim, a Jewish community service that offers aid to bereaved families in the immediate days after their loved ones’ passing. As they were talking over the piles of folding chairs, the rabbi understood that a lot more was at stake.

“One of the biggest things my wife was concerned about was that the children be sure to go all the way through high school in Robbinsville,” explained Semmel. “This community has many facilities that cater to the children’s needs, so it was very important to her that we maintain their education here. We were strongly opposed to the idea of relocating to a new place and go through the process of making new friends and acclimating to a new life, especially during such a sensitive time.”

However, the family was behind in their mortgage payments and the house was dangerously close to foreclosure.

The rabbi, Egen and other helpful community members rolled up their collective sleeves and tackled the challenge with gusto. Alison Sussman, a friend of the family, quickly set up a GoFundMe page to help raise funds for the family.

The clarion call is right there on the GoFundMe page: “The Semmels chance to stay in their home and their community is up to each one of us! Together we can help them move forward from this tragedy with the second chance that Joel Semmel and his four children so desperately need and deserve. With your support, we can give this family the opportunity to get their footing and regain some stability.”

The Chaitons with members of the Robbinsville police deparatment.
The Chaitons with members of the Robbinsville police deparatment.

‘The Importance of Getting Involved’

In a further layer of community support, the office of Mayor Dave Fried got involved as well, speaking with the Semmels, the bank and other parties to see what could be done to ensure that this family would not be uprooted from their home so they could stay in the community they cherished. Jodi Stephens of the mayor’s office was particularly instrumental in these efforts.

All this time, the outpouring of support never stopped. Whether it was taking the kids out for a day of fun, donating school supplies, or getting brand new appliances for the house, this small, sleepy New Jersey village proudly demonstrated that they wouldn’t let one of their own slip through the cracks.

“I think this just goes to show you the importance of getting involved in your own community,” said Chana Chaiton. “If someone needs your help, it’s your moral duty to be a part of the community and show up.”

As of December 2019, the rabbi, the police sergeant, the mayor’s office and the township report that the mortgage payments are up to date, the bank issues are settled, and life can resume for the Semmels as they find their new normal.

“People were telling me that they didn’t think that this sort of thing still exists,” said Egen. “But it really does. This is a story about Robbinsville—how we all came together to ensure that no one will be forgotten.”