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A Difficult Shabbat

 

Last Shabbat, Johni and I had one of the most intense and challenging experiences of our rabbinical career. After Mincha, we were greeted outside of the shul by a couple who explained that they lived in the apartment beneath Dr. Shep Levine. Since they had not seen or heard him for a few days, they were concerned. Hoping that he somehow quietly left his home and came to shul, which is something they knew he did every week, they came to check. Unfortunately, Dr. Shep had not come to shul. 

Once we heard that he hadn’t responded to their knocking or ringing the bell, we were concerned too. Calling 911 wouldn’t help. The police will not break into a home unless there is a strong immediate indication of a problem. Johni and I followed the couple back to Dr. Shep’s home. 

According to Jewish law the obligation to save a life overrides the prohibition of violating Shabbat. Therefore, our intention was to break in and hopefully find Dr. Shep alive and in need of help. Unfortunately, we found him but there was nothing we could do to help him. 

At that point we asked the couple to call 911 and I left the house since I’m a Kohen. The speed at which the SFFD and SFPD showed up was quite impressive, and of equal importance was the level of their professionalism, sensitivity, and respect. The interaction with them was very positive and deserves to be commended. 

The final say in these types of situations is determined by the Medical Examiner (ME), who usually takes between an hour or two to arrive. We didn’t want to leave Dr. Shep alone, so Johni remained in the house and recited Tehillim (Psalms) and I returned home. Eventually the ME arrived, took Dr. Shep and Johni came home. 

The story doesn’t end there. To have someone released from the ME in order to arrange a funeral, you need to be the next of kin or have some type of legal standing. Frustratingly, since Dr. Shep was an only child, finding his next of kin wasn’t so simple. There was no “In Case of Emergency” paper anywhere to be found in Dr. Shep’s home. Therefore, on Saturday night, I contacted anybody and everybody I could think of that might know about Dr. Shep’s extended family. Unfortunately, I got nowhere. Luckily, one of the people I contacted had a connection at UCSF that could access basic personal information about patients. As a result, we found a number for Dr. Shep’s first cousin who lives in New Jersey. From that point forward, things went relatively smoothly, and the funeral took place Wednesday. 

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this experience, especially for older people who live on their own. PLEASE prepare for the inevitable. Make sure that someone has access to your home. They should know what, if any, arrangements you’ve made AND be legally authorized to fulfill your wishes. 

Dr. Shep's funeral took place on Wednesday afternoon. You can watch a recording of the funeral here