Four strangers stood around an open grave at Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park to mourn the passing of Beth Salamensky, a lesbian Jewish woman who died of the coronavirus.
Some were queer or Jewish or both. Even though none of them knew her, they were there to make sure the 43-year-old wouldn’t be buried alone that sweltering day in July.
Ms. Salamensky’s cousin Shelley Salamensky, the last remaining relative on her father’s side, was unable to make the flight from New York for health reasons. Her mother’s side of the family, from whom she’d long been estranged, didn’t attend. They said they were adhering to strict social distancing.
David Jacobson, founder of Chicago Jewish Funerals, began the service with a prayer and asked whether anyone knew Ms. Salamensky. Hearing only “no,” he read the weekly Torah portion, titled Balak, which, in part, explores how blessings can come in the guise of a curse.
“She brought together all of us,” Jacobson said. “Out of a curse from the family... translates a blessing for us. She gave us the opportunity to do something good.”
Her relatives in Flossmoor had vanished from her life. But she found a new family at Beth Chayim Chadashim, a queer synagogue in Los Angeles, where she moved after graduating from the New York Law School in 2002. The community she built at the synagogue remained the anchor of her life even as she moved back to the south suburbs in 2015 to care for her ailing mother.
“Something that I loved about Beth is that she not only watched the Friday night services [on a livestream] in Chicago, where it’s two hours later, but she would send an email to me right after it,” said Rabbi-emerita Lisa Edwards. “If I asked a rhetorical question or something during a service, she would send an email after to answer it. And, in just different ways, she would let me know really sweetly that she had listened to the whole thing.”
Edwards remembers Ms. Salamensky throwing herself into the synagogue’s community. She was a member of the ritual committee and an active participant in Torah study, even after moving back to the Chicago area.
“BCC meant everything to her,” Shelley said at a Zoom memorial with clergy and congregants Sunday. “It was a new life, a family she never had.”
Not only did BCC become a family with which Ms. Salamensky could be herself, it also reoriented her with her faith. It was the first time she set foot in a synagogue since her father Paul Salamensky, with whom she was very close, died shortly after dropping her off at law school, a feat which made him incredibly proud coming from a poor family.
Ms. Salamensky practiced law in Los Angeles until she moved back to the Chicago area to care for her mother Fern Salamensky. When her mother’s mental condition worsened, she was made a ward of the state and institutionalized, and the family home was liquidated to pay for her care.
The move left Ms. Salamensky essentially homeless. She packed a car with her belongings and moved to a nearby hotel, where she planned to wait for a friend she’d met in dialysis treatment to be released and take her in.
Eventually, the same type of kidney disease that killed her father sent her back into dialysis at Little Village Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. While there, Ms. Salamensky contracted COVID-19, and she was transferred to St. Anthony’s Hospital.
She died April 17. The car and her other belongings have since gone missing.
Shelley Salamensky didn’t learn of her cousin’s death until Chicago Jewish Funerals recovered her body after two months in storage. Despondent at the thought of her cousin being buried alone, she turned to Reboot, a progressive Jewish nonprofit, to spread the word she was looking for “dedicated mourners” — an age-old practice that spans cultures in which strangers, often paid, attend a funeral to mourn.
Four strangers answered her call. Many more watched the service on the funeral home’s website.
“I thought it was really important that I be here” said Deborah Moss, one of the mourners. “I’m a lesbian and wanted to represent that, and also Jewish. I thought it was important that she have a sister here, that she was represented.”
More than a week later, members of the BCC community came together with Shelley to share memories and pay their respects over Zoom. The group of about 20 recited prayers, and the synagogue’s cantor, Juval Porat, sang Hebrew hymns in a wavering, melismatic tenor that brought a hush over the virtual attendees.
A poignant moment came when Moore and Edwards shared emails Ms. Salamensky exchanged with them after moving back to Chicago, revealing a curious, loving person who cherished her relationships with the community she found at the synagogue.