Finding Aaron: After 37 Years, Couple Finds Baby’s Grave; Spurs Cleanup Of Children’s Cemetery Section
Twice a year, volunteers led by Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield travel to the children’s section of Hebrew Memorial Park in Clinton Township to lovingly clear weeds and debris from graves in the children’s section.
“This mitzvah project began when one of our families discovered their son was buried in that section of the cemetery, and they were upset by the lack of upkeep,” Kaluzny says.
That son was Aaron Ben Bocknek, child of Cheryl and Marc Bocknek of West Bloomfield. Aaron was born prematurely and lived only three days. Today, he would have been 38.
“At the time, the rabbi who handled the arrangements told us that, according to Jewish law, because our son didn’t live for 31 days, we couldn’t do a full funeral,” says Cheryl, who added that back then they were not affiliated with a synagogue. “We were told it just wasn’t done then.
“At that time, no one talked about losing a child. We didn’t want to scare our older child, Steven, so we just kind of cocooned afterward. We put ourselves out of touch for a few days to recover from shock. Our son was starting nursey school, and we were determined to give him a normal start, so we turned things around and just went on.”
Cheryl continued, telling her story publicly for the first time. “We never realized how unresolved we were until Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny started a support group at Temple Israel. I asked if the group was just for young families losing children, and her initial response was yes. Then she told us she had made a mistake and we were more than welcome. We joined about 1½ years ago.”
Kaluzny, who also has lost a child, Sage, her son Asher’s twin sister, told the Bockneks she would do whatever she could to help them find their son. She also told them she wanted to help give them time and space to grieve their son.
When Aaron died, the Bockneks didn’t attend a funeral, much less a burial. And there was no shivah for support.
“Because of the evolving nature of Jewish law and Jewish thought, always considering people’s emotional needs, changes have been made for the better,” Cheryl says. “Families are grieving over their babies.”
Kaluzny helped the Bockneks in their search for Aaron’s resting place by putting them in touch with a rabbi, who asked them for Aaron’s birth date and said he would check through records. The couple also began calling cemeteries.
“The first call was to Hebrew Memorial,” Cheryl says. “I told them our story and they said they could locate records, too. We got lucky. They gave us the information. When I told the rabbi, he told me how much things have changed.”
The Bockneks learned where Aaron’s grave was in the children’s section at Hebrew Memorial Park, but it was difficult to find because some of the numbers had worn off. It had been 37 years since his burial.
A staff member from Hebrew Memorial met them there and found the grave; he assured the Bockneks it was where Aaron was buried.
“We noticed that the cemetery really had little maintenance, and we were pretty upset,” Cheryl says. “We’re not blaming them, but we feel it was an area not being visited much.”
Marc says it was “sad and neglected.”
“We had just taken part in a cleanup of B’nai David Cemetery in Detroit, and we couldn’t believe the change in an afternoon,” Cheryl says. “We mentioned to Jennifer the condition of the children’s section at Hebrew Memorial. She ran with the idea of cleaning up the children’s section. It was something we could do.”
Cleanup dates were found, and the information was sent to the Temple Israel congregation.
“We kind of adopted that section, coming twice a year and weeding around the graves, putting down mulch and, this year, through the Aviva Pearl Herman Memorial SHARE fund created by Merle and Ron Schwartz in memory of their granddaughter Aviva, we were able to plant perennials in the front section, to later be split and planted in the back section as well,” Kaluzny says. “We did some incredible work this time and the section looks beautiful!”
SHARE is a national organization that provides support to families who have lost a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death. Temple Israel holds a SHARE meeting each month and participates in Metro Detroit SHARE’s events and annual Walk for Remembrance and Hope, which was on Oct. 2.
“SHARE is not a Jewish organization, but it has provided a forum for mothers like me and so many others who need a space to talk about our babies who died,” Kaluzny says. “Everyone is welcome at our meetings, Jews and non-Jews, recently bereaved parents and those whose losses were decades ago.
“This has been a true labor of love and devotion for all who have volunteered,” Kaluzny says. “Many have volunteered every time we have done a cleanup, and we have new volunteers every time. Some have personal connections to the cemetery; a few people have siblings there who died as children. Others just feel that it is a mitzvah they would like to participate in.”
The Bockneks, who also have a younger son, Andy, added a headstone to Aaron’s grave last fall.
Hebrew Memorial Chapel donated a monument for the children’s section about a year ago that stands front and center. Most of the graves do not have any kind of monument or marker, and this serves as a marker for those that are unmarked. The next project for the group is to repaint the numbers on the unmarked graves.
“This all definitely helped with closure,” Marc says. “It’s fulfilling to see the changes being made there already with the groups who have helped clean up. We are appreciative and thankful for the support Temple Israel provided for this. Jennifer has been so astounding, and the support from the whole congregation has been phenomenal. They are our family.”
For more information about SHARE meetings, contact Temple Israel at (248) 661-5700.
By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor
Photos by Jerry Zolynsky