Rabbi Zale Newman thought no one would show up to Eddie Ford’s funeral in Toronto, Canada.
The 85-year-old Holocaust survivor died January 29 after being diagnosed with three different forms of cancer. Newman said the elderly man was survived by only a nephew in Detroit.
On January 30, the night before the funeral, Newman put out a plea on Facebook asking for at least 10 people to attend Ford’s funeral so that the ceremony would have a minyan, or quorum of 10 people to perform the service.
“We wouldn’t want someone to leave the world alone, so we always have to have 10 together,” Newman told CNN Sunday.
He received a response from only three people saying they would attend the funeral, Newman said. He called a rabbi friend in California — who once performed a funeral with no one there but the deceased — for advice.
“I was prepared to do whatever it took to give him a proper send off,” Newman said. “That’s what he deserved, that’s what all good people deserved.”
As he headed to the cemetery the next morning for the funeral, he was surprised at how many cars were there. He thought there must have been another funeral at the same time so he began asking around, worried he wouldn’t make it in time to Ford’s funeral.
Person after person told him they were there for the same funeral.
“My heart started to pound,” he said, trying to understand what was happening.
It became clear. Word of Ford’s funeral had spread across the social media world, prompting do-gooders to show up in the freezing cold to send off Ford the way he deserved. Newman said everyone was “dressed like ninjas,” a lot of people were hiding their faces due to the cold.
“I saw 200 pairs of eyes,” Newman said. “What I could tell was there was men and women, old and young.”
An added bonus, Newman said, was that a man who identified himself as Ford’s long-lost brother also showed up and performed the Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer for the dead, with Newman’s assistance.
“Eddie … did not leave the world alone,” Newman said. “He left the world with his brother, his nephew and 200 members of the Jewish family.”
In a Facebook post immediately following the funeral, Newman said he was emotional thinking about the experience.
“I am in tears just thinking about how humbling and awesome it is to be part of the Jewish People who on very short notice; would drop everything, leave whatever they were planning on doing, drive (a) long distance, to stand outside in a open field, on a super freezing, blowing, windy day to escort a sweet, little Jew from Budapest, who was unknown to almost all them, on his final journey.”
Eddie Ford escaped the Holocaust
Newman said Ford was a 6-year-old living in Budapest, Hungary, when the Holocaust began.
His parents hid him with a Christian family so Ford avoided the concentration camps that ultimately killed six million Jewish people. Ford’s brother and mother survived the war, however, many members of his family were killed, Newman said.
Ford arrived to Toronto at the age of 16, where he worked menial jobs during the day, Newman said. At night, Newman said Ford performed in vaudeville, singing songs and telling jokes. His real job, though, was taking care of his mother who was physically and emotionally traumatized from World War II, Newman said.
Ford died penniless after living on social assistance, Newman said.
Rabbi Newman met Ford through a volunteer group
Newman, a 63-year-old hedge fund manager, has been a volunteer rabbi for 40 years. He is part of a Jewish volunteer organization called Bikur Cholim.
“We visit sick people in our community in nursing homes and hospitals. We don’t want anybody to be alone, so we provide them whatever they need,” he said, adding that the group often provides assistance to the poor and elderly.
It was through this program that Newman met Ford. Newman met with him every Friday and before Jewish holidays after Ford was diagnosed with cancer last summer. The two would light candles and sing synagogue and holiday songs.
“We made a birthday party for him in the last week of November,” Newman said. “We sang and we did a whole thing. I think instead of looking at the end of life, he looked at that day as a great day.”
Newman described Ford as a “skinny little guy,” standing at 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighing 130 pounds.
“He was a smiley guy. He was a personality, you could see he was a thinker, a performer, a humorist,” Newman said.
Ford also had a sensitive side, Newman said; He had book of poems on life.
“He was a gentle soul,” Newman said.
Newman said the fact that 200 people attended Ford’s funeral illustrates that he was a vehicle for “goodness and inspiration.”
“He saw the worst in humanity, and he deserved to see the best in humanity.”