INVESTIGATIVE REPORT: The Sheimos Controversy

A little less than two weeks ago, reports of “tons of sheimos,” discarded sefarim, siddurim, and the like, being dumped in a Pennsylvania landfill created considerable concern and an outcry in the Orthodox community. Hamodia’s investigations revealed, however, that the process referred to is carried out according to a system designed by Rabbanim and supervised by on-site mashgichim.

“Nothing is being done under the table,” said one of the major managers of sheimos disposal, who asked not to be named. He uses the IESI Landfill in Bethlehem,  Pennsylvania. “We have been working with Rabbanim for over twenty years and we have always adhered to all halachic and legal standards. “

The sheimos manager explained to Hamodia that for over twenty years now, environmental regulations have forbidden the burial of any significant amount of paper; it has become impossible to obtain permits to bury sheimos in cemeteries — or anyplace else, for that matter.

The impetus for these restrictions was an effort to encourage recycling, fueled by fears that ink could corrupt underground sources of drinking water.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, whose August 28 press release brought the issue to public attention, contends “there must be a better way.” In an interview with Hamodia he said he is working with Rabbi Yosef Schwartz of Beth Genizah to obtain the necessary permits for burial of sheimos in open land in upstate New York. “He [Rabbi Schwartz] is working with the Department of Environmental Conservation and we believe that he will make progress on the matter.”

The sheimos manager, however, was skeptical that such a thing was realistic.

“I went many times to the cemetery board of New Jersey and many other state departments, but the laws are very strictly enforced,” he said. “Anybody who tried to get around them was caught. There are trailers full of sheimos that the government forced people to dig up. I know from my end that there is no way in the world that you can get a permit to do it any other way.”

Hamodia spoke to Rabbanim who routinely act as mashgichim on the interment of sheimos at the IESI landfill.

One of the mashgichim, who also asked not to be named, explained that there is an essential difference between the requirement for disposing of sifrei Torah, mezuzos, and tefillin scrolls vis-a-vis other sheimos.

The former require kevurah, a burial process that facilitates decomposition. These items are sent to cemeteries for burial, and are not handled together with other sheimos items.

Sheimos, on the other hand, require genizah, a process of storing that retards decomposition. Preservation is engendered, said the mashgiach, by the process carried out at the landfill.

Hikind responded that he was aware of this distinction, but feared that the volume of sheimos collected before Pesach could make it impossible to ensure that the two categories are kept separate. “We’re talking about fifteen tractor-trailor loads,” he said. “You can tell me that they were all checked, that nobody put a mezuzah pesulah into one of the bags?”

To gain a more detailed understanding of the practical and halachic issues involved in the operation at the IESI landfill, Hamodia spoke to Harav Shmuel Meir Katz, one of the chief poskim at Bais Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, who designed the process.

“When I first became involved with sheimos, I asked a professor at Machon Technologia, which was then under Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, what’s today’s klei cheres [a type of earthenware often mentioned by Chazal],” said Harav Katz. “I was told that a plastic called polyethylene, which is what Hazmat bags are made of, is what should be used. Anything in them takes a long time to decompose.”

Harav Katz said that all sheimos are stored in polyethylene bags that are placed into the ground and covered with plastic sheeting and six inches of soil. Any regular garbage goes on top of that.

The on-site mashgiach said that he and his colleagues ensure that the sheimos are separate from any garbage, that plastic sheeting is laid on top, and that it is all completely covered with soil.

The sheimos manager said that when environmental regulations made use of a landfill the only legal option, he and a former partner, who now operates independently, found Pennsylvania state laws less restrictive than those in New York or New Jersey, and the staff at IESI to be especially accommodating.

“We are on a first-name basis with the landfill people,” he said. “They give us a place that is not being used right now. Once we bury the sheimos, then they start using it for garbage.”

Hikind told Hamodia that he was aware that operations at the landfill were under rabbinical supervision, but he said that when people put their sheimos into a collection truck they assume it’s going to a cemetery.

He also intimated that the present system was being hidden from the public.

“No one knew what was being done with their sheimos,” said Hikind. “When we started asking questions, the operation was guarded like a top secret.”

Some consumers, however, said that they as long as the process was halachically sound they were satisfied to leave the details to the Rabbanim.

One Boro Park resident, who asked to be referred to by his first name, Avrum, recently paid for a significant amount of sheimos to be put in genizah.

“At first I was shocked to hear what Assemblyman Hikind had discovered. I had assumed it was going to a beis hachaim, not to a landfill,” he admitted. “But I subsequently learned that this is standard practice and has the approval of a reputable posek, so I don’t feel I was misled.”

The sheimos manager said that if people in the community and Rabbanim have concerns with the process, he would be happy to look for ways to improve it. At present they are looking into the possibility of making a more distinct separation between areas of the landfill that they use and areas for regular garbage, as well as getting an area cordoned off.

“This is being done by very responsible people who have always operated under the supervision of Rabbanim,” he said. “If people have real halachic or legal concerns, we would be happy to address them.”