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Rabbis intervene to bar autopsy of female Jewish army chaplain

Connecticut Jewish Ledger
WEST HARTFORD, Conn., July 21 (JTA) — Upon discovering his wife was no longer breathing, Dr. Julian Timoner immediately called the 911 emergency number. Rabbi Chana Timoner, 46, the first Jewish woman to serve as a full-time chaplain in the U.S. Army, died July 13 in her sleep. Her husband believes she died as a result of an accidental fatal overdose of pain medication and sleeping pills. She had been suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, specifically the Epstein-Barr virus. Police who police arrived at the Timoner home in New Haven, Conn., insisted upon calling the coroner to determine the cause of death. The state medical examiner refused to release the body to a Jewish funeral home, despite Timoner’s pleas that his wife was a rabbi and needed to be buried according to halachah, or Jewish law. Jewish law strictly prohibits the desecration of a body after death. Connecticut law, however, stipulates that the state has the authority to conduct an autopsy when the cause of death is a possible homicide, suicide or is suspicious. In addition to calling his lawyer, Timoner called two New Haven rabbis who pleaded Timoner’s case with the medical examiner. A compromise was reached: If the family would note the cause of death on the death certificate as suicide, the state would release the body. The family felt they had no choice, although it greatly upset them that Timoner’s death would be termed a suicide when they were certain it was not. However, when the state realized that the Orthodox community was strongly behind the family, and that this was not a homicide or a situation that would endanger the public, they released the body, agreeing to note the cause of death as “unknown.” One of the rabbis who had contacted the medical examiner suggested that instead of an autopsy the state should take blood and do a toxicology report or pump the stomach, two much-less invasive procedures. Timoner said the medical examiner’s office did a toxicology report, the results of which will be received in a few weeks. Until her honorable discharge for medical reasons two months ago, Chana Timoner had served for more than six years in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of captain. Married at age 18, Timoner graduated from Southern Connecticut State University, going to school while raising two children who were teen-agers when she made the decision to enroll in rabbinical school. For five years she commuted to New York City to attend the Academy for Jewish Religion, where she was ordained in 1989. She then spent two more years studying for a doctorate at the New York Theological Seminary. She was working on her dissertation at the time of her death. At age 39, she entered the army, undaunted by the grueling challenges of basic training. There are countless stories of her caring nature. She organized donations to be made to social service agencies and to servicemen on the base. At Fort Bragg, N.C., where she began her army career, Timoner was the only Jewish chaplain for more than 150,000 military members and families. She officiated at all life cycle events, served as kosher supervisor for the kosher kitchen, ran the Army’s largest Jewish religious school, taught adult Hebrew classes and developed a method to teach children ages 5 and up Torah and Haftorah cantillation before they could read Hebrew. Timoner also served in Korea, where she was stationed with an aviation attack regiment near the demilitarized zone. With her usual zeal, she immersed herself in Korean language and culture. It was in Korea where she was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus.