Long before the events of June 2, Yafit Butwin — the woman police say was murdered by her husband in Tempe earlier this month — knew what she would want if that fateful day ever came.
“She always talked about the worst case, even years ago,” explained Kfir Amsalem, her nephew. “And if something happened to her, she wanted to be buried with her children in Israel.”
The family of Yafit Butwin is now looking to fulfill that wish by returning her body — and those of her three children — to Israel for burial, and they’re asking the public for help.
Butwin was born in Israel and moved to the United States at age 22, shortly after her marriage to James Butwin.
The bodies of the couple and their three children — Malissa, 16, Daniel, 14, and Matthew, 7 — were found June 2 in Pinal County in their burned-out Ford Expedition; police say James killed the family at their Tempe home before driving the bodies out to the desert, where he killed himself.
It was on that same day — a Saturday — that Itsik Zarihan says a white bird came to the balcony of his home in Israel, refusing to leave. Zarihan, Yafit’s closest brother, said the bird pecked at his feet for days.
“It wasn’t until we bought tickets, got into the car to go to the airport, that she flew away,” Amsalem said.
“We think it’s Yafit’s soul to hurry us to bring her back home,” Amsalem said.
But returning Yafit and her children to Israel is not an inexpensive endeavor.
“We are working on getting a trust set up, but that takes a little time to get the trust papers together,” said Carol Dulis, a Tempe insurance agent, Butwin family friend and neighbor, and special administrator to the Butwin estate.
“So that we did not lose any time, I set up a separate savings account in my name. I know it seems weird to send money to the name of someone you don’t know but there are no local family members for Yafit, and Kfir and Itsik cannot setup accounts because they are not citizens, nor could they manage it from Israel,” Dulis said.
The expenses to transport and bury the bodies are nearly $45,000, Dulis said.
After contacting the airlines, American Airlines reduced the transportation costs from about $6,000 down to $500 and El Al Airlines was helpful as well, cutting $4,368 worth of airfare from New York to Israel in half, said.
The costs from the Sinai Mortuary in Arizona total $5,979, and the Jewish Chapel in New York that will prepare the bodies for transport to Israel is another $7,200, she said.
Because of the strict rules regarding Jewish burial, a Jewish mortuary needs to properly handle the bodies.
The transportation to the cemetery ($2,000), the burial plots ($4,500 for each child and $3,800 for Yafit) and the tombstones (quoted at $2,500 each) total another $29,300, Dulis added.
As of Sunday, the estate had raised a total $5,992, Dulis said. “But even if we can get half of that, that will be huge for the family of Yafit.”
Though she is survived by her mother, nine siblings and multiple nieces and nephews, Yafit’s family is not in the financial condition to pay for all of it. Yafit often helped out many of her family members, even paying for Zarihan’s surgery last October.
“I am selling my car and we will mortgage our homes,” Amsalem said.
But even that will not be enough to cover the costs. The family is willing to take out short-term loans, but those will have to be repaid within weeks, Dulis said.
Zarihan and Amsalem arrived in the United States June 12.
Yafit’s family inadvertently discovered the outline of her death online, Amsalem said. One of her brothers was reading the news on his smartphone the Tuesday after her death when he saw her picture.
“After reading it, he called me, couldn’t believe that it was true,” Amsalem said. “I ran home from work and immediately took out my computer and tried to find a friend of Yafit’s to tell me what happened.”
Amsalem tried “friending” Yafit’s friends on Facebook, even leaving a message on her wall in the hopes that someone would contact him. Eventually, he was put into contact with a few of her neighbors and friends.
“Carol advocated for us so that we could know the truth,” Amsalem said. She also opened her home to the Butwin family members.
“If we didn’t have friends, I don’t know what we would do,” he said. “We have another family now.”
Yafit had filed for divorce from her husband of nearly two decades. They were scheduled to go to court next month.
“She was so full of life,” said Beth Kroeger, a close friend and neighbor.
“Fiesty,” added Camala Nissen, another close friend, with a smile.
The divorce wasn’t something she had made known to many members of her family, Zarihan said. Despite keeping in constant contact with her mother and several other family members through video calls and email, she initially only told Zarihan and an older sister.
“She said everything was always OK,” Zarihan said. “She didn’t want her mother to worry.”
Instead, she was focused on the future, said friend Sara Imadali. She had just graduated from interior design school and was planning on attending Arizona State University to go to architectural school.
“I think she realized she could still have a future after divorce,” said Nissen, who had also gone through a divorce a few years before.
“We always knew that Yafit was loved here. All her friends so loved her,” said Itsik, her brother, through Amsalem’s translation. “We know that her life here was good. She took care of her children and family and did everything for them. We want to thank all her friends who have helped us with everything. They are our family now.”
Without the bodies buried in Israel, the family cannot properly grieve, Amsalem said. There are certain rituals that need to be performed to put a soul at peace.
Kaddish, a prayer that is said every month for 11 months, is very important, he said, as the soul rises after the first year.
Additionally, every time a family member visits the grave, they place a small stone or pebble. But there has to be a gravesite to do so.
“We believe that to put a stone on the grave, that the soul comes to us and we can speak to them,” Amsalem said.
According to Jewish Law, bodies must be buried as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours, he said.
“It’s past two weeks,” he said looking at his hands. “No one knows what happens, the suffering of the soul. We do what we can do.”
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