Burial in Israel
Burial in Israel is a service granted by the state to the different religious sects in Israel. This issue is controversial when the deceased in not identified as having a religion or the deceased’s religion is in question; this issue is complicated by the fact that there is only one location for a public alternative burial ceremony. While the service for burial in a public cemetery is provided by the state and is funded by the National Insurance Institute and the local authorities, private services for alternative burial options can be expensive.
Jewish Burial in Israel2
Burial for Jews is placed into the hands of the Orthodox Chevrot Kadisha, or burial societies which are affiliated with the local authorities and the local religious councils. These organizations are responsible for the management of cemeteries, and they decide the character of the burial ceremonies carried out and declare different restrictions and prohibitions, such as prohibiting the engraving of a deceased’s name in a foreign language, or the use of a non-Hebrew date on the gravestone, or even preventing women from giving eulogies. Additionally, they collect enormous fees for reserving a specific burial plot next to one’s deceased spouse. If the deceased is not considered Jewish by Halacha, despite identifying as a Jew or having made Aliyah as a Jew, the Chevra Kadisha will not perform the burial or permit the deceased to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
As a result of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, many people have come to Israel who are not Jewish, or have a “doubt” concerning their Jewishness, or “lack a religion” by the Rabbinate’s definition (those who identify as Jews but do not have a Jewish mother). In order to find a compromise, sections for those of “doubted Jewish identity” have been added in several Jewish cemeteries throughout Israel. Unfortunately, these sections are limited in number and are scattered throughout the country, and neither satisfy nor console bereaved families who consider their loved ones to be Jewish. This is a particularly emotional issue for families of Israeli soldiers (mainly from the FSU) who were killed during their service -- they were Jewish enough to die for their country, but not Jewish enough to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. In addition, victims of terrorist attacks whose Halachic Jewish status was questioned are also buried in these sections.
Alternative Burial Ceremonies3
In recent years, the demand for alternative burial ceremonies has grown. In 1986, the Menucha Nechona, or “Rest in Peace,” burial society was founded in Jerusalem. The stated purpose of Menucha Nechona is to provide a Jewish burial ceremony that is either in the spirit of liberal Judaism, or secular. Throughout the years, other similar organizations have been founded in Israel, and today these organizations are under the same umbrella organization.
Since the authorities have refused to cooperate with these organizations and allocate land for the purpose of burials, in 1988 Menucha Nechona petitioned the High Court of Justice to obligate local authorities to recognize it and its fellow organizations as burial societies, and to grant them land for this purpose. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that the Minister of Religious Affairs must give this organization a license to operate as an organization for burial affairs and that the Israel Land Administration must allocate land for this purpose “within a reasonable period of time.”
Only in 1996, after a second petition to the High Court of Justice, was land allocated for alternative cemeteries. At the same time as this struggle was taking place, the Knesset passed the Alternative Burial Law, which guarantees the establishment of alternative cemeteries throughout Israel. However, to date there is only one public civil cemetery in Israel, on the outskirts of Beer Sheva, where the burial is paid for by national health insurance. This single cemetery does not have the capacity to accommodate the need for civil burials in Israel. There is also the option for a secular burial on Kibbutzim and Moshavim, but burial plots in these cemeteries are expensive.
For more information on Menucha Nechona, click here.
IRAC and Burial in Israel: Current Status and Next Steps
IRAC played an instrumental role in preventing religious coercion with regard to burial in Israel. In 1999, IRAC won an appeal in the Israeli Supreme Court against the Religious Burial Society of Rishon LeZion, which refused to allow the engraving of Gregorian dates on headstones. The Supreme Court ruled that the Religious Burial Society of Rishon LeZion could not oppose the engraving of Gregorian dates on headstones in the Jewish cemetery, and was ordered to pay the petitioner the unusually large sum of 50,000 shekels. Rabbi Uri Regev, at the time IRAC’s Executive Director, welcomed the decision, saying it "added another brick in the construction of a more properly run society, one that is more liberated and free of religious coercion."
More recently, IRAC has helped to ensure that burial societies are free of corruption. For example, IRAC initiated proceedings in a case regarding the inappropriate diversion of funds to the Tel Aviv Burial Society, which is allegedly using the funds to support yeshiva students instead of using them for the allocated purpose of supporting burials and providing food for the needy. IRAC is also involved in two cases against the Kiryat Motzkin Burial Society regarding price gouging for burial plots.4
1“Lifecycle- Burial.” Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.
3International Religious Freedom Report, Israel. Jewish Virtual Library.
4IRAC Legal Department Report, January-June 2008.