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Former justice and religious affairs minister Yossi Beilin announced the dismantling of the Religious Affairs Ministry a mere 18 months ago. Beilin had already divided up the ministry's budget and had transferred most of it to the Justice and Education ministries. But in the end, it was the government in which Beilin was serving that was dismantled; with one of the reasons for its collapse being the conflict with the ultra-Orthodox. At the Religious Affairs Ministry, on the other hand, it is business and allotments as usual.

One doesn't have to be overly pessimistic to assume that Tel Aviv's hevra kadisha will manage to conduct a drawn-out legal battle against the process of dismantling initiated by the registrar of non-profit organizations, who claims that the burial society is rife with irregularities and is not implementing its recovery program. The society may even, in fact, be able to avoid the dismantling entirely.

Opposition to the plan on the part of the Religious Affairs Ministry, which is responsible for burials, will certainly help the hevra kadisha maintain its monopoly. The process of dismantling seems especially complicated and problematic because the NPO has many assets and obligations, and primarily, because the hevra kadisha provides an important service.

Among the problems at the burial society that concern the registrar are its association with the Hanoch ambulance company, the assigning of work projects to a relative of an employee of the hevra kadisha, and the continued involvement in the society of Shas strongman Rafael Pinhasi. These irregularities, some of which date back to the time before the present director took over, are not so unusual in the NPO landscape. But they are especially problematic when the burial society is undergoing a process of recovery and is supposed to maintain an unblemished record.

The truth is that in practical terms, the situation today at the Tel Aviv burial society is much better than it was during the previous decade. In 1993, the salary of its director, Yisrael Ehrlich, was NIS 1.3 million annually. The gross salary of the society's emissary was NIS 13,000 per month, 14 months a year (15 during a Jewish leap year). An accountants' report published in 1995 defined the typical hevra kadisha salaries as "insane."

At present, on the other hand, the society's director, Yehoshua Yishai, earns a gross salary of NIS 25,000 - certainly reasonable for the head of such a large organization. Most of the society's employees earn gross salaries of up to NIS 7,000 - relatively modest for the type of work they do. In other words, the fact is that the situation is complex and certainly not unambiguous.

Even if, from a legal point of view, the issue of dismantling the society is complex, from the practical and public perspective, there is no doubt that it is the right thing to do and should be done immediately. A situation in which the residents of 11 communities - comprising most of the Dan region (Tel Aviv and neighboring cities and towns) and numbering some 1.5 million people - are forced to use the services of one burial monopoly in itself undermines the service to the customer and encourages anomalies.

It is doubtful, for example, whether the incidents of price gouging that resulted in legislation on supervising burial prices would have been possible had there been competition between a number of burial societies. One of the problems with the Tel Aviv hevra kadisha to this day is that the huge sums it collected from citizens for burial plots were not used for development, but rather for paying the inflated salaries of its employees - a practice that contributed significantly to the oppressive deficit from which the society is still suffering.

The dismantling of the monopoly should be twofold: First, the huge geographic area ought to be divided between three regional burial societies; and second, there must be competition between at least two societies in each region.

The problem is that the hevra kadisha has a monopoly over most of the burial plots as well. Without dismantling the society and dividing up the plots, or without establishing another cemetery, it will be very difficult to eliminate the monopoly.

The only possible competition is the secular burial society known as Menuha Nekhona (Proper Rest), which is supposed to begin operations soon. The problem is that the burial area alloted to this society is still in the hands of the hevra kadisha, which has yet to transfer it.

When it comes to the issue of marriage, the secular public has already proved its ability to boycott the services of the religious establishment. We can only hope that it will behave similarly when it comes to burial services.