Underground Economy: Israel's Burial Societies Exploit Diaspora Jews

Israeli cemetery operators charge exorbitant prices in violation of the law, flout rules and crowd graves into any available space. Regulation is spotty

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Ganei Ester cemetery.
Ganei Ester cemetery.Credit: Eyal Toag
Liat Levy

Last August, Simcha Plisner’s health began to deteriorate. A 71-year-old Jewish American who was married to Rachel, a former Israeli, he began preparing for his burial in Ashdod. The Israeli port city was Rachel’s childhood hometown, and she planned to return there.

A few days before Simcha’s death, Rachel began the process of buying a plot and arranging the transfer of his body to Israel. She contacted Ashdod’s religious council, which offers the services of a hevra kadisha, or religious burial society. It offered her a plot including all expenses for 52,000 shekels ($14,800).

“A plot of land in the cemetery is expensive,” the council told a relative of the Plisners, explaining that this was due to strong demand by French Jews.

How expensive? It turns out that Rachel Plisner paid almost 50% more than the price that the Ashdod hevra kadisha is allowed to charge a foreign resident. The bill she received included 2,000 shekels for the half-hour trip to transport the body from Ben-Gurion International Airport to the cemetery; 6,300 shekels for “dealing with the body”; and 43,600 shekels for the plot itself.

But in a circular, the Religious Services Ministry says that for an outdoor plot, a burial society can charge for foreign residents no more than five times the legally set fee for a Jewish resident of Israel who purchases a plot before his death, but no less than 30,000 shekels. The regular fee in Ashdod is 5,726 shekels, so five times that would be 28,630 shekels, but it is therefore unclear why Plisner paid much more than 30,000 shekels for the plot.

In response, the Ashdod Religious Council said that it preferred to reserve its land for local residents, who are interred at no cost. “Nevertheless, if we get a request to buy a plot, it’s brought before a committee that determines if it meets the criteria,” the council said.

Israeli cemeteries are managed by burial societies – non-profits that administer and develop the cemeteries, and provide burial services. Every Israeli has the right to be buried free of charge near his place of residence, with the 5,000 to 7,000-shekel cost covered by the National Insurance Institute.

Virus outbreak burial airlift.Credit: Michael Gutwein/AP

That income isn’t sufficient to cover all of the cemeteries’ costs and, since the government does not fund them on a regular basis, the law allows the hevra kadishas to sell “special” plots for sums ranging from 4,000 to 80,000 shekels. In the case of foreigners, a hevra kadisha can sell up to 10% of its regular plots at five times the price set by law for Israelis.

In recent weeks, the subject of the sale of burial plots to Diaspora Jews has received a lot of attention, because the coronavirus pandemic has caused a 30% increase in the number of bodies being flown to Israel. That figure is expected to increase, because many families have buried their loved ones temporarily in their country of residence and plan to rebury them in Israel once regular air service to Israel resume.

Even in normal years, hundreds of Diaspora Jews are interred in Israel. The practice’s origins go back to the belief that the first of the dead who will awaken with the coming of the Messiah are those buried near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jews are therefore willing to pay up to 80,000 shekels for an outdoor plot on the nearby Mount of Olives.

Not only is the sale of graves to foreigners chaotic; for years it was unsupervised, encouraging exploitation of the deceased families and the sale of public land to the highest bidder. Burial societies sold plots at unregulated prices and without orderly, transparent procedures.

A decade has passed since the first attempt to pass a Jewish burial statute in Israel and to this day, the Religious Services Ministry is waiting for the final comments on the last draft of the law.

Groups with power and influence, including burial societies and relevant ministries, have exploited regulatory loopholes. Even when there have been clear regulations, they weren’t enforced. In many cases, expensive burial plots are traded on a sellers’ market, graves are built illegally and prices are set arbitrarily.

More recently, the Religious Services Ministry has issued regulations meant to restore some semblance of order and has been working more actively to enforce them. But it is running up against a worsening supply-demand imbalance as the amount of land available for cemeteries has failed to keep pace with the number of graves required every year.

A report issued in March by the State Comptroller’s Office on burial in Israel predicted that within a few decades, in the center of the country alone, there will be a shortage of 1.5 million plots and little is being done to address the challenge.

Virus outbreak burial airlift.Credit: Michael Gutwein/אי־פי

The report noted that only 24% of cemeteries have detailed approved plans, that dozens of burial societies operate without a license and that in some cases the deceased have been buried on land that hasn’t been designated for that purpose. It found that the authorities have no information on planning and construction violations and rarely use the enforcement tools they have.

The comptroller also found that about a quarter of the foreigners who received Foreign Ministry approval for burial in Israel from 2015 to 2017 were handled by organizations that were not under any oversight.

According to the comptroller’s report, the hevra kadisha that runs the Eretz Hachaim cemetery west of Jerusalem in Beit Shemesh, a cemetery designated mainly for Diaspora Jews, has apparently been working for 18 years without a valid license.

Shamshi Mozes, whose Mozes Travel is one of the leading British firms arranging burials in Israel, said he was unaware of that and said many Jews from his community had already purchased plots in the Beit Shemesh cemetery. Nor, he said, was he aware that regulations mandate that an unlicensed burial society revoke sales of plots and refund money.

Eretz Hachaim’s lawyers said the courts have ruled that agreements cannot be retroactively revoked, despite the ministry’s directive. On the other hand, they said, Eretz Hachaim has not sold new plots since the directive was issued.

Although Eretz Hachaim reportedly operates without a license, it apparently is continuing to bury Jews from abroad. Israel’s London embassy continues to approve the transfer of the bodies to Eretz Hachaim even though it was aware the society was operating without a license. Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, of Britain’s United Synagogue, which sells plots in Eretz Hachaim, participated recently in a funeral there and said he was unaware that the hevra kadisha was apparently operating in violation of regulations.

According to the its 2016 financial reports (the last year in which it submitted one to the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations, after which its “proper management” certification was withdrawn), Eretz Hachaim sold 211 plots in 2015 for 4.1 million shekels, or about 19,500 shekels per plot.

Nevertheless, a brochure issued in December 2016 by United Synagogue offered plots for sale for 29,000 shekels (6,000 British pounds, at the exchange rate at the time). Moreover, it said Mozes’ company charges about 18,000 shekels to fly the body to Israel, while the cemetery charges about 5,500 shekels for maintenance and 6,800 shekels for the funeral –a total of almost 60,000 shekels.

Eretz Hachaim cemetery.Credit: Emil Salman

The comptroller pointed out that burial societies are not permitted to delegate the authority to sell plots to another individual or company, which would be in violation of the law banning the trade in plots. Eretz Hachaim said in response that it had not delegated its authority to sell plots since the regulations banned the practice, but noted that the rules allow plots to be allocated to Jewish communities abroad.

“Eretz Hachaim has never operated through mediators. Any group that presents itself in that way is doing so on its own responsibility,” it said. “Eretz Hachaim does not sell graves since the time at which it was asked not to do so by the Religious Services Ministry. At the same time, there are revenues from the sale of plots transacted earlier, mainly from installment payments and burial services related to graves sold in the past. Eretz Hachaim sold the graves based on a price list in keeping with the Religious Services Ministry’s directives,” it said, adding that it was not responsible for brochures published by outside organizations.

On the issue of it not having a license, Etz Hachaim said it had been in constant contact with the ministry, providing it with reports, plans, data and whatever else the ministry requested.

At Hadarom cemetery, on the border between the Tel Aviv suburbs of Holon and Bat Yam, many of the elegant black tombstones in Block 14 Area 3 look as though they were built sporadically on land that was once a pathway.

The oldest of the cemeteries in the Tel Aviv area, Hadarom officially has 200,000 graves., Even though it was declared “closed” a few years ago, meaning that only 1% of plots remain available for sale, new grave sites continue to be built. There’s a financial incentive in doing so because the moment a cemetery is declared “closed,” the hevra kadisha is permitted to sell the remaining plots to the highest bidder at whatever price it can fetch.

There are plots that look as though they were built recently among the paths and near the toilets and were probably not in the original cemetery plan. Despite that, there is no publicly available information on how many available plots remain. The National Insurance Institute did not respond to requests for access to the plans, and the director of Hadarom refused to say. “That is not information that we wish to publicize,” he explained.

The Tel Aviv hevra kadisha also avoided answering. “In the opinion of our legal advisers, the society has no obligation to produce the requested information for you. The information requested would require in part handing over data that are not supposed to be revealed to outsiders … and may harm the society and the purpose it fulfills,” it stated.

Since the Ganei Ester cemetery, which belongs to the Rishon Letzion hevra kadisha, was declared closed in the early 2000s, large numbers of plots have been sold at unsupervised prices ­– far more than the number of declared on the day it closed. The State Comptroller estimates the figure at about 2,000 plots, generating a combined 76 million shekels.

Even today, there are plots due to be sold to the highest bidder. In a recording obtained by TheMarkerWeek, Haaretz’s weekly business magazine, Yehuda Weiss, a registrar who has been working for the Rishon burial society since 1996, is heard conducting negotiations by phone with a private investigator over five double plots – three for foreigners and two for Israelis, in an area designated as closed.

“How are you paying?” Weiss asked and then spelled out payment terms: “For the Israelis, you pay about 59,000 shekels for every double plot. For the ‘outsiders,’ it’s 111,000 shekels for a double plot.” After Weiss asked whether the buyer was interested in adjacent graves, and, before they concluded the conversation, he added: “They may not be adjacent, because if there’s demand, I transfer [them] from one place to another … first come, first served. Whoever comes, pays, buys, has bought. Do you understand? To me, you’re a ‘potential’ [buyer].”

Several minutes later, in another phone conversation, Weiss asked more for a double plot for an Israeli resident. “The price I quoted is for a resident of Rishon,” Weiss said, “so there isn’t any misunderstanding.”

“What’s the price for an Israeli who’s not from Rishon?” asks the investigator. Weiss replies, “74,658 shekels.”

“This is crude exploitation and deception of people at their most difficult moments. People have been forced to pay very high sums in the tens of thousands of shekels to bury their relatives after they were misled into thinking that it’s all right,” says Paz Moser of the Tel Aviv law firm Lieblich-Moser, whose firm is seeking to get a class action suit certified against the Rishon Letzion hevra kadisha on behalf of people who have purchased graves in closed areas.

In response, the Rishon Letzion hevra kadiaha said the public areas of its cemetery are available to city residents, who under the law have a right to be buried in their hometown. Other areas are allocated to outsiders, both Israelis living outside the city and Diaspora Jews.

“The sale of graves to outsiders … is done according to the law, which allows the hevra kadisha to develop plots where burial is performed at no charge. The money it receives from the sale of plots is used to buy land for future plots and to develop the public areas [of the cemetery] for city residents,” it said.

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