Jews Abroad Are Just Dying to Be Buried in Israel

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A Beit Shemesh cemetery where many Jews from abroad buy plots in advance, January 2017.
A Beit Shemesh cemetery where many Jews from abroad buy plots in advance, January 2017. Credit: Emil Salman
Yarden Zur
Yarden Zur

When her father died a few years ago, it occurred to Carole Nino that the coffin interred in a Parisian cemetery might not be there for all eternity. “Our grave was purchased for 30 years,” Nino, a school principal in Paris, told Haaretz.

Because of the shortage of land for burials in France, plots are sold for a stipulated length of time. If after a few years the family hasn’t renewed the contract, a step that entails additional payment, the body is disinterred and reburied in a mass grave. That makes room for someone else.

“I will be here to take care of the grave, and my children will be here,” Nino says. “But what happens then?”

Nino decided to solve the problem by flying her father’s remains for burial in Israel. “In our family we don’t talk about death, so we never asked him what he wanted,” she says. “But he loved Israel very much and we have family here.” So he joined other family members buried in the Ashkelon cemetery.

Nino’s father is one of the more than 10,000 foreign residents who have made their final journey to Israel. According to the Foreign Ministry, the number of people who died abroad and were buried in Israel surged to 1,590 in 2016 from 850 in 2007, even if some of these where Israelis who died while on vacation.

Debbie Meltzer, right, visiting the grave of her U.S.-born parents at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, January 2017. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

>> The history of Jewish burial rites <<

Miriam and Ya’akov Zvi Levin, who over the years visited Israel a number of times, decided that this was where they would be buried. Their tombstones at Mount Scopus Cemetery in Jerusalem have been there since 1991 and 2002, respectively. Their daughter Debbie Meltzer, son-in-law and grandson, who visited their graves late last month, says the couple made sure to buy their plots well in advance.

As with this family, the names of many Americans can be found on tombstones in Israel; about 4,900 over the past decade. For France, the number is 5,100; other respectable showings are by Britain (520), Canada (410), Belgium (250) and Russia (225).

For many Jews, an Israeli burial is linked to the belief that this will give them “rights in heaven.” Jacob Ruza, the rabbi of the Tel Avivi burial society, says belief in the Messiah’s coming means the dead will be resurrected no matter where they’re buried. But some people believe that a burial in the Land of Israel, above all on the Mount of Olives, ensures that they’ll be the first to rise from the grave.

Some foreigners choose to be buried here out of Zionist motives; many of them are Holocaust survivors (who on their tombstones often mention relatives who perished). Others want to be close to family members who have immigrated to Israel so there will be people who visit their graves.

A Beit Shemesh cemetery where many Jews from abroad buy plots in advance, January 2017. Credit: Emil Salman

Beating the bureaucracy

And where there is demand, there is supply. Over the years companies have sprung up specializing in bringing Jews from abroad for burial. For the most part, they help the mourning families overcome the bureaucracy, fly the body to Israel and connect the families with the Israeli burial societies.

As the English-language website of one such company puts it, “We give you peace of mind. Planning for tomorrow gives peace of mind today. You can enjoy life, secure in the knowledge that, when the time comes, you will rest in the place about which G-d said to Abraham, ‘This land I have given to you and your children after you.’”

Another company stresses its variety of payment schemes and offers special deals including the option to spread your payment over three years. As is the case with native Israelis, civil – as opposed to religious – burials don’t have a large market share, but still there’s demand. According to Alon Nativ, the chief executive of secular burial organization Aley Shalechet, some Jews request that their bodies be cremated and their ashes buried in Israel, especially if they have family here.

Then there’s the question of location; many foreigners choose to be buried in Jerusalem. But according to Yossi Gil, the chief executive of the Sephardi community’s burial association in the capital, Jerusalem has lost its burials-for-foreigners record to other places.

“I bury Jews from all over the world, but in recent years, at least in my case, sales to foreign residents have declined,” he says. “Today the vast majority of French Jews are buried in places like Ashdod and Netanya, near their families.”

But Chananya Shachor, the chief executive of the Kehilat Yerushalayim burial society for Ashkenazi Jews, believes that Jews from abroad still prefer Jerusalem. According to him, of the approximately 20,000 empty graves that have been purchased from him, 1,000 belong to foreigners.

The cemetery that overlooks a hill near Beit Shemesh is different from other cemeteries around the country. The graves, most with both Hebrew and English on the tombstones, are few and far between; instead plots abound that have been bought by Jews thinking about the long term.

Purchasing a grave while you’re still alive is quite common, says Rabbi Jay Karzen, who has been volunteering on this issue for 25 years for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. “They want to think about the future, and the prices go up. Some people buy when they’re young and save money; it’s a pity to waste the children’s inheritance.”

High prices

The money issue is indeed an important consideration. Israelis who pay into the National Insurance Institute are ensured a grave in a cemetery near where they lived, as well as coverage of basic burial costs. But for anyone else funeral expenses can surge.

Thus, for example, the cemetery next to Beit Shemesh charges 30,000 shekels ($7,980) for one plot and an additional 7,000 shekels or so for services like transfer of the coffin from the airport to the cemetery, the funeral and maintenance of the grave. This looks like a particularly good deal. In the Yarkon Cemetery in Petah Tikva, the price of a grave can top 60,000 shekels, and in Tel Aviv it can reach 75,000 shekels.

Israel suffers from a shortage of land for cemeteries, and in the absence of state regulation there’s no limit to the number of foreigners who can be buried here. So these high prices have caused concern in the Knesset.

A bill that failed in the previous Knesset would have limited the number of plots that can be sold to foreigners; the burial societies would also have to publish uniform maximum prices. MK Eli Ben-Dahan (Habayit Hayehudi), who initiated the proposal, believes that foreigners should be charged more, but “from the moment you let every burial society set its own prices, this could reach astronomic levels.”

Astronomical or not, the burial societies say this money doesn’t go to their tills but to a “development fund” to prepare additional plots. “Every grave that’s sold to a foreign resident funds three to five new graves,” one source says. Another adds: “Without the money coming in from foreigners, it’s the state that would have to secure the money to enable development of the cemeteries.”

Orit Masamy, deputy CEO of Israel’s burial-societies organization, appreciates this funding but doesn’t overstate its importance. “The money from foreign residents is marginal,” she says. “If we were to build based on it, there probably would be no cemeteries.”

For some people, bureaucracy blocks the transporting of a body for burial. Moroccan-born Avi Kadosh earns his living in part by guiding tours in the old country. Late last month, after years of searching, he found his brother’s grave in Casablanca, 67 years after his death. He first heard about this brother, who was 2 when he died, from his father when his father was approaching death himself.

“Until a few years ago there was no problem in bringing Jews’ bones from Morocco to Israel, but then the king prohibited this,” Kadosh says. “In Morocco they want Jewish tourists to keep coming to visit their relatives’ graves.”

Kadosh plans to buy a plot for his brother in the cemetery in Kiryat Ata, where he lives, and hopes that a way will be found to bring his brother’s remains to Israel.

A Moroccan-born Israeli who has already done this is Vivian Perez Ben Meir, 71, who brought her father’s remains from Agadir to Israel about 20 years ago, even though he had never requested it. Instead, it was a promise to her mother to reunite the couple.

Her story, which she recounts at her home in Tel Aviv, sounds more like a secret operation than a journey to reunite a family. She spent an entire month in Morocco, where she had to forge documents and bribe police and other officials to carry out her mission.

“The Jewish community was afraid to cooperate with me and I had to forge a passport for my father to make a convincing case that I had all the documents,” she says. “I ordered a coffin from a Christian company I found, and after a long journey I managed to rebury my father in Holon next to my mother.”

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