Ministry Official: Burial Societies Can’t Force Gender Segregation at Funerals

'If a family comes to a funeral and says 'I want to stand this way and not otherwise,' no one, not even the rabbi, can refuse them,' Religious Services Ministry Director General told a conference of Hevra Kadishas (burial societies).

Religious burial societies can establish guidelines for the conduct of funerals, but they cannot force them on relatives of the deceased, a senior Religious Services Ministry official told the societies in response to a number of complaints about discrimination against women attending funerals.

"If a family comes to a funeral and says 'I want to stand this way and not otherwise,' no one, not even the rabbi, can refuse them," Religious Services Ministry Director General Avigdor Ohana told a conference of representatives from Hevra Kadishas (burial societies) around the country.

Petah Tikva cemetary
Nir Keidar

In contrast to Ohana, Religious Affairs Minister Yaakov Margi denied that there is any trend toward excluding women on the part of the burial societies. He told the conference the societies are generally receptive to family requests even when those requests are difficult to swallow.

But he also insisted that separation of men and women, as well as permitting women to deliver eulogies, are issues of Jewish religious law that must be subject to the judgment of the individual burial societies.

At some funeral homes and cemeteries, women are not allowed to deliver eulogies and gender separation is mandatory during the funeral. Margi and Ohana said they were not belittling complaints of discrimination against women, but claimed the number of complaints is negligible compared to the 34,000 Jewish burials performed in Israel annually.

The issue has also come before the High Court of Justice and the Knesset. About a week ago, the Ministerial Committee on the Status of Women resolved that burial society licenses should contain provisions saying that women must be permitted to deliver eulogies and must not be required to stand at a distance during the burial of their loved ones.

The director of Haifa's Ashkenazi hevra kadisha was among several burial society directors who said no restrictions are imposed on women by his society, and women can deliver eulogies and even sing at funerals.