Head to Head / Rabbi Hananya Shahor, Is a Disputeover Burial Space Cause for Murder?

'When we tell people the National Insurance Institute won't pay for traditional, open-land burials, we suddenly become extortionists in their eyes.'

Jewish burial societies in Haifa held a partial strike yesterday in the wake of the murder Saturday night of Benny Hesse, the director of the Ashkenazi hevra kadisha in the city. Today the temporary suspension of services will include the whole country. At a press conference on Sunday the heads of several local burial societies said the state is not protecting them and their employees from the daily acts of violence to which they are subjected, mainly due to the shortage of land for burial in large cities and the state's decision to introduce multi-tier burials. Haaretz spoke to Rabbi Hananya Shahor, director of Jerusalem's Kehilat Yerushalayim Burial Society.

Hananya Shahor
Tali Mayer

Tell us about Benny Hesse.

"Benny was a close friend, and on the day of the murder we spoke several times about work-related matters. Both of us followed in the footsteps of our fathers, who were both from Germany. He went to the Haifa hevra kadisha after learning at home the tradition of caring for the dead - an act of true charity. He began as a driver, then held office jobs, and advanced to the top. I began in the army, when he was the officer in charge of burials in the Northern Command. Our paths crossed in both military and civilian life. He was a decent, honest man, a director in every sense of the word, liked by his employees and faithful to his employers, that is, the public. He was a warm family man, pleasant to talk to, learned, with many friends. He was open to the experiences of this world, loved to travel and to use advanced technology, open-minded to this world, with deep roots in Judaism."

If the problem is a local one, why are burial societies all over the country striking?

"We hold that there is a connection between this murder and the lack of burial land, especially in the large cities. The government, the Israel Lands Administration, all the relevant agencies are making us to change burial methods, to put as many graves as possible into a small area. This means we have to use multi-tiered niches, which not everyone is willing to accept. We are on the front line, dealing with the public in its most difficult moments, when we were not the ones who decided to change the burial system. We're not the address for complaints, just the opposite: if it were up to us we would end multi-tier burial because it is several times more expensive. It is much cheaper to dig a grave or a ditch than to construct a building. It costs 10 times as much. Of course the government wants to save land; we understand this, but it must help us, support us in the changes we are making. That's not happening. We want an advertising campaign, we want the government to stress the importance of using land for the living, not for the dead. We can't be the ones to explain this to the public. Every instance where this must be explained to a family that is burying its dead is a kind of trial."

Would a public relations campaign persuade people to use multi-tiered burial?

"The Religious Services Ministry must explain why it changed the system. I think a few words about it being more important to use the land for the living than the dead is a basic and logical argument that anyone can understand. The explanation must come from the proper organization, so that what happened at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, with construction delays because of the discovery of ancient graves, will not become a daily occurrence for future generations because of the lack of land for burial. Furthermore, today's cemeteries are so massive, the gravestones are so massive, that they won't disappear for thousands of years. A two-ton block placed on a grave will not move over thousands of years. In the past they were covered with stones, and in a century they are washed away and no one knew there was a grave there. Here the cemeteries will get bigger and remain forever. This explanation isn't mine to give, it's the job of those who made the policy and did so with great justification.

Have you personally witnessed violence?

Not for this reason. Last year I filed three police complaints about physical violence against my employees. Dealing with people with regard to the space issue is mainly in the big cities, because high-density burial is already being used in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. When we tell people the National Insurance Institute won't pay for traditional, open-land burials, we suddenly become extortionists in their eyes. People think this is about money and don't understand that it isn't us, it's the government. There are families that understand and there are families that don't accept the explanation, and then the discussion gets heated and sometimes there are threats. I get calls almost every day. One guys says, you're a cheat, a liar, and he'll settle accounts with me."

Why is the image of the burial societies so poor? There have been State Comptroller investigations, investigative reports about extortion and inflated salaries in some of the societies.

"The comptroller found fault with the Religious Services Ministry, not with us. It's true, some burial societies have had to invade [into territory not allocated to the cemetery]. Between you and me, this is justified. We trespass because we haven't managed to stop the Angel of Death. We don't have an alternative. The plan to expand the cemetery in Jerusalem has been around for six years and keeps getting postponed. The planning agencies are really the ones who are to blame."

Today there won't be any burials until the afternoon. Isn't that extreme?

"Everyone will be convening in Jerusalem until 2 P.M. We are holding a memorial ceremony as well as a protest. We received halakhic permission from a rabbi who is acceptable to all the burial societies, Rabbi Yaakov Roje, to delay the burials as long as they are all completed by sunset."