In Israel, non-Orthodox Jews get few funeral, burial options

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Bulletin Correspondent

REHOVOT, Israel — The horrific suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, that took the lives of 20 young people, nearly all immigrants from the former Soviet Union, highlighted a problem that has yet to be solved: the virtual absence of cemeteries for those who don't want, or can't have, an Orthodox funeral.

Somehow a solution was found in regard to burying victims who had non-Jewish mothers. One was interred in the small section of an Orthodox-controlled public cemetery that is set aside for people whose Jewishness is in question, while two others — whose parents rejected this solution as unacceptable — were laid to rest in a kibbutz cemetery. A fourth was buried in a Catholic one. So while all the youthful victims of Arab terror went to Israeli schools, spoke Hebrew and would have eventually been called up for military service, they were treated differently in death.

This is neither a trivial problem nor a new one. It first came into the spotlight when a soldier killed in action was buried outside the fence of a regular cemetery because he was not a Jew according to the halachah, Jewish law. After the uproar that ensued, he was reinterred inside the fence on the orders of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And there are thousands of soldiers like him, plus many times that number of civilians whose "Jewish credentials" are in question or nonexistent.

Their problem, and that of Israelis whose credentials are in order but who object to such Orthodox practices as burial in a shroud rather than a coffin, should have been solved in 1996. At that time, the Knesset passed a law calling for the establishment of "alternative cemeteries" where people could be buried in accordance with their own wishes and lifestyles. Getting the bill implemented, however, has been an uphill battle.

Leading the struggle for its implementation is an association called Menucha Nechona (an Appropriate Final Resting Place), established 15 years ago by a group of individuals together with the movements for Conservative, Reform and secular Judaism. Thanks to the efforts of the association, which has financial support from the New Israel Fund, there is now an "alternative cemetery" in Beersheva, where more than 300 funerals have already taken place. One of those interred, by the way, was a man killed in the Netanya suicide bombing some weeks ago.

There are advanced plans for similar cemeteries in Haifa and Herzliya, but currently Menucha Nechon is concentrating on getting space set aside for non-Orthodox burials when existing cemeteries are enlarged. According to Miriam Kunda, who runs Menucha Nechona from her own apartment, such a solution is presently being sought at the Yarkon Cemetery near Tel Aviv.

"It is interesting to note," she says, "that when the citizens of Kiryat Tivon, a middle-class Haifa suburb, were asked whether there should be such a section in their about-to-be expanded local cemetery, 70 percent approved of the idea."

Not all Orthodox Jews are oblivious to the problem, particularly in regard to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It was not by chance that Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, an observant Labor Party leader, chose to attend the funeral of a "doubtfully Jewish" victim of the bombing who was buried at Kibbutz Givat Brenner.

However, one Knesset member who is satisfied with the cemetery status quo is the fervently religious Avraham Ravitz. He calls the present arrangement, whereby "doubtfully Jewish" people are buried at a distance from others, "a generous solution." And while he agrees that there are many non-Jews who have linked their fate to that of the Jewish people, "they nevertheless remain goyim."