The underground economy: on dead Jews, too, can earn (Haaretz, Israel)

In August last year, the health of 71-year-old Simcha of Plesner beginning to deteriorate. His wife, the former Israeli Rachel-Rachel, decided that her husband should be buried in her native Ashdod, where she wanted to go home.

Rachel began to purchase land at the cemetery and delivery of the deceased to Israel. She contacted the religious Council in Ashdod, where she was sent in the “Chevra kaddisha” — religious funeral company. And there she was offered a plot in the cemetery for 52 thousand shekels (14 thousand dollars) including all expenses.

“Cemetery plots are very expensive,” said religious Council, citing increased demand from French Jews.

How expensive is this? It turns out that Rachel Posner paid nearly 50 percent more than the “Chevra Kadisha” is permitted by law to take foreigners. The account which she received included 2 thousands of NIS for the transportation of the body from the international airport. Ben-Gurion in the cemetery, 6 thousand 300 shekels for “burial procedure” and 43 thousand 600 shekels for the site.

But in the circular of the Ministry of religious Affairs States: for the land under the open sky in the cemetery of Chevra Kadisha charges may apply for foreigner only five times more than a resident of Israel (who during his life acquired a plot in the cemetery). The amount may not be less than 30 thousand shekels. Given that the usual fee for a burial plot in Ashdod is 5 thousand 726 shekels, the alien can take no more than 28 thousand 630 NIS, rounded to 30 thousand. It is not clear why Plisner paid for the land much more than 30 thousand shekels?

In response to journalistic inquiry Ashdod religious Council stated that it prefers to reserve the land for a cemetery for local residents, which are buried for free. “If we receive a request to purchase land, then pass it for consideration to a special Commission which checks whether the request of our criteria,” said religious Council.

Israeli cemeteries are the responsibility of burial societies — non-profit organizations that operate cemeteries, and provide burial. Every Israeli has the right to a free burial at the place of residence, the costs for services of Chevra Kadisha from 5 to 7 thousand shekels — are covered by the national insurance Institute.

These revenues are not sufficient to cover all expenses of the cemeteries, and the government does not provide them with regular funding. Therefore, the law allows “Chevra Kadisha” sell “private” areas for the price of 4 to 80 thousand shekels. In the case of foreigners khevra Kadisha may sell no more than 10 percent of conventional plots for sale, at a price higher than the normal price of not more than five times.

In recent weeks the sale of the lands the Jews of the Diaspora paid a lot of attention, as the pandemic has led to an increase of 30 percent in the number of dead to be transported to Israel for burial. It is expected that this figure will rise as many families have temporarily buried their loved ones in their country of residence and plan to rebury them in Israel after the resumption of regular air communication.

Each year hundreds of Jews from the Diaspora to acquire land on the Israeli cemeteries. The origins of this practice date back to the belief that after the coming of the Messiah, when will mass resurrection, the first to rise from the dead ones who were buried closer to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. So the rich Diaspora Jews are willing to pay 80 thousand shekels for the land under the open sky closer to the Temple mount cemetery on the mount of olives.

Sale of graves of foreigners is chaotic. But that’s not all: for many years, this area remains without any state control that encourages abuse and speculation in graves. The families of the deceased to sell public land at a very high price. Funeral companies sell the land at an arbitrary price, without a structured and transparent procedures.

A decade has passed since the first attempts to adopt the law on the burial of Jews in Israel, and to this day the Ministry of religious Affairs expects the final amendments to the bill.

Groups that have power and influence, which are burial societies, use every legal loophole to get around regulation. Even when the rules were clear, they were not fulfilled. In many cases, expensive land sold on the black market, grave erected pirated, and prices are set arbitrarily.

More recently, the Ministry of religious Affairs has issued Executive orders intended to restore some semblance of order, and became more actively monitor compliance. But there was another problem: the plots are too few and the demand is constantly growing.

Published in March report of the auditor General is forecast that within a few decades, only in the center of the country the lack of plots in cemeteries will reach half a million, and for the solution of this problem, little is being done.

The report notes that only 24 percent of the cemeteries have approved detailed plans — dozens of burial societies operate without a license, and in some cases the dead were buried in the ground, which is generally not designed for this purpose. The court found that the authorities had no information about violations of the cemeteries, and not doing anything to control the law and order.

The auditor General also found that about a quarter of the foreigners who have received permission of the foreign Minister to the funeral in Israel from 2015 to 2017, made deals with organizations that were not under any state supervision.

For example, Ganey cemetery-ester belonging to the “Chevra Kadisha” in Rishon LeZion. Since the beginning of 2000-ies it was closed, but despite this, since then, has sold more than two thousand graves (according to the report of the auditor General) for a total amount of NIS 76 million — without any regulation or control from the state.

Even today it is possible to purchase a plot if you have a lot of money. In the weekly newspaper TheMarker published a recording of a conversation with a client of Judah Weiss, Registrar khevra Kadisha of Rishon LeZion, who works there since 1996. The recording was made private detective who, posing as a broker, negotiated the purchase of five double plots — three foreigners and two for the people of Israel. Moreover, in the area designated closed to further burials.

“How you pay?” asked Weiss, and then put forward their payment terms: “For Israelis you pay 59 thousand shekels for each double plot. For “outsiders” — 111 thousand shekels for a double plot”. Then Weiss asked if the buyer is interested in neighboring areas, and added: “there Might not be parcel in the neighborhood, because if there is demand, I translate [them] from one place to another… first come, first serve. Whoever came, if you paid, then bought. You know? For me you are a potential buyer.”

A few minutes later, in another telephone conversation, Weiss asked for more information on double plot for residents of Israel: “the Price that I mentioned is for residents of Rishon, said Weiss. To avoid any misunderstandings.”

“And what is the price for the Israeli, who is from Rishon?” asked a private detective. Weiss replied, “74 658 thousand shekels”.

“It is a gross speculation and cheating people in the most difficult moments of life. People were forced to pay tens of thousands of shekels to bury their relatives after they were misled. They believed that in the burial society, they can’t lie to you,” said Paz Moser from the tel Aviv law firm “Lieblich-Moser”. This law firm is preparing a class action lawsuit against the khevra Kadisha of Rishon LeZion on behalf of people who purchased the grave in closed areas of the cemeteries.

In response to journalistic inquiry, the representative of the khevra Kadisha of Rishon LeZion, said that “a common space in the cemetery is available to all residents of Rishon LeZion, which in accordance with the law have the right to be buried in his hometown. The other part of the cemetery reserved for foreigners, including Diaspora Jews and Israelis living in other cities”.

“Selling the graves of the inhabitants of the town shall be in accordance with the law that allows funeral societies to provide free places for burial at a shared plot. The money that funeral companies receive from the sale of sites, go to the purchase of land for future burials and for the improvement of the cemeteries for the residents of the city,” — said in the khevra Kadisha of Rishon LeZion.