Lisa Sanders discovers the painful challenges faced by Israelis who want to mourn relatives and friends in a non-Orthodox way

When Susan Ahyed attended her friend’s funeral in Netanya, she had no idea that she would end up in Israel’s Supreme Court. As she went to stand beside her grieving male friends, the officiating rabbi ordered her back to the women’s section, fenced off by a row of flowerpots.

“I felt terrible,” says the retired grandmother, “but all I kept thinking is: what’s going to happen when I die? Are they not going to allow my son to stand with his sisters at my funeral?”

Ahyed left the funeral determined to challenge the right of the country’s Orthodox-run Chevra Kadisha (burial societies), to segregate women and men at funerals. Several years earlier, a national scandal erupted when IDF Corporal Lev Peisakhov, who was killed by Palestinian gunmen while manning a roadblock, was buried in the outermost corner of Bet Shean’s military cemetery, without official military honours.

The rabbis had determined that, as a non-Halachic-born Jew, he was not entitled to be buried alongside his Jewish-born comrades. The issue of cemeteries and funerals in Israel is painful and unresolved, and marred by scandals and accusations of corruption. About 34,000 Jewish people die in Israel every year. Burials are mainly the responsibility of 521 local Chevra Kadisha, who operate under the government’s Religious Services Ministry.

By law, every Jewish person who dies in Israel, whether they are a citizen or not, is entitled to a burial plot and funeral ceremony paid for by the National Insurance Institution. It sounds simple, but in fact it is bewilderingly complex. Chevra Kadisha rabbis decide who may be buried where, with more “prestigious” plots reserved for distinguished religious dynasties, and a sliding scale of discretionary fees for numerous “extras”, such as burial in a particular part of a cemetery, or the reservation of a double plot.

None of the Chevrot Kadisha allow burial in a coffin, nor instrumental music. There are places where women will not be permitted to deliver eulogies – even if the speaker is a first-degree relative of the deceased. These restrictions reflect ultra- Orthodox norms that have taken root over the years.

Some Israelis have been “opting out” of the state burial system for years, and private, alternative cemeteries started popping up in kibbutzim and moshavim around the country.

At an alternative cemetery, you can choose to have a strictly Orthodox burial according to Jewish law, or instead you can have a secular ceremony, with music and floral tributes. The problem is the astronomical cost associated with these private burials, which means they are only available to the wealthy few.

The Alternative Burials Law was passed in 1996, which specified that every Israeli citizen has the right to a secular burial, funded, just like the Chevra Kadisha religious burials, by the National Insurance Institute.

 Menuchat Olam cemetery in Netanya offers a way to be buried in an non-Orthodox Jewish way

Menuchat Olam cemetery in Netanya offers a way to be buried in an non-Orthodox Jewish way

In effect, the state has established only a handful of secular cemeteries and allocates the non-profits that run them only a tiny budget. One of these is Menuchat Olam, a tiny, manicured private graveyard adjacent to the large municipal cemetery in Netanya.

Many of the tombstones display engraved pictures of the deceased, and lettering in Cyrillic. Meanwhile, Susan Ahyed took her gender segregation complaint to the Netanya magistrate court. When her case was thrown out, the issue was taken up by the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of Israel’s Reform movement.

The IRAC lawyers hoped to use Ahyed’s case to prove that all public spaces, from buses to cemeteries, should not be segregated according to gender. But the district judge also ruled against them. “The district court judge told me I should have made a scene there if I didn’t like what was going on,” Ahyed says. “How could I have made a scene at a friend’s funeral?”

At the same time, an Orthodox woman, Rose Davidian, brought a case against the cemetery in Ofakim in the south, and won £5,000 compensation after she appealed a Chevra Kadisha ban on eulogising her father at his funeral. Last summer, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the verdicts in Ahyed vs Chevra Kadisha and ruled that there was to be no enforced gender segregation at funerals.

In practise, little has changed. For the families of soldiers like Corporal Peisakhov, there is finally some justice. In February, the legal adviser to the Defence Department ruled that all Israeli soldiers killed in the line of duty may now be buried in a military cemetery without a religious ceremony but with full military honours.

Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hiddush, the religious pluralism organisation, praised the move. “This undoubtedly will be a breakthrough that will allow families to bury their loved ones in accordance with their faith and lifestyles,” he said. The death debate rumbles on, with opinion sharply divided over the new “high-rise” cemeteries under construction in Tel Aviv.

Land is not plentiful in this part of the world, and there is ongoing debate over where to build new cemeteries, given the acute shortage of housing for the living. Under current plans, 30 further multistorey “burial caves” will provide an extra 250,000 graves over the next 25 years.

Above: A municipal cemetery. Inset: Menuchat Olam cemetery in Netanya offers a way to be buried in an non-Orthodox Jewish way