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Sunday, 9 March 2008

Jerusalem To Allow Secular Burials

Jerusalem To Allow Secular Burials

By Nathan Jeffay

Jerusalem - Lior Brand, a Tel Aviv businessman in his thirties, has some
ideas about death — specifically, his own.
"I don't lead a religious life, and neither do my parents or my wife,
but we like ceremony," Brand said. "I want a ceremony that reflects the
way I lead my life. I feel as close to the religious people here in
Israel as I do to the religious people of India."
As of two years from now, Brand and other secular Israelis like him will
be able to rest in peace, without the piety. On January 31, Jerusalem's
ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski, made the announcement that the
city will build a secular cemetery. Until now, burials in Jerusalem —
which are funded by the state — have been conducted by burial societies
that are aligned with Orthodox Judaism. This was true even if the
deceased belonged to a Reform or Conservative synagogue, or shunned
religion altogether.
But now, approximately 12 acres of the capital's burial space will be
devoted to the new secular cemetery. It will be run by a nongovernmental
organization called Menucha Nechona, which takes its name from the
liturgical phrase meaning "proper rest." There will be no rules on
gender separation at burials, and ceremonies will be run entirely in
accordance with the family's wishes, following any rite or none.
"Jerusalem is a pluralistic city which requires letting each person
choose his lifestyle and burial style without coercion of one form or
the other," Lupolianski declared.
Over the decades, the Orthodox-only burial practice offended a number of
people — not only because other rites were ruled out, but also because
strict gender separation is often enforced through ceremonies and
because intermarried couples cannot be buried in the same cemetery
This resentment has intensified in recent years. In 1996, a court ruling
called on the government to provide a non-Orthodox burial for anyone who
so desired, but the situation remained the same. A lucrative private
market has cropped up, creating a situation in which those without
savings must accept an Orthodox burial — unless their families are
prepared for them to be buried far south in the one existing public
secular cemetery in the Negev Desert — while the better off can afford
choice. Some people have begun to take advantage of private burial
arrangements on kibbutzim, which typically cost $6,500.
"Burials on kibbutzim are becoming increasingly popular," said Shalom
Naim, who runs the operation on Kibbutz Einat near Tel Aviv. "When we
started offering burial 12 years ago, there were 15 a year at first.
Five years ago there were 60. Today there are 80 to 100."
According to Irit Rosenblum, head of an advocacy group that works to
break the rabbinic monopoly over lifecycle rites, although the 1996
ruling and the private market have highlighted the issue, it is
demographic factors that have forced this move.
Thousands of immigrants from Russia who may have Jewish ancestry but are
often not considered to be Jews under Jewish religious law now live in
Israel. Some regard themselves as Christians and will be buried in
churchyards, but others have a Jewish identity and will want a Jewish
burial.
"This makes burial a key issue for the state," Rosenblum said.
The matter has been raised in Knesset, where the chairman of the
left-wing Meretz Party, Yossi Beilin, recently drew a parallel with the
Orthodox monopoly over marriage, which leads some citizens to travel to
nearby countries to wed under civil law. But, he noted, "secular
Israelis can't just go to Cyprus to be buried."
This problem leavesMenucha Nechona, which has been entrusted with
overseeing the new burial practices, with the task of satisfying two
very different groups.
The first group includes people who the Orthodox establishment has
traditionally insisted on dealing with even if they would prefer
otherwise. This is made up of individuals who are considered Jewish
under religious law but may prefer a secular, Reform, Conservative or
otherwise non-Orthodox burial.
The second group includes those who consider themselves Jews but are
rejected by the Orthodox burial system, because they are not regarded as
Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinate according to religious criteria.
Menucha Nechona has developed a philosophy for dealing with both
constituencies.
"We believe that everyone who feels and acts as a Jew should be buried
as a Jew, and that everyone should be buried in the manner they want,"
said Ze'ev Kunda, who runs the organization.
The new approach offers a solution for intermarried couples, who until
now have been placed in different cemeteries if buried by the state. In
the secular cemetery, anybody married to a Jew will be automatically
admitted. It also clarifies the situation of people who regard
themselves as being in common-law marriages, as well as gay and lesbian
couples. In Orthodox cemeteries, a connection is only recognised between
blood relatives and couples married under a chuppah. At the secular
cemetery, any two people will be able to request adjoining plots.
Non-Orthodox synagogue movements will be permitted to run their own
ceremonies.
"This is much needed for us," said Anat Hoffman, who directs the Reform
movement's Israel Religious Action Center. "In Orthodoxy there is just
one way of doing things, which does not suit our members, or many other
Israelis."
"We will be able to allow people to create the funerals they want. If
people want Mozart instead of El Malei Rachamim," she said, referring to
the traditional mourning prayer, "that is fine."

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