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Burial in Jerusalem: The Har Menuchos Cemetery - Part II

17 Cheshvan 5763 - October 23, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director                                                    Published Weekly

IN-DEPTH FEATURES Burial in Jerusalem: The Har Menuchos Cemetery

by M. Samsonowitz

Part II

For two thousand years, it has the dream and hope of many individuals to be buried in Jerusalem. This is a report of the situation today.

When Israel took control of all Yerushalayim and regained the West Bank in 1967, burial on Har Hazeisim once again became feasible. Today, the Perushim and Sephardic Chevra Kadishas still bury on Har Hazeisim, while the others primarily bury on Har Hamenuchos.

The Chevra Kadishas hold the key to much of Jerusalem's history. Records existed for centuries of all the burials that took place on Har Hazeisim. The ancient records were destroyed and/or lost, but over the years, the Perushim painstakingly collected every scrap of information that they could, to try to reconstruct the information about who was buried where, and recorded it on microfiche. They were largely successful.

When Israel gained possession of Har Hazeisim after the Six Day War, Perushim were ready to rehabilitate the cemetery and the were able to identify many grave plots. However, due to the large cost, and also constant sabotage by Arab hoodlums, the work done has been minimal.

In the process of restoring all the records, Perushim also created a special computer program where they catalogued the information they had gathered. Their records contain fascinating and often detailed information about the niftorim. Whereas the other Chevra Kadishas primarily keep only basic information about those buried in their plots, Perushim record extensive information including what was the individual's parnossa, what city he heralded from, whether he was a Cohen, Levi or Yisroel, whether he was single, a chosson, or divorced at the time of death, and other such information. Many people have used their records to trace family lineage and connections generations back.

Rav Gelbstein, head of the Perushim Chevra Kadisha, relates how a Russian immigrant approached him 15 years ago asking about her grandfather who, the family traditions said, had donated buildings and built 16 wells in Jerusalem. The Chevra Kadisha was able to locate the grandfather's grave and the computer program related many details of the man's history.

The Russian woman was thrilled when Rav Gelbstein brought her to the shul in Schunat Hakerem which had been built by her grandfather and was still named after him. The rov of Hakerem was moved when he heard how the builder's granddaughter had sought out her grandfather, and he invited the woman to a special seuda in honor of the grandfather. As a result of this event the woman and her son became closer to Judaism, and the son even wrote a book about his grandfather.

"We basically write everything down that we know about a person because we don't know what will be important. We even write down variations of the person's name so we can always trace him if we have to find out more," Rav Gelbstein says. He says he has witnessed many times family members finding each other because one went to look for an ancestor's grave.

A Modern Link

Another astonishing case where the Chevra Kadisha records led to a family reunion involved a Jew from abroad who one year wanted to visit his grandfather's grave in Jerusalem. The man only knew that his grandfather was called Keidan because he was from that town. After studying the records, Rav Gelbstein discovered the grandfather's grave. The man restored the monument over his grandfather's grave, and began to visit the site on his yearly trip to Israel.

Then one day Rav Gelbstein was contacted by a prominent accountant in Israel called Schmerling. The man wanted to visit his grandfather's grave and didn't know where it was. Among the little information he was able to provide was that his grandfather was from the town of Keidan.

After integrating the information, Rav Gelbstein realized that Schmerling was also a descendant of the same Jew from Keidan. When he informed him that cousins from abroad regularly visit the grandfather's grave, Schmerling was dumbfounded, since he was unaware that his grandfather had any descendants who lived abroad.

The two descendants got in touch and then they found out their grandfather's unusual history: He had wanted to move to Israel but his wife refused. The couple divorced. The grandfather came to Israel, married a second wife and had children. The descendants of the first wife were unaware of the existence of children from the second wife, and vice versa.

The two families met and held a family meeting in Jerusalem, published a booklet about their family line, and thanked the Perushim Chevra Kadisha for connecting them.

Family Affairs

Part of the extreme devotion demonstrated by the Chevra Kadishas in their work no doubt derives from the fact that Chevra Kadishas are strictly family concerns, and each generation takes pride in carrying out its avodas hakodesh. Most of the directors today are the grandchildren of the original directors.

Rav Gelbstein's grandfather ran the Perushim for 50 years. His son was involved for 41 years, and Rav Gelbstein has now been in it for 31 years. Of course, Rav Gelbstein's children are also working in it. "This is not just work but a family concern," says Rav Gelbstein. "We worked for years on rehabilitating the plots on Har Hazeisim."

Chanaya Shachor of Kehillas Yerushalayim explains, "Most of our staff comes from the family connection." He says this is not just a matter of run-of-the-mill Israeli nepotism. "To succeed at this work, you can't be an emotional type," he explains. "Family members tend to have similar characteristics."

He adds, though, that while one cannot be an emotional type, one cannot be hardhearted either, since Chevra Kadisha work puts one into continual contact with people when they are in their most vulnerable state, broken and grief-stricken.

Why So Many Chevra Kadishas?

The uninitiated might wonder why every community has its own Chevra Kadisha. According to halacha, isn't the important thing that one is just buried in the ground? Why do the Perushim, Sephardim and Chassidim each have their own Chevra Kadisha?

This question shows a lack of awareness of the function of a Chevra Kadisha and burial rites in Jewish life. First and foremost, a Chevra Kadisha has always had a distinguished role as a community service and not just burial business.

For instance, in Jerusalem, among the rules of every Chevra Kadisha, is that part of the funds received for burial have to be reinvested in the community's other needs. Perushim maintain a kollel on the third floor of their building. They also have a special gemach to help the poor and chassonim, and they subsidize the convalescence of every mother after her fifth birth.

Kehillas Yerushalayim gives help for every birth from the seventh onwards, and also gives stipends for various needs. The Sephardic Chevra Kadisha maintains gemachim and a hachnosas kallah for poor couples.

Another reason that there are so many burial organizations is that people, it turns out, are as sensitive about their final resting place as the neighborhood which they choose to live in. The halacha stipulates that a tzaddik should be buried next to a tzaddik and a rosho next to a rosho, as well as a few other restrictions such as not burying enemies near each other or a man and his divorcee.

Since these halachos indicate that it is relevant to the neshomoh where its body is buried, even after it dies, people take very seriously who their burial neighbors will be. In particular, many families buy special sections of multiple plots so the members will have their final resting places next to each other. Similarly, many disciples of roshei yeshiva or rebbes will go to great lengths to be buried next to their revered rav or teacher.

It is a long-standing Jewish tradition to regularly visit graves of deceased family members, particularly on the day before rosh chodesh Nisan, rosh chodesh Elul, Rosh Hashonoh and Tisha B'Av.

People also visit a deceased family member if someone is seriously ill, or to "invite" them to a family wedding. This attitude is based on the fact that the dead person's soul is alive and according to tradition experiences the full range of emotions, in heaven, even though the body is nonfunctioning. The soul in heaven still retains a connection to the remains of its body below. In the same way, it is sensitive regarding the identity of its graveyard neighbor.

Because of the well-established custom to visit the graves of ancestors and great rabbonim, the Perushim have even established an index to help people locate the most well- known graves in Har Hazeisim. One righteous Satmar chossid called Reb Tuvya Freund has thousands of descendants who regularly visit his grave. On the Perushim index, his grave site is listed on the first page.

Stunning proof of the connection between the deceased and his live relatives can be provided by Chevra Kadisha directors, who can tell true stories of individuals who were visited by relatives in a dream and asked to bring the relative's bones to burial in Israel. In at least one case, after the living relative carried the reburial out, he received a visit from his father in another dream and was thanked for his efforts.

Halacha discusses the importance of being buried in a cemetery which contains only Jews, and many Jews are particular to be buried next to shomrei Shabbos Jews only. Perushim deals almost exclusively with religious Jews, so this is rarely a concern for them. But 90 percent of Kehillas Yerushalayim's burials are non-religious Jews, so for the shomrei Shabbos who want to be buried in their cemetery, they have special plots.

Mixed Burials

The question of non-Jews being buried in Jewish cemeteries is a troublesome topic, which in the past led to unpleasant incidents when activists removed a non-Jewish body which had been buried in a Jewish cemetery by misrepresentation. With the large population of non-Jews in Israel today, this is not a minor problem. In fact, many non-Jews prefer to be buried among people of their own religion, but others do not care.

Chananya Shachor, the director of the Kehillas Yerushalayim Chevra Kadisha, says that he doesn't rely on burial certificates from the Interior Ministry, and he has his "own ways" to verify if the niftar is a Jew or not. At the same time he admits that it is impossible to be 100 percent sure if every person is a Jew.

He recounts a true story that happened in his office. A chareidi man walked in and told him in distress, "The day I have feared for 20 years has arrived!"

To Shachor's amazement, the man then related that his father had passed away 20 years before, and his mother had bought the plot next to him. "But my conscience doesn't allow me to bury her there!" he confessed. He then explained that his mother was not Jewish. Although he and his brother had converted and became fully observant Jews, his mother had never converted.

"My mother died this morning. She is a goy. This is sitting on our hearts for 20 years! What should we do?"

The two brothers were greatly relieved when Shachor explained that the cemetery has a special section for non-Jews, and that they would accommodate the brothers by making the funeral appear as Jewish as possible. At the funeral, no one even realized that the cemetery was non-Jewish despite the Russian names on the adjoining monuments. The levaya proceeded, the children tore their clothes, and they sat shiva for their mother. They sent a warm letter of appreciation to Shachor afterwards.

The non-Jewish section of Har Hamenuchos, by the way, is specifically for chasrei das -- those who do not belong to a religious group, such as Russian non- Jewish immigrants and assorted atheists. Practicing Christians and Muslims have their own cemeteries.

Shachor says there is no competition between his Chevra Kadisha and Perushim, and he usually directs religious families to bury their deceased in the Perushim section rather than in his, although sometimes he gets a religious Jew who asks to be buried near a parent or relative in the Kehillas Yerushalayim cemetery.

Since Perushim deal with the religious population whose Jewish identity is clear-cut, there is little concern about non-Jews ending up in their section. The same goes for the Sephardim, who deal primarily with the Sephardic public which has a negligible rate of assimilation in comparison with the Ashkenazic public, and most of whom are at least minimally observant. However, they too have sections for shomrei Shabbos only.

Different Minhagim

There are a wealth of minhagim involved in every part of the burial process. Among the Sephardim, there are a wide variety of nusachs and minhagim. For instance, some erect a monument on the 7th day after the death, the 8th day, one month, or after a year.

Jewish law stipulates that one's picture should not be on the monument, although I saw a monument on black stone commemorating a famous Bucharian singer and chazon in the Sephardic cemetery with a picture. The Chevra Kadisha worker explained that in countries where Jews were buried in joint cemeteries with goyim, the Jews often imitated this non-Jewish custom.

The design of the monument is often revealing. Monuments of those who died young often exhibit a cut branch, signifying their death before they were able to blossom into a mature individual.

In Jerusalem, nearly all graves are covered by a rectangular stone platform of poured concrete with a stone facing which covers the entire length of the grave, rising about two feet above the ground and sometimes higher. The writing is on the top panel of the box and sometimes the front or back sides.

In some cases the writing is engraved in the stone, and black lead is poured in. Others just paint the words onto the stone. Some engrave vital information such as the name and date and paint the rest.

In many graves there is a small cavity inset in the box where candles can be lit in memory of the deceased and protected from the wind.

In cases where there are relatives who did not receive a proper burial, like those murdered in the Holocaust, their names are often put on the sides of the stones.

Paying for Burial

Burial in Jerusalem is big business. The fact that most Chevra Kadishas have beautifully designed and spacious quarters testifies to the financial ability of running a Chevra Kadisha.

Burial costs and development costs for the cemeteries are inevitably intertwined with government funding, like most things in Israel.

Israeli citizens and even tourists who pass away while in Israel do not have to pay for a burial plot. Bituach Leumi (National Insurance), Israel's "Social Security," pays the NIS 5,700 (about $1,140) burial costs. This covers all the basic costs of the funeral and the grave plot. The monument stone is handled by separate contractors and is not part of the burial or its costs. It must be arranged separately by the family of the deceased.

Chevra Kadishas cannot charge a citizen for a burial plot or for burial costs. They may charge a citizen who wants to reserve a specific plot. The cost of this service was set by a law passed last Av by the Knesset at approximately NIS 11,000 ($2,200).

Typically, one spouse passes away and gets his or her grave for free, paid by the Bituach Leumi. The surviving spouse than purchases an adjoining grave for him or herself. Mr. Shachor says that 90 percent of all burials on Har Hamenuchos involve couples. The new law also requires the Chevra Kadisha to save the graves on both sides of the deceased for 90 days, to give the spouse and relatives a chance to purchase it.

Mr. Shachor says that an economist hired by the Chevra Kadishas determined that the actual total cost to them of development is NIS 14,500 per grave and not NIS 11,000 as the Knesset claimed, and that this new law puts an undue burden on the Chevra Kadishas. However, Rabbi Moshe Gafni, who passed the burial law, says that he waited months for the Religions Ministry to decide upon a tariff that would be uniform and just. Only when it failed to do so, did the Knesset pass the law.

"On everything in the State, the tariffs are fixed so the public knows what it is getting -- bread, gas, telephone costs. But the cost of a grave was being set arbitrarily by every Chevra Kadisha who charged whatever they wanted," explains Rabbi Gafni. "This led to abuses and it had to come to an end. If NIS 11,000 is too low to fully cover development costs, then we're willing to hear their arguments as to why they should charge more. In the meantime, a year has passed and they haven't appeared before the Interior Committee to plead the case of higher fees. I wonder why."

The Chevra Kadisha does fund the development of the cemetery depending on its own resources. Development costs can be considerable: plotting and charting a new burial section, reinforcing walls, fencing off areas, affixing lighting, leveling slopes, building a funeral parlor, and maintenance.

For instance, Perushim built a special platform surrounded by a fence near the Chelkas Rabbonim in its cemetery so kohanim can come visit the graves. This past year they have been working on an entirely new concept in burial -- "burial in caves" -- due to the increased need for burial places. This involves cutting horizontal slices out of the mountain, and then digging graves in it. The plateau would be supported by columns, walkways which lead from the highest level to the lowest, and lights to illuminate the paths.

"This way, we can utilize more of the mountain for graves," Rav Gelbstein explains. "We are having leading rabbonim check this possibility out." A small miniature scale of such a cemetery section already sits in the Perushim Chevra Kadisha's lobby.

Hashgochoh Protis in Finding One's Final Resting Place

Hashgochoh Protis watches over a Jew right up to his final resting place. The Chevra Kadisha owners have astounding stories to relate about how Jews obtained the specific grave they desired in ways strange and unpredictable.

A Jew came to the Perushim Chevra Kadisha and asked if he could be buried next to his father who had died many years before. However, there was no available place next to his father. All had been sold. The Jew wouldn't stop asking because it meant so much to him. He wanted to be buried right next to his father and he refused to buy any other plot. Years went by but the Chevra Kadisha could not help him.

Suddenly, a Jew who had bought the grave next to the man's father walked in to the Chevra Kadisha and said, "I want to give up the grave I bought because I want to be buried next to my father and grandfather on Har Hazeisim."

The astounded Chevra Kadisha director remembered that another Jew wanted specifically this grave. He gladly switched graves for the Jew who owned the plot to an available place on Har Hazeisim.

The next day, the Chevra Kadisha phoned the first man to tell him that he could have the plot he wanted. The man's son answered the phone and told the stunned Chevra Kadisha director that his father had passed away that morning!

They couldn't account for the fact that the second Jew had held on to the plot for 20 years, and then suddenly, for no discernible reason, decided he wanted to exchange it.


In another case, a Yerushalmi woman passed away and was buried on Har Hamenuchos. After several years, the children and grandchildren of the woman asked if they could reserve the grave next to their mother for their father. But the two graves next to the mother had been sold to a couple who lived in Beit Hakerem. The children complained to the Chevra Kadisha, "It's important for us to get this grave because our father really wants it!"

They were rebuffed. "You had a lot of time to buy it -- why did you not wake up only now?"

One of the Chevra Kadisha workers decided to do a favor for the family. He said that he knew the couple from Beit Hakerem who had bought the plots, and would try to convince them to exchange them for plots in another area of the cemetery. But every time he tried to get in touch with them, they were always out.

Then one day, out of the blue, the couple walked in to the Chevra Kadisha's office. They had heard that their niece was divorced and alone, and they decided to purchase a plot next to their plots for the niece. But in the row where they had their two plots, there was no other available plot.

The Chevra Kadisha official suggested, "If you give up a place near the road, I'll find 3 plots together for you."

The couple weren't in a rush. They wanted to see the new plots. They negotiated back and forth, but didn't finalize anything.

Then one Friday, the children of the woman buried next to them phoned up the Chevra Kadisha and told them that their father had passed away.

The Chevra Kadisha was in a bind. The couple from Beit Hakerem had tentatively agreed to exchange their plots for others, but they hadn't finalized the deal. The Chevra Kadisha gave their number to the family whose father had just passed away.

They contacted them immediately, and even paid the couple from Beit Hakerem for costs and inconvenience suffered as a result of the exchange. The husband was, in the end, buried next to his wife.


"Even when one thinks there's no way to get a certain grave," says Rav Gelbstein, "Heaven sometimes makes it happen."

An even more riveting story involves a Jew from Texas who steadily supported yeshivos including a large yeshiva gedoloh in Jerusalem, but who wasn't religious himself.

One day he contacted the Perushim Chevra Kadisha and said he wanted to be buried next to his parents who were buried in Jerusalem. Perushim did not want to sell him a plot because he wasn't shomer Shabbos.

"We had to take in consideration the other people buried near his parents," Gelbstein explains.

The Chevra Kadisha decided to talk it over with the rosh yeshiva of the yeshiva the man supported. It was arranged that the rosh yeshiva would tell the man that although there is a place next to his parents, the Chevra Kadisha only sells to shomer Shabbos Jews.

When the Jew heard that, he said resolutely, "If that's the case, I'm changing my life. I'm chozer betshuva right now! No matter what, I want to be next to my parents."

The Chevra Kadisha didn't rush to accept his declaration. They stringently told him that after he kept Shabbos for a whole year, and they received a letter from the local rov attesting to it -- only then will they sell him the plot. The man wrote the Chevra Kadisha a letter of his own with his signature affixed that he has accepted upon himself to observe Shabbos and mitzvos.

After a year of keeping Shabbos, the Chevra Kadisha permitted him to buy the plot.

  continue to Part III

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