I almost cried when reading the State Comptroller's Report for 2009, submitted by Micha Lindenstrauss to the Knesset last week. The report lists hundreds of deficiencies in the public service sector. From the ports to public housing, from traffic violators to surgeons, it seems that in just about every area, our government is wretched.
Buried in the report (pages 1007-1048 to be precise) is one section that relates to Jewish burial.
According to the report, hundreds of burial societies are unlicensed, there is no strategic plan for the lack of proper burial facilities (and the Gush Dan region will have no more space to bury beginning in a few months), there is no governmental oversight on burial practices and price gouging for a service that National Insurance is supposed to subsidize 100% is common and generally goes unchecked. It appears from the report that, simply said, you are better off not dying here.
But in reading the report closely, I was drawn in particular to one section which did speak of something that might make a difference. The author of the burial section of the report (you didn't think Lindenstrauss wrote the whole report himself, did you?) notes that mourners are often vulnerable and uninformed. Completely stepping outside the report, the author writes that the Religious Services Ministry "should consider appropriate ways to bring to the attention of the public its rights and the fees associated with burial in cemeteries."
For the ministry to be more transparent and straightforward with the public would be a paradigm shift in the approach of governmental authorities to the issues of religious life. Unquestionably, if the ministry took seriously the recommendations of the report, the public's attitude to burial societies would improve dramatically.
FOR THE PAST five years, I have been engaged in a struggle to convince the religious authorities to allow the public full access to their rights and responsibilities. The fees for various services provided by burial societies (as well as the fees mohalim charge, the fees for opening a marriage file and the fees for the various processes administered by the rabbinical courts) are published on the ITIM (The Jewish Life Information Center) Web site. ITIM updates this information on an almost daily basis, and we will continue to do so until such time as the religious authorities recognize that an informed public is a respectful public.
In the meantime, we can only congratulate Lindenstrauss and his staff on their no-holds-barred approach to the burial societies, pray that the specter raised by the State Comptroller's Report will cause the religious establishment to reconsider its approach to the general public.
Information is power, and the more the public is aware, the more democratic religious life will be.
The writer is the director of ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center (www.itim.org.il) and rabbi of Kehillat Netivot in Ra'anana.