Hevra Kadisha announces strike to protest murder

"Benny Hesse...was murdered for being an honest and decent man, a courageous person who didn’t succumb to strong-arming and violence.”

Hesse 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hesse 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish burial services in major Israeli cities will be on hold from Tuesday morning until 2 p.m., head of the forum of Hevra Kadisha burial services Ze’ev Rosenberg announced Monday.
The list of cities includes Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Petah Tikva, among others.
The dramatic resolution, which Rosenberg called a precedent, was reached by the 11-man forum representing the large Jewish burial organizations in the country. It came in the wake of the recent slaying of Haifa’s Ashkenazi Hevra Kadisha director Benny Hesse, who was gunned down outside his house on Sunday.
Directors and employees of Hevra Kadisha organizations nationwide will gather to pray and protest the violence and abuse to which they are subjected, in an assembly at the capital’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery at 11 a.m.
Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv – which was attended by heads of the large Jewish burial organizations, as well as Religious Services Minister Ya’acov Margi – Rosenberg expressed his great pain and shock over the killing of “our friend Benny Hesse, who fell in the line of duty, who was murdered for being an honest and decent man, a courageous person who didn’t succumb to strong-arming and violence.”
Hesse lost an eye to an acid-throwing attack in 2006, and his home was burnt on a different occasion. A court-ordered media ban on all details of the investigation has been in place since Sunday night. Police have refused to discuss the ongoing investigation due to the ban, though some Hevra Kadisha directors on Monday intimated they knew what was behind the deadly attack.
Rosenberg noted that “threats directed at Hevra Kadisha directors and employees are not a new thing. We live and act in an atmosphere of threats and terror, intimidations and pressures. We face impossible situations with people in a very bad state, feeling the pain of their greatest loss.
We take care of them in their most difficult hours, and their bitterness at the cemeteries that lack space, their pressure, agony and stress – it all funnels into the moment of their encounter with the Hevra Kadisha.”
Burial services are state-funded in Israel, but a shortage of burial plots, especially felt in cities, has led in the past 10 years to the solution of burying in multi-storied drawer systems.
Freshly bereaved families are at times outraged to learn from Hevra Kadisha workers that interment in the ground is either not possible, or an option that would cost extra money.
Rosenberg, who in the past was director-general of the Religious Services Ministry, blamed the government for its decades of overlooking the perpetually growing need for more burial grounds, and for not explaining to the public the current situation of nontraditional burial, which at times does not enable a tombstone or landscaping.
“The public is truly hurt by this situation, but we are the last to bear the responsibility for it,” Rosenberg continued.
“We are the public’s punching bag, but it is the regime’s fault.”
Margi, who, as head of the Beersheba religious council from 1993-2003, was exposed to intimidations, threats, humiliation and violence from angry families, ambulance drivers and tombstone contractors, declared that Hevra Kadisha employees would no longer turn the other cheek to such abuse.
Margi noted that of the 34,000 funerals a year conducted by the 700 Hevra Kadisha societies, there was a minuscule number of complaints, and of these only a few were found to be justified.
“The societies act according to a government decision forced upon them. It’s not someone’s whim to get as many bodies as possible into the given burial areas. The governments didn’t have the wisdom to explain the situation to the public,” he said.
“We are the victims of the government-induced illusion that everything here is free, and that it is our fault” when bereaved family members learn that the funeral they envisioned is not, said Rabbi Elazar Gelbstein, head of Jerusalem’s Central and General Hevra Kadisha.
Founded 160 years ago, his burial society today serves the capital’s Ashkenazi haredi populace.
Gelbstein – who is the fourth generation in his family to undertake one of the holiest and most thankless tasks in the Jewish life-cycle – noted the dedication the task demands, with the vast majority of bereaved families being satisfied with the burial societies’ services.

Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.