TO ensure that their dead relatives will be resurrected faster than those buried elsewhere, Orthodox Jewish communities in the US and Europe – hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic – are having to fork out enormous sums of money to have funerals conducted in Israel.
Samuel Heilman, above, a professor of sociology at Queens College, New York, and a leading expert on Orthodox Jews explains in this Forward report that Zionists believe that:
There’s a tradition that when the resurrection of the dead comes about, the people in Jerusalem and its vicinity will rise immediately, and those who are buried abroad will take 40 years.
Resurrection of the dead — t’chiyat hameitim in Hebrew — is a core doctrine of traditional Jewish theology. Traditional Jews believe that during the Messianic Age, the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Jewish people ingathered from the far corners of the earth and the bodies of the dead will be brought back to life and reunited with their souls.
It is not entirely clear whether only Jews, or all people, are expected to be resurrected at this time.
The resurrection doctrine is fleshed out in a variety of rabbinic sources … According to the Talmus, all bodies not already in Israel will be rolled through underground tunnels to the holy land. Avoiding this process, which is said to be spiritually painful, is one reason some Jews choose to be buried in Israel.
According to one source in the aviation industry, there have actually been days recently in which more dead people arrived at Ben-Gurion than live passengers.
Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer commented:
He may have been exaggerating – but only slightly.
He pointed out that Health Ministry officials are against these long-haul funeral processions, claiming there is a risk of infection from the bodies to the personnel handling them, but they have been over-ruled by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, above, who only recently recovered from the virus.
With Israel under lockdown and global travel at a crawl, the costs of getting buried in Israel have spiked exponentially, whether the families charter planes or use El Al. And there are several other additional possible expenses – like fees for burial and travel by family members.
A total of 151 bodies of Jews who died abroad were flown to Israel on either private or commercial flights between mid-March and mid-April, a large increase over the same period the previous year, according to figures that Israel’s Ministry of Religious Services provided to the Israeli publication Calcalist.
The longing to be buried in Israel is age-old; during the Exodus, the Israelites even carry Joseph’s bones out of Egypt in order to reinter him in the land God had promised them.
Menachem Lubinsky, co-chairman of the International Committee for Har HaZeitim, which maintains the cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, said there was a determination to maintain the practice even during the pandemic. The rise of the chartered flight, he said, was:
Absolutely not a normal thing. It’s purely a function of the lack of commercial options.
Normally in the United States, caskets are shipped to Israel in the holds of United Airlines or El Al flights. But at the end of March, United suspended its casket shipment service both domestically and internationally. El Al cut back its flights to and from the United States after the Israeli government proclaimed that anyone entering the country from abroad would need to self-quarantine for 14 days. (The stay-at-home regulations have an exception for funerals.)
Some charter flights have come directly from the United States, while other Americans have flown privately to Europe and then transferred to a commercial airliner.
Chartering a jet with the fuel capacity to fly directly from the United States to Israel, like a Gulfstream V, doesn’t come cheap. The travel blog One Mile at a Time estimated the cost for such a flight to be $150,000 to $200,000 – and that’s for the smaller models that could probably only hold one coffin. Bigger jets would obviously be more expensive, but could carry multiple caskets, allowing families to split costs.
Lubinsky said that that three or four families had recently pooled “something like $660,000” for a plane to fly their loved ones to Israel.
Haaretz reported that one private flight that arrived just before Passover carried 16 corpses.
If families opt to use El Al, the flight costs less than a charter, but then they run the risk of incurring the cost of burying the body locally, disinterring it and then transporting it to the airport.
El Al is now only flying from New York once a week or so, and since Jewish law requires burial as soon as possible after death, families of those who pass away halfway through the week must pay for a temporary burial.
It’s a complicated and expensive process, said Edward Yarmus, the funeral director of Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in Manhattan.
In order to disinter, you have to get authorization from the county where the death occurred, a special box where the deceased is placed inside, permission from the Israeli consulate. You need to coordinate details with the airlines and with people in Israel.
Yet at least one rabbi, Rubin Brach of Yereim Orthodox Chapel in Brooklyn, said that he had done eight disinterments on Monday and had eight more scheduled Tuesday, in order to fit them all into the El Al flight.
Some of these expenses could be avoided by burying the body in the United States and then disinterring it for shipment to Israel when things settle down. But many Jews are uncomfortable with moving a body after it’s been buried, Heilman said, adding:
Considerations are not always based in rationality when it comes to death.