Michael Boyden

Don’t die in Israel

A relative and a close friend of mine both tragically died in Israeli hospitals this past month. In each case the staff could not have done more both in terms of the medical treatment they proffered and their support of the families prior to the death.

Unfortunately, the system breaks down entirely the moment someone dies. It is as if the medical services don’t understand that this is precisely the time when the bereft family is most in need of their support and help.

At Sha’arei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem my relatives waited to receive the death certificate outside the intensive care unit as a torn stretcher was wheeled in to remove their loved one. Minutes later it was pushed passed them with the dead body covered by a sheet. A little bit of thought and consideration could have saved them this unnecessary experience, but worse was to follow.

Once the death certificate was issued, the family was told to go down to Reception in order to attend to the funeral arrangements. There is no support, no social worker, no one to assist you. The family was left alone to their grief and unsupported in their efforts to make funeral arrangements

At Reception they were issued with a pamphlet detailing the various bureaucratic matters to which they would need to attend in order to bury their dead. The pamphlet included a list of no less than nineteen (!) chevrot kadisha, or burial societies.

No, they were not from Beit Shemesh or part of the Kurdish community, but should they turn to Kehilat Yerushalayim or to the Jerusalem Religious Council? Or would Adat Ha-ma’aravim be more appropriate? No one was there to advise them.

The Jerusalem Religious Council referred them to Kehilat Yerushalayim, but nobody answered the telephone there. It was 4 p.m. Someone suggested that they might be davening Mincha and that they should call later. How could they make arrangements for the funeral and when would it be? They left a message on the voice mail and waited helplessly in the draughty entrance hall hoping for a reply, but no one called.

After about an hour I desperately called an acquaintance, who operates an ambulance service, and asked him for help. Ten minutes later he got back to me with a totally different telephone number! Then things began to move. We provided details of the deceased, including at their request the fact that she was Sabbath observant, so that they could ensure that she would be buried with like-minded people.

Hours later I received a phone call from the person with whom I had left the voice message. He was full of apologies. He had ceased working several years earlier and had, so he said, repeatedly asked Sha’arei Zedek Hospital to remove his name and telephone number from the pamphlet issued to the relatives of the deceased but to no avail.

I thought that this might have been an isolated incident. However, Meir Hospital in K’far Saba is equally oblivious to the needs of the relatives of the deceased. Your loved one has died. You are distressed and distraught and nobody is there to help you.

Find out the number of the Ra’anana burial society. Have them tell you that it will cost an astronomic sum of money for the burial, since the deceased was not an Israeli citizen. (However, there will be no funeral charges if you bury him in the town where he died even if he isn’t an Israeli citizen. Needless to say, we obtained that information elsewhere!) Be told that you would need to go to the local Social Security Office (only open at certain hours) to obtain a Citizenship Certificate. Be instructed that you would need to go to the bank and obtain a bank cheque to cover the cost of the funeral.

The burial society was insistent that the day and time of the funeral could not be fixed until they received the Citizenship Certificate and, of course, the bank cheque. So much for the Jewish custom of burying our dead within 24 hours. I hesitate to think how new immigrants and those unfamiliar with Israeli bureaucracy cope with this obstacle course. Of course, no hospital can be expected to take care of everything. However, the absence of any kind of support system to assist families with advice and information in their time of need is a matter that clearly needs addressing – and the sooner the better.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.