Saying goodbye with dignity — in Scarsdale, NY

Laying Rabbi Aaron Panken to rest was sad and comforting; it also drove home what's missing at Israeli funerals

One of the greatest difficulties in creating change on issues of religion and state in Israel is the absence of the ability to picture a different reality. We are prisoners to a monopoly that dictates the nature of the holiest and most meaningful moments of our lives, and we are unable to imagine it otherwise. A few weeks ago, I attended the funeral for Rabbi Aaron Panken, may he rest in peace, president of Hebrew Union College. The funeral allowed me to participate in a ceremony different from all of the ceremonies I have participated in at home, in Israel.

Had I not been there, I would not be able to imagine it possible to say goodbye to such a beloved person in a Jewish way that is respectful, dignified and meaningful for the deceased and his loved ones. Israeli burial is provided for free to all citizens. However, it is mostly regulated and controlled by Hevra Kadisha — religious societies that set the rules and control both the burial itself and the burial ceremony.

Israeli burials are radically different from the respectful funeral that I attended. The ultra-Orthodox monopoly that controls the lives of Israelis impacts us when we mourn, and when we die. Rabbi Aaron Panken’s body was laid in the hall of his synagogue in a simple wooden casket with a Star of David in the center. Israeli Jews do not have the option of being buried in a casket; according to strict halachic rulings, Jews are buried in a tallit (prayer shawl) only.

The funeral ceremony began with three musical pieces played by clarinet, flute and piano. Between the musical pieces, it was quiet. Funerals in Israel never include music — that is banned by Hevra Kadisha. And there was quiet. Quiet that was not just the absence of noise, but a peaceful and relaxing quiet. There was no rush to finish because the next funeral was about to start.

Funeral services in Israel are allocated between 15 and 30 minutes. The next funeral always begins right after the previous one ended. The times of silence during the service allowed us to deal with Rabbi Panken’s tragic death, to meditate on our own deaths, and to accept the totality of death. A member of the Hevra Kadisha, burial society, did not stand (as they always do in Israel) and call aloud that we come from “a putrid drop” and are going to “a place of dust, of decay and vermin.” He did not ask (as they always do) forgiveness from the deceased that maybe they messed up in carrying the body or in following the laws of purity. He did not instruct only the men to say Kaddish and take part in filling the grave with dirt. We all sat in the beautiful synagogue of Westchester Reform Temple. There are no chairs in funeral homes in Israel — so the funeral service is held with mourners standing up for the duration of the funeral service, which are often held in run-down structures.

Leading rabbis and family members gave eulogies the like of which I have never heard at an Israeli funeral (in Israel there is never enough time). Rabbi Panken’s colleagues, friends and family told stories with such love for the man, making us smile. His sister told a story of how they would compete to see who could make the other laugh hard enough that their food came out of their nose. His colleagues spoke about how he was the only rabbi in America with a degree in electrical engineering and was therefore the only one who could fix things in the synagogue. Gradually, the smiles turned to laughter. We laughed and cried with the family in mourning, we wrapped them in a collective hug that we hope offered them some measure of comfort in this most difficult time.

Rabbi Panken was killed in a plane crash. He was an experienced pilot who was very passionate about flying. His friends spoke about how he died doing what he loved. The coffin was taken from the hall by his wife, sister, daughter, and other pallbearers. In Israel, only men carry the body. At the end of the funeral — everyone hugged in silence and the crowd of thousands dispersed. Our cars were not broken into during the funeral (as happens, for instance, in the Yarkon Cemetery).

When I close my eyes and remember this funeral, I am filled with a vision of human dignity, respect of the family and their needs, and most of all, of a Judaism with the space for mourning and comfort. I am struck by the difference from the opacity and the robotic management of funerals in Israel, the gender segregation in the funeral home and at the grave site, and above all, the absence of the time to experience, reflect, and make peace with the deceased.

I am angry that I had to travel to Scarsdale, New York to experience a respectful Jewish funeral. Having been born and raised in the Jewish state, I should be able to experience such ceremonies here, in Israel. This is an intolerable situation. Israeli law ensures a right to civil burial for Israeli citizens, but the options exist only in very few cities in Israel. I commit myself to working harder towards getting all Israelis freedom of choice in burial. Those who wish to have a funeral as they exist now can. But those of us who are convinced that they deserve a better Jewish ceremony, must fight for that option to be affordable and available for all.

About the Author
Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center
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