Among the soldiers and volunteers heading to Israel from Kennedy Airport this month, as fighting raged in Gaza, were seven Jewish New Yorkers whose lifelong desires were being fulfilled. They were in seven coffins in the cargo hold of an El Al flight to Israel, where they would be buried.
This last wish would be fulfilled by a network of Jews in America and Israel who believe it a sacred duty to carry out this funeral rite. And they have not ceased — even through a cataclysm of uncertainty, war and grief — in bringing Jews who have died in New York, in California, or anywhere abroad to their Holy Land, one final time.
Israel is struggling to bury its own — rabbis called for volunteers to help dig graves for those killed in the terror attacks on Oct. 7 — but some of its cemeteries are still welcoming Jews from all over the world. Awaiting arrival of the seven New Yorkers at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel was a corps of mostly volunteers charged with performing sacred burial rites.
Now, in this time of war, most bodies fly alone — it is unsafe for relatives and loved ones to accompany them to the burial. So the corps, known as the chevra kadisha, step in to do the mitzvah, or good deed: They pray over, care for and bury these strangers from abroad.
“Burying a Jew in Israel is a huge deal,” said Baila Romm, 66, who last Sunday helped send the body of her friend, Batsheva Sugarman, 68, from Los Angeles International Airport to be buried in Israel. “And to do it in the middle of war, when people are being murdered, people are running to bomb shelters, people are afraid for their lives — that people in cemeteries in Israel are willing to risk their lives to do this mitzvah,” she said, her voice becoming emotional. “It just make my heart swell with pride of being a Jew.”
The reasons Jews desire a grave in Israel can be religious: Believers say soil there absolves sin. (Indeed, many interred outside of the country are buried with a sprinkling of Israeli dirt along with them.) Many secular Jews hope to end up in the Jewish state, even as it remains a fault line.
“All the adversity they have endured through decades and decades of hostility, they finally found through the state of Israel, a homeland,” said Peter C. DeLuca, the director of Beth Abraham Memorial Chapel in Greenwich Village, who said he has in the past sent bodies to Israel — including those of several people who had never visited the country while they were alive. “And going home is very, very important.”
With more than 4,000 Palestinians killed since the fighting broke out, and Gaza under bombardment, Israeli Arabs too are struggling to bury their dead. For American Muslims who seek to be buried in Palestinian territory, they typically wish to do so not for religious reasons but because they were born there or have family from there, said Kareem Elmatbagi, the owner of Islamic International Funeral Services in Brooklyn. All soil is considered sacred, according to the Quran, he added.
Mr. Elmatbagi regularly arranges for people to be buried in homelands across the Arab world, but when it comes to Israel, he said, the bureaucratic hurdles for Muslim burials are vastly more complicated — he often flies the coffins to Jordan, where they are shipped overland to avoid the red tape.
When the coffins arrive, the cemeteries where they may finally rest are sharply circumscribed, he said. In 2021, Israel razed part of Al-Yusufiyah, a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem. “It isheartbreaking,” Mr. Elmatbagi said.
A burial in Israel can be expensive — upward of $3,000 to fly before other burial expenses, according to the United States Embassy in Jerusalem. It can also be fraught: Even in better times, burials on disputed territory, like the Mount of Olives cemetery overlooking Jerusalem, have been subject to attacks. Especially now, with inhabitants of Israel struggling to bury their own dead and with more fighting on the horizon, the practice is daunting.
But the burials have continued, according to rabbis and funeral directors.
Since the war began on Oct. 7, Bais Yisroel Chapel in Spring Valley, N.Y., which provides funeral arrangements mainly for Hasidic Jews, has sent more than a half-dozen New Yorkers to be buried in Israel, according to a person familiar with the situation who did not wish to disclose his name because of concerns of antisemitism.
The bodies arrive via the Israeli airline El Al, he said, one of the few airlines that did not suspend flights immediately following the outbreak of war. (El Al did not respond to a request for comment.) On the tarmac in Lod, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, they are met by chevra kadisha members.
The chevra kadisha (which translates as “holy society,”) exist in all Jewish communities: It is a spiritual designation for those who do things like perform ritual baths for the deceased, dig their graves and ensure Jewish funeral rites are carried out. To serve as one is considered Judaism’s highest, most altruistic good deed — the person you are helping can never return the favor.
“They are at risk,” said the man at Bais Yisroel Chapel. “But they do it because they are chevra kadisha, for the dignity for the bodies.” He added, “Any Jew who has a Jewish heart, this hits them emotionally.”
Days after the war broke out, Rabbi Daniel Sayani, an assistant rabbi at Shore Parkway Jewish Center in Brooklyn who frequently consults on Jewish end-of-life rituals, said his WhatsApp messages were filled with requests from within Israel for more people to volunteer as chevra kadisha to bury the Israeli dead. When a bereaved local family called, asking how to facilitate a burial in Israel, he advised them that temporarily burying their family member in New York was in fact, kosher. On the rabbi’s advice, the person was buried in Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, Queens, the week the war broke out — temporarily. The body will be flown for burial in Israel at a more peaceful time, he said.
“It is permitted to exhume the body, when the reburial will bring pleasure and honor to the deceased,” Rabbi Sayani said he told them. “A wish to be buried in Israel would certainly be that.”
This workaround was employed frequently during the pandemic, when rules designed to fight the spread of the virus suspended flights between the countries. Many people were buried temporarily in American cemeteries then and disinterred — sometimes years later — when restrictions loosened, according to Sherry Bensimon, a funeral director at Riverside Memorial Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
A few hours after the El Al flight from Los Angeles carrying the body of Ms. Sugarman touched down in Israel, she was laid to rest in Eretz HaChaim Cemetery near the city of Beit Shemesh, not far from Jerusalem; her burial was attended mostly by volunteers, her friend Ms. Romm said, even as fighting continued. “While they were burying her,” Ms. Romm added, “there was a siren for a missile.”
For these American Jews, burial in the United States was never an option, Ms. Bensimon said, Israel called to them, even now. “Everyone has their reasons,” she said. “But it all boils down to: That’s where we belong.”