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Locating Burial Records In Israel
Israel Pickholtz, Gush Etzion, Israel
Sivan 5761 - June 2001
This article is directed to those researching for burial records in Israel. It is intended to assist you to understand what information is required before you begin your search. Information is is based on my personal experiences.
Although both burial societies and cemeteries generally operate under government supervision, there is no national database. You cannot ask anyone to find a grave without knowing where to look.
Israel operates in Hebrew. You have to know how to spell the name in Hebrew. On one hand that is an advantage because you have only one way to spell COHEN, and it doesn't matter if you spell it Markowitz or Marcovitch or anything in between. On the other hand, an essentially foreign word can often be translated into Hebrew in half a dozen or more different ways. The local clerk here will not necessarily be able to suggest solutions for you. (Remember, Israeli Jews come from many different backgrounds and a clerk of Moroccan heritage may have no idea about how Polish Jews spell unusual names.)
Society here has different notions of public service and the public's right to information, than in some other countries. The burial societies are generally better than most government offices, but these things are relative. They are also not always used to having strangers call and asking questions. Their reluctance is not malice. On one hand when I asked about next of kin in a Rishon LeZion burial, the burial society refused to tell me because I couldn't justify my interest to their satisfaction - on the other hand, they phoned the next of kin for me, to ask permission to give me their number.
In the smaller communities, the folks from the burial society may be part-time workers, so be patient. And you probably don't want to try anyone on a Sunday or the day after a holiday, because they are generally busier with burials on those days.
Do not assume that "Please tell me all graves for the surname Suchandsuch" will be well received.
I have never heard of a burial society here that will photograph a grave for a fee.
Burial societies and cemeteries are religious institutions. If you go in person, you will get better service if you dress accordingly.
My own experience is that most large cemeteries have the sections well marked, the rows less so. Petah Tiqva and to some extent Haifa are exceptions.
The State of Israel has been in existence since 1948. In some communities, records for pre-State burials may be less accessible.
Burial societies do not generally have information on military sections, which are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense. (MOD has a Hebrew web site with military graves.)
Outside of Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, many of the burial societies are computerized and their responses reflect that. My own experience with many of these societies has been excellent - Haifa, Netanya, Petah-Tiqva and others have given be fine service. I have little personal experience with the very small communities, and none at all with kibbutzim, which are basically operated as private facilities. You can expect that a computerized system will have the person's name, the father's name, last address, identity number, date of death (or burial) and grave location. But not always.
If you want more detailed information, such as next of kin, they may have to look in their paper files which takes time and goodwill.
Do not assume that they will respond to written requests or give you answers in writing. It's a cultural thing.
Remember to ask which cemetery they mean. Many communities have an old one and a new one, and I have had the frustration of going to the wrong one, because the clerk assumed that everyone knows...
And keep in mind that computerization may be only for more recent burials. When I last asked in Haifa, they had not computerized anything before 1944.
See "Online Resources" below for Chevra Kadisha, cemetery and landsmanschaft contact information.
The burial society for Greater Tel-Aviv covers Tel-Aviv-Yaffo, Holon, Bat-Yam, Ramat Gan, Givatayyim and Bene Berak. They operate five cemeteries — Trumpeldor, Nahalat Yitzhak, Kiryat Shaul, Holon and Yarkon. The first two are from the pre-State period and do not have any offices or staff on site. Occasional burials are still carried out there, particularly when people have purchased plots in advance. All the information regarding Nahalat Yitzhak and Trumpeldor is at the burial society's office.
Kiryat Shaul opened in 1949, Holon in 1976 and Yarkon about 1990. Today, burials that are not in reserved plots are in Yarkon. These three have offices and staff onsite, but of the three, only Yarkon is computerized on site. The others have both card catalogues and books arranged by year, divided by the first letter of the surname. Cards in the catalogues have been known to go missing or to be misplaced and the alphabetization is occasionally faulty. (Holon actually has two card catalogues, before and after some date in the late 1980's. And the card catalogue in Kiryat Shaul ends about 1990.) Officially they will not let you look through the ledgers and catalogues yourself, but I have succeeded in doing that a few times. As with many facilities, if you are a familiar face or appear to be a serious inquirer, you will get better service.
Both Holon and Kiryat Shaul will give you a printed map of the cemetery, if you ask.
The burial society has records for the three newer cemeteries and if your inquiry is by phone rather than in person, that is a better place to start.
There are two private cemeteries in Bene Berak and several private burial societies in Bene Berak, which are not under the supervision of the Tel-Aviv society. The one time I needed a grave in one of these cemeteries, I encountered no special problems, although the sections in the cemetery were not well marked.
There is an old cemetery in Yaffo that I know nothing about.
In Jerusalem, there are about ten burial societies and five cemeteries. The burial societies are for various Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities and so far as I know, are all private. For pre-State Ashkenazic burials, you will want either the Hassidim or the Perushim, both of which are largely computerized. The General Society (Ashkenazic) is also computerized. I believe that some of the Sephardic societies are less computerized. Needless to say, there is no central filing or computerization.
Most societies are affiliated with the Har HaZeitim (Mount of Olives) Cemetery and the Har HaMenuhot Cemetery. There are also two small cemeteries near the center of town and the Mount Herzl Cemetery, which is largely military. Har HaMenuhot is pretty well laid out and marked. Har HaZeitim is worth a very long report on it's own and the last time I was there, I was directed to the grave site by the burial society by cell-phone. There was a lot of destruction and looting of gravestones on Har HaZeitim during the Jordanian occupation (1948-1967).
The big problem with the old Jerusalem burials ("old" being even as recent as the 1930s), as well as old burials in other older cemeteries such as Teverya, Hevron and Zefat, is that they did not always note surnames even when people had them. So if you are looking for "Moshe ben Yosef" without a date, you may have a big problem, no matter how unique the surname is. Knowing the last place of residence can be helpful.
Last modified: 6 Jan 2004 BIK