Steven Friedman's brainchild, Holy Land Earth, imports 16-ounce bags of soil from Israel for use at American funerals, all with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and rabbinical approval.
The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Friedman sees Israeli soil as sacred and wanted to make it available to the American public. Since the law student at New York's Fordham University began selling the soil in February, he has received interest from people of various faiths.
Friedman, 25, a Brooklyn native, spoke about his journey in bringing the idea to fruition, getting USDA approval and how he gets the soil.
Q: How did you come up with the idea?
A: Personally, I am Jewish; I value Israel. I thought it would be very interesting to have the soil. There (are) many people that want to be buried in Israel. I know for my family and friends that a lot of times they would like to be buried in Israel but it just doesn't work out logistically, or whatever it may be.
Some Jewish people bring crushed rocks to put into the casket, so they can fulfil (a tradition of a) little bit of Israel being buried with them. The problem is that it's crushed rocks, which is obviously not soil. They couldn't be buried in Israeli soil because of USDA soil (regulations), which was their next best option.
Q: How did you make this idea happen?
A: I started contacting many different people, (especially) scientists to find out what can be done. I tried to be creative along with the scientists I hired to try and come up with something that would work. I also had plenty of contact with the government, the USDA, to make sure that each step was done in a way that would fit. I worked on that for several months. Finally, everything clicked.
Q: What was the process of going through the USDA like?
A: I can't, obviously, give away all the details. But I did a lot of research. The USDA is very tough, there's no question about it, and rightfully so. They're extremely tough about this, more tough than other things because they don't want anything to go wrong.
Q: Where is Holy Land Earth being sold?
A: It has been selling on my Web site (www.holylandearth.com); it has not been available in stores just yet. For the most part, it won't be. It will only be in certain, select stores, as well as funeral homes that want it. We have many funeral homes that are really excited about it.
Q: How many bags have you sold?
A: We have already sold several thousand. Additionally, some people have called -- one person, who is fairly close to committing to do the complete burial.
Q: Do you know what the religious affiliation of any of your buyers are?
A: I would say a lot of Jews (are buying), but to me, I'm not statistically keeping track of who is what or where. They're all just people. There's no way to know. But our response has been strong enough where I've gotten e-mails from people that have told me that they are Jewish, they are Christian, they are Muslim, they are unaffiliated. I've had a few Scientology people that have e-mailed me that they find this fascinating. Evangelical Christians have been responding in e-mails that they love it.
Q: What part of Israel does the soil come from?
A: It is all taken from biblical Israel. None of the soil comes from any areas that are in contention or dispute or anything. It's actually (on the) outskirts of Jerusalem. There's no specific place because we have to be creative on how we get the soil from Israel -- that's also a big obstacle.
Q: Are you working with the Israeli government? Property owners?
A: Yes, we work with property owners and we've done stuff with the government. For the most part, it's really property owners and I personally own property. We came up with a really strong logistical method of doing it where it worked out for everyone.
We don't harm any property in Israel, and based on that method, we have the ability to give property owners money. We've made an official standing of this company that 15 per cent of all profits all go to charity and charities in Israel, specifically.
Q: Is there any fear of depleting the soil from Israel in the future?
A: I would never do that. There is so much soil in Israel ... No, I would never bring it in if that (were) the case. Because my whole goal here is I love Israel, and to preserve what it is.
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