The race for chief rabbis of Jerusalem has started to heat up, with the High Court of Justice expected to rule next week that elections must take place in short order.
Jerusalem has been without a chief municipal rabbi since 2002 due to legal wrangling over how to select someone for the position.
The legal channels for opposing new elections seem now to be nearly exhausted and it is believed that they will be held in the coming months.
Although in the past Jerusalem had only one chief rabbi, it was decided in 2005 that an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi chief rabbi would be selected once elections were called.
In recent days, reports have been circulated that Mayor Nir Barkat is considering backing controversial national-religious rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for the position of Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem.
Barkat is known to be close to the Eliyahu family. Tzviya Eliyahu, the rabbi’s mother and widow of former national chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, publicly backed Barkat during October’s mayoral elections.
But the mayor’s office denied that he is supporting any one candidate and said that he simply wants to ensure that at least one of the posts is filled by a national-religious figure.
And a spokesman for Eliyahu, who currently serves as chief rabbi of Safed, said that the rabbi has decided he will not run for the position and has informed the mayor as such.
Barkat’s office pointed out that the mayor had petitioned the High Court several times to prevent an electoral process that would lead to the election of two haredi chief rabbis, and had worked to achieving the current electoral system whereby synagogues sending delegates are selected on a geographic basis which would help ensure at last one chief rabbi is from the national-religious community.
Barkat has considerable influence over the electoral process for the chief rabbis of the city.
The positions are elected by a 48-member electoral committee, of whom 18 are appointed by the mayor.
Another 24 committee members are delegated by synagogues around the city, while the minister of religious services is empowered to appoint six committee members.
Rabbi Arye Stern, a respected spiritual leader in the national-religious community, was elected by a forum of approximately 40 rabbis in Jerusalem to be the national- religious candidate for chief rabbi of Jerusalem back in 2009.
Stern heads the Horev synagogue and community in the Katamon neighborhood and is the head of the Halacha Brura V’Beirur Halacha Institute which disseminates the teaching methods of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the founding father of religious Zionism.
Deputy Religious Services Minister and Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, who runs the ministry, has said publicly that he backs Stern.
Sources close to Stern said that Barkat prefers that a fullfledged election campaign between candidates not be fought, and that instead there be just one candidate with a realistic chance of victory for each position.
Memories of the bitter struggle over the national chief rabbis campaign from last summer are fresh, and the national-religious rabbinic leadership, and Barkat, are keen to avoid a repeat.
Eliyahu has made a series of inflammatory remarks about the Arab minority and in 2006 was indicted for racial incitement for comments he made in 2002 and 2004.
The charge was conditionally dropped when the rabbi apologized for his comments, retracted them and pledged not make similar comments in the future.
Another candidate for the position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi might be Rabbi Moshe Haim Lau, who serves as a communal rabbi in Netanya and is the brother of current national chief rabbi David Lau and the son of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who was national chief rabbi from 1993 to 2003.
Rabbi Eliyahu Abergil, the rabbi of the capital’s Baka neighborhood, is a possible contender for the position of Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem.