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Court targets corruption within religious councils
By JEREMY SHARON
08/11/2012
A framework for disciplinary procedures for religious councils may be permanently instituted within 3 months.
 
Discipline may be coming to a local religious council near you. After five years of legal wrangling and 49 years of disciplinary discrepancy between local religious councils and other government bodies, the High Court of Justice strongly indicated on Wednesday that a framework for disciplinary procedures would be permanently instituted within three months.

Until now, there has been no framework for disciplinary procedures against employees in local religious councils, unlike other state bodies and employees for which disciplinary procedures have been in place since 1963.

Local religious councils are tasked with providing religious services to Jewish residents living within its municipal jurisdiction, and are under the authority of the Ministry of Religious Services. They provide administrative services for many religious matters, such as marriage registration, synagogue construction and maintenance, burial, kashrut certification and religious slaughter.

In September, a government decision instituted disciplinary procedures for religious councils for a temporary trial period of two years.

However, the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal advocacy branch of the Reform movement in Israel, said during a hearing in the High Court on Wednesday that there was no reason that the decision be temporary, and added that it was concerned that after the two-year period expired, the process for instituting disciplinary proceedings would have to start again.

According to IRAC, the lack of disciplinary procedures for religious council workers allows council employees to act with impunity toward the general public and encourages corruption.

ITIM, a religious rights advocacy group, has also argued that the absence of any formal avenue for complaint against religious council employees prevents the implementation of best practice in the councils.

During Wednesday’s hearing, the High Court warned the state attorney that this would be the last hearing on the matter and that if a decision is not made within 90 days to implement permanent disciplinary procedures it could issue a final ruling on the matter without a further hearing.

The director of the Ministry of Religious Services said in the hearing that as far as the ministry was concerned it was ready to implement the procedures.

According to ITIM director Rabbi Shaul Farber, his organization, which also provides advice for people seeking to navigate the bureaucracy surrounding religious services, frequently receives complaints about the behavior of religious council employees.

One common complaint, Farber said, comes from women seeking to open a file for marriage registration, who are refused by the registrar on the grounds that the woman was not dressed modestly enough.

Until now, it has been impossible to bring a formal complaint against such council employees.

“We’d like to see clerks, or rabbis for that matter, who don’t treat people with basic respect, removed from office,” Farber said.

“These moments, when people come to religious councils for their services, represent one of the few encounters the general community has with organized Jewish life. It is critical that those representing Judaism not be able to denigrate others in the name of God.

“We’re happy that finally, religious councils are being dragged into the 1960s,” Farber added.
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