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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
The first-ever deputy minister to take charge of the Health Ministry, United Torah Judaism chairman Rabbi Ya'acov Litzman, charmed and intrigued staffers as he made his first official appearance at the ministry's Jerusalem headquarters on Tuesday.
Instead of being accompanied by a wife, Litzman brought along side-curled hassidic assistants, who stood out in the crowd of around 60 senior officials. Fewer senior staffers were invited, Litzman said, as he had not wanted to bother them less than 40 hours before the start of Pessah.
The mostly secular top officials said they were not frightened at the prospect of having an ultra-Orthodox man at the top, as they had had mixed experience with two former Shas health ministers/rabbis - Shlomo Ben-Yizri (who was later convicted of bribery and obstruction of justice) and Nissim Dahan (who was widely recognized as one of the best health ministers in decades, but who has since left politics). Both of them had hung huge pictures of Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef in their offices.
Litzman, who was born in Germany in 1948 and taken by his parents at the age of two to New York, grew up in Brooklyn's mostly haredi Boro Park neighborhood. He immigrated to Israel with his wife, a clerk at a haredi newspaper, with whom he has five adult children. They currently live in Jerusalem's Ezrat Torah neighborhood.
A Gur hassid and head of the UTJ, he has been the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee more than once, as well as a member of the Knesset Labor, Social Affairs and Health Committee and a voluntary member of the social and environmental lobbies.
Not only did he quote biblical sources several times during the short, modest ceremony at a synagogue event hall across the street from the ministry, officials also added Torah references and "God willing" to their speeches. At least one staffer dug into her closet for a modest dress instead of her usual jeans, and wondered whether to shake his hand (she didn't).
However, it was not called a "minister handover" ceremony, firstly because Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is officially the minister, and because former health minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri was not present, having held a goodbye toast a few days before.
At that time, no one had known who would be heading the ministry, as Netanyahu had decided it would go to UTJ, a "non-Zionist" party that refuses to allow its representatives to serve as ministers in a "non-observant" cabinet.
The Gur rabbi, Ya'acov Alter, finally chose Litzman for the health ministry the day before.
But Litzman, wearing his black hassidic headgear and long coat throughout, stated right away, in a soft-spoken voice, that he had "no intentions of making this a haredi ministry."
"I came to the Health Ministry without being forced. [That I am not a minister] is not a question of whether the ministry is good or not... I know the ministry, although not as well as its employees.
"I have one thing others don't have. If I feel that there are attempts to hurt the ministry with [undesirable] budget cuts or reforms, I would not hesitate to resign... I don't need the job... I want to promote the high-level health services that everyone deserves. And my door will always be open to you."
Litzman added that he was most interested in fighting "red tape" so residents could benefit more from the health care system.
Referring to what he termed "incitement" against the appointment of a deputy minister in recent days, who allegedly would not have the full powers of a minister, Litzman ridiculed the Israel Medical Association's efforts to petition the High Court of Justice for the appointment of a full-fledged minister. The court is due to hear the issue at the end of the month, but is unlikely to intervene.
Netanyahu, who will vote officially in the cabinet as the health minister instead of the UTJ MK, promised Litzman he would accept his views and vote in accordance with his wishes (although as prime minister he could vote differently).
"I pray that God gives me the wisdom to make the right decisions... I hope you will give me your support," Litzman told the audience.
Before making a blessing on grape juice, he noted that hagefen (grape from the vine) consisted of letters that in Yiddish represented the words for good things, such as "health."