50 new state-paid local rabbi posts to be created by Religious Services Ministry

Although the ministry now appears willing to start making such appointments once again it is unclear how it will overcome this legal obstacle.

November 23, 2016 19:07
3 minute read.
Followers of ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbi Moses Teitelbaum of the Satmar Hassidim

Followers of ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbi Moses Teitelbaum of the Satmar Hassidim pack the Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar in the town of Kirays Joel, New York. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Religious Services Ministry has secured agreement from the Treasury to create 50 new state-paid local rabbi positions over the next two years.

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of Shas and Ministry Director Oded Flus gave notice of the new positions at a hearing of the Knesset Finance Committee on Wednesday.

During the hearing, Azoulay said vacancies for neighborhood and town rabbis had gone unfilled in recent years. And though funds were designated by the Finance Ministry for these positions, he said those allocations returned to the Treasury when the posts were left vacant.

One of the main reasons those appointments were not made, was because of a petition to the High Court of Justice brought by members of progressive Jewish denominations.

In the petition, they argued that it was discriminatory to exclude non-Orthodox rabbis from consideration in filling the posts.

Now that the ministry appears willing to resume making the appointments and fill the vacancies, it is unclear how that legal obstacle will be overcome.

Azoulay also said that the ministry was working to increase wages of statepaid rabbis, which can be as low as NIS 5,000, although many of those salaries are not for full time work commitments.

The religious-Zionist lobbying group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah said that, while it was important to raise the salaries of statepaid rabbis, such measures should only be taken as part of wider reforms.

In particular, the organization pointed out that neighborhood, town and regional rabbis are appointed for an indeterminate length of time, and a rabbi elected to a post can hold it until retirement without need of being additional appointment or election.

The group was also critical of the fact that no MKs from Bayit Yehudi or from nonreligious parties, other than MK Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid and MK Rachel Azaria of Kulanu, attended the hearing.

“Anyone who has talked about the importance of the Jewish identity of the state, abandoned it by being absent from this hearing, in which the outline for religious services in the next two years was delineated,” the group said in a statement given to the press following the hearing.

Alongside the details regarding state-paid rabbis, Azoulay also said that the ministry would stop the use of multi-level burial plots, despite having invested NIS 250 million in that arrangement in recent years.

Multi-level burial structures capable of housing several tombs, one above the other, were part of a campaign led by the ministry several years ago under former minister and current MK Ya’acov Margi, and begun in response to a severe land shortage.

But a clause in the UTJ coalition agreement with the Likud called for halting multi-level burial due to religious objections, even though the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an esteemed arbiter of Jewish law, ruled the burial method acceptable according to Jewish religious law.

Committee chairman MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism said during the hearing that he would work to further increase the budget of the Religious Services Ministry, to fund new state-paid positions for local rabbis and create others on regional rabbinical courts.

The number of rabbinical court posts has not increased in line with population growth of recent years. That lack of manpower is frequently cited as a significant problem in the management and service of those courts.

Flus said that the 130 local religious councils throughout the country have been streamlined, reducing their combined budget deficit from NIS 259m. to just NIS 20m.

At the same time, he said, services such as marriage registration, kashrut supervision, burial and “Torah culture” have been improved.

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