A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative].
(photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
Two NGOs have filed a class action suit against 19 local religious councils for NIS 32 million for allegedly charging women using mikvaot – ritual baths – more than the official fee as determined by the Religious Services Ministry.
The ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group and the Institute for Zionist Strategies filed the suit in the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday, against the local religious councils of Jerusalem, Haifa, Bnei Brak, Elad, Holon, Ra’anana, Herzliya, Netanya, Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut and ten others.
Local religious councils are under the authority of the Religious Services Ministry and provide many basic religious services in their particular municipal jurisdictions.
They are funded in part by the ministry, as well as by the local municipal authority and fees they charge for their services.
In recent months ITIM began collecting testimony from women who claimed that the fees being charged at mikvaot were too high.
ITIM believes that the practice of overcharging for mikve use has been carried out for several years, although the law allows public institutions to be sued only for two years of incorrect fees.
According to the Religious Services Ministry’s regulations, a fee of NIS 15 can be charged for using a mikve with a shower; NIS 30 can be charged for a mikve with a bath; NIS 50 for a private mikve room; and NIS 50 for using the mikve outside of regular hours.
In addition, the regulations stipulate that a woman in her first year of marriage may use the mikve for free.
The testimony collected by ITIM allegedly shows, however, that the 19 religious councils listed in the law suit overcharge for the different categories of mikve usage by between NIS 5-20, while some councils allegedly charge women in their first year of marriage.
The law suit’s initiators said the local religious councils included in the class action had been acting “brazenly, in blatant violation of the law,” by routinely overcharging.
The sum of NIS 32 million in damages demanded by the suit was determined by calculating the approximate number of women using the mikve in each municipal jurisdiction in question, including new brides.
In some cases, women in their first year of marriage were told that in order to use the mikve for free they must have been married in the same municipal jurisdiction as the mikve which they wish to use, a condition not mentioned in the ministry regulations.
Other women were told they have to obtain a permit or token from the religious council in order to use the mikve for free, again something not mentioned in ministry regulations.
According to ITIM, the only thing a woman should need to do in order to obtain the service for free is produce her marriage registration certificate or other form of proof that she got married in the last 12 months.
ITIM says that its suit is designed to force local religious councils to act in accordance with the law and to return the money collected in contravention of the law.
“Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have encountered overcharging for religious services above the fees determined by law,” said ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber.
“We’re not talking here just about money but about the public trust in religious services and how the face of Judaism is perceived in the State of Israel,” he said.
“It is a shame that the reality for years and years has been that local religious councils have charged more than they are allowed to, and have exploited the fact that this is a religious commandment in order to increase prices,” said Miri Shalem of the Institute for Zionist Strategies.
The Religious Services Ministry said that it had not yet received the law suit and that it will respond in court.