(photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
Neighborhood rabbis on the state payrolls must retire at the age of 65 like any other public sector clerk, according to a Prime Minister's Office directive.
In a letter that went out to heads of religious councils across the nation, Meir Spiegler, director-general of Religious Services in the Prime Minister's Office, said that all council employees aged 65 or older, including neighborhood rabbis, were to be retired immediately.
If implemented, about 40 neighborhood rabbis will be forced to retire.
Spiegler told The Jerusalem Post that the directive was approved by the Justice Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the State Comptroller's Office.
"Rabbis are no different from any other public servant," said Spiegler. "And the law says that he or she must retire when the time comes."
Spiegler said that until now the law had not been enforced due to "rampant nepotism and unethical practices that over the past decades have undermined the religious establishment's legitimacy."
"We are trying to improve religious services, including a strict adherence to the law," he said.
However, Minister-without-Portfolio in charge of religious affairs Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) told the Post that Spiegler's letter was "annulled" and that he would not let the rabbis be forced into retirement.
"Spiegler is nothing but a clerk," said Cohen. "I'm the one who sets policy, not Spiegler. I'd sooner fire Spiegler than let those rabbis go."
Cohen said that one could not apply to rabbis the same restrictions that apply to clerks. Rather, they should be seen as elected officials, like the president or members of the Knesset, who are not bound by age restrictions.
Spiegler said in response to Cohen's comments that, "I will not be intimidated by threats. I perform my professional functions in full accordance with the law in the State of Israel, which is my sole criterion for determining employment of public servants."
Moshe Rauchverger, 69, rabbi of the Ramat Hadar neighborhood in Haifa, who according to the Prime Minister's Office's directive will be forced into retirement, said he was organizing both a legal and a political battle to fight the move.
"Rabbis are not just some paper-pushing clerks who can be dismissed when they get old," said Rauchverger, who is also chairman of the Association of Neighborhood Rabbis.
"Over the years we have developed significant relationships with our communities; we are their fathers," he said. "How can they possibly replace us? Our communities won't let it happen."
Rauchverger and other rabbis want to continue to receive a salary from the state for the services they provide, which includes serving as marriage registrar, presiding over marriages and burials, and answering questions in Halacha [Jewish law].
Shlomo Stern, head of the Histadrut Labor Union's religious services department, said that his organization was opposed to the forced retirement measure.
"In 1988, the Histadrut, religious councils and municipalities signed a collective labor agreement that guaranteed the status quo regarding the way rabbis were employed would not be broken," he said.
Given that until 1988 no rabbi had been forced into retirement due to old age, Stern said, the agreement effectively prohibits the government from doing so in the future.
Spiegler added that in some cases after the rabbis were retired they would not be replaced, but that essentially the forced retirements were not intended to reduce the payroll, but simply to comply with the law.
"In each case a special professional committee will decide whether the civil servant who retired should be replaced," he said. "But if there is no reason for that civil servant to be replaced than a redundancy will be eliminated and tax payers' money will be saved."
Spiegler said that his office has been laboring over a massive rehabilitation program for religious services which includes layoffs and increased supervision of the way religious services are provided.
"For decades, rabbis have received money from the state for providing services to the public without any supervision of the quality of those services," said Spiegler. "We want to start instituting greater control in an attempt to improve the services we provide."