'Religious councils act as a law unto themselves'

Religious Services Minister says some local religious councils ignore the law when conducting religious services.

February 28, 2013 03:13
2 minute read.
Religious Affairs Minister Ya'acov Margi

Margi 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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Religious Services Minister Ya’acov Margi publicly acknowledged that some local religious councils ignore the law when conducting and arranging religious services for people in their jurisdiction, during a review in Knesset of the achievements of the ministry during his time at the helm.

Speaking on Tuesday, the minister specifically backed the right of women to deliver eulogies at the funerals of relatives and spoke out against gender separation at cemeteries.

Speaking about the issue, Margi stated that there are some chief municipal rabbis and burial societies “which are a law unto themselves,” and said that he was “not ignoring” the problem of segregation at cemeteries – but added that it was the task of everyone, including Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, to watch the issue closely so that the public is not harmed.

Questioned by Lavie about ongoing attempts by some local religious councils to impose gender separation at cemeteries, Margi noted that a directive had been issued by the ministry last year instructing the councils that they must allow the families of the deceased to decide on the format of the funeral and on who will give eulogies.

Lavie pointed to a specific incident that had come to her attention in which notices had been placed at a cemetery in Kiryat Gat instructing women to use different water fountains from men.

“There is no reason to exclude women from cemeteries,” Margi said.

Religious services NGOs frequently report on complaints they receive from the public regarding negative experiences with religious councils, which are official state bodies.

The Reform Movement in Israel has conducted a lengthy legal campaign to institute disciplinary procedures for religious council employees, which unlike other state-employed officials, are not subject to such procedures.

In the past there have been numerous incidents of burial societies imposing gender separation at funerals despite the wishes of relatives of the deceased, and in contravention of the law.

The Knesset Inter-ministerial Working Group for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, chaired by Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, specifically addressed the issue. The group was established last year.

Margi also addressed a question put to him by another Yesh Atid MK, Rabbi Dov Lipman, in contravention of the law, reiterating that this practice is illegal.

During his review, the minister highlighted several achievements he said had been attained during his tenure, and that he was leaving behind “a professionally operated ministry with a dynamic and strong staff.”

Specifically, Margi noted that he had reorganized the ministry and instituted a service agreement between the ministry, the local religious councils and the public.

He also underlined the establishment of guidelines for the good management of local religious councils which he said had been successful, and the creation of a 24-hour helpline for people in need of advice on religious services.

Margi said that the helpline deals with 1,000 calls a month, mostly relating to marriage and burial.

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the independent religious services advice and lobbying group ITIM, said he was pleased “that the ministry has finally decided to take seriously the needs of the general public in Israel,” and agreed that progress has been made in this regard.

“Unfortunately the gulf between the needs of the Israeli public and the ministry’s perception of those needs remains immense, and much work remains to be done,” Farber said.

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