(photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
The town of Shoham is the latest example of how Shas's Religious Services Minister Ya'acov Margi has been working to strengthen his party's influence.
Shoham, located near Modi'in, has a population of about 20,000. Approximately 80 percent of the residents are secular and 20% are religious.
The chief rabbi of Shoham, David Stav, has developed a money-saving model for providing religious services which could be implemented in other towns.
There is no religious council in Shoham. Instead, the rabbi's office is responsible for making sure that Shoham's citizens have kosher supervision of the food they eat, an eruv (boundary marker) that allows carrying on Shabbat, a clean mikve (ritual bath), synagogues and marital services.
Thanks to excellent cooperation between Stav and Shoham Mayor Gil Livneh, funding for all religious services is provided directly by the local government.
"When a mikve needs repairing it is treated in the same way as if a school needs repairing," said a source who provides religious services in Shoham.
Since there is no religious council, the monthly salary of NIS 9,500 that would have been paid to the chairman of a council for a city Shoham's size is saved.
If the Shoham model were implemented in other towns and cities across the nation, the number of religious councils would shrink from its present number of 133, and millions, perhaps tens of millions of shekels in salaries for members of these religious councils could be saved.
However, Margi had different plans for Shoham.
He argued that the quality of religious services could be improved if a full-fledged religious council were created there.
Margi would also benefit from being able to appoint directly, or influence the appointment of members of the new religious council in Shoham, thus strengthening Shas's political base.
In the end, Margi was forced to back down after he encountered strong opposition to his idea.
"It was decided between the head of the local council and the minister that no unilateral steps would be taken," Margi's office announced this week. "Any changes will be made in complete cooperation."
In contrast, Margi succeeded in creating a new religious council in Elad, a haredi town neighboring Shoham. Yigal Gueta, director-general of Elad's local council, who is affiliated with Shas, is supporting the move.
Margi has also succeeded in pushing through appointments on existing religious councils. He said in a recent interview in Haaretz
that he has appointed 45 people to religious councils across the country, 27 of whom are connected to Shas.
According to Margi's spokesman Alon Nuriel, as religious affairs minister, Margi has the power to appoint members of religious councils in cities, towns, local authorities and settlements in which the local government has failed to put together a religious council within 12 months of local elections.
However, he is bound by criteria adopted by the Justice Ministry which are designed to prevent political nepotism.
"The minister must appoint people with proven experience and training," Nuriel said. "There is also a limit on the number of appointments that the minister can make of people with political connections."
A religious council chairman's salary ranges between NIS 5,000 a month for a town of up to 2,500 Jews, to NIS 18,000 a month for a town of 250,000 or more Jews.
Margi's next move will be the appointment of 35 new rabbis in towns across the nation, after nearly seven years during which there was a total freeze.
The delays in the appointments were a result of an ongoing fight between the Chief Rabbinate and the Justice and Finance ministries.
Reforms that were opposed aimed at reducing the total number of state-employed rabbis, forcing the rabbis to provide more detailed accounts of the time they spend providing religious services and other changes in their working conditions.
The fate of these proposed reforms is still unclear.