Local religious councils ‘characterized by lack of democracy and transparency’ says NGO

Politically appointed chairmen control large budgets without checks or restrictions on decision making process.

THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate
More than two thirds of the nation’s 132 local religious councils are run by political appointees with practically no oversight of their activities or handling of the sizable public funds at their disposal, a religious NGO said on Thursday.
The national religious lobbying group Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah alleged there was a “systemic and operational failure” on the part of the Religious Services Ministry that has led to a democratic deficit in the provision of religious services, in which the public has little say.
“There is a lack of public representation and a lack of transparency which characterizes the absence of democracy in the decision making process of the councils,” a group spokesperson told The Jerusalem Post.
Local religious councils are tasked with providing Jewish religious services to town or city residents. They run such services as the municipal kashrut licensing system on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate; the marriage registration bureau; mikvaot, or ritual baths; and administrative requirements for death and burial.
The councils are funded 60 percent by the local municipal authority and 40% by the ministry.
According to the Law for Jewish Religious Services, 45% of religious council members are supposed to be selected by municipal councilors another 45% by the minister of religious services, while a local rabbi names the remaining 10%.
The selection of religious councils must be completed within a year of municipal elections, but the law gives a veto to all sides involved in choosing members, often deadlocking the process when the parties fail to cooperate.
If a council has not been convened a year after local elections, the Religious Services Minister is authorized to appoint a salaried chairman and deputy to fulfill the council’s functions. These appointees may in effect serve for an indefinite number of terms.
As a result of a frequent lack of cooperation among the bodies involved in choosing religious councils, 66% of them are run by an appointed chairman, and not by a full complement of council members.
These councils often control large budgets for the provision of religious services, but only councils with a full complement of members establish oversight committees to oversee how the money is spent.
In 2015, the Jerusalem religious council had a budget of NIS 47.9 million. It has however not had a full religious council for eight years, and an appointed chairman has been running the body unsupervised.
Similarly, the budget for Netanya’s religious council in 2015 was NIS 12.6m., Rehovot’s was NIS 10.9m. and Kiryat Motzkin’s was NIS 2.3m.
All three have appointed religious council chairmen instead of full councils.
Police are investigating the operations of the appointee- run religious council in Netanya, while the Jerusalem city comptroller is examining the conduct of the appointee- run religious council in the capital.
Ne’emanei Torah Avodah advocates easing the process for religious council selection by legislation that would remove the veto held by all sides in nominating candidates to the body.
Under its the proposed legislation, the council would have to be set up within 90 days of municipal elections and could convene even if one of the nominating institutions has not yet made its appointments.
NTA believes these measures would spur nominating institutions to make their appointments as quickly as possible.
NTA’s draft legislation also recommends changing the ratio of council representatives by giving the municipal authority 70% of available slots, the religious services minister 15% and the municipal rabbi 15%.
This would give city, town or regional residents a greater say in the religious council makeup and reduce the ministry’s heavy influence.
Representatives named by the municipal authority would be nominated by various political factions in accordance with the number of seats each holds in the local council.
Additionally, NTA seeks to have “fair representation for women” to rectify a nearly complete dearth of female members, although what constitutes fair representation is not strictly defined.
The group is also seeking to impost a five-year term limit for any appointed chairman.
Unless progress is made toward advancing the legislation, NTA says it may petition the High Court of Justice to overrule what it sees as an egregious lack of transparency or accountability under the current law.
“Local religious councils suffer from political and administrative chaos which at the end of the day hurts citizens who want religious services,” said Tani Frank of NTA.
“This is a systemic and operational failure of the Religious Services Ministry in everything relating to dealing with local religious services,” Frank said.
“The appointed chairmen are frequently external impositions who are not accountable to the different communities living in the jurisdiction of the religious council but instead only to the minister who appointed him,” Frank added.
“These injustices must be rectified and religious services returned to the hands of the public and communities.”
The Religious Services Ministry declined a request for comment.