Dozens of dismissals loom in revamping of religious services

Dozens of religious council workers will be fired as part of a revamping of religious services, Meir Spiegler, head of the religious affairs department in the Prime Minister's Office, has warned. Spiegler, who heads a team saddled with the task of streamlining the chronically cash-strapped religious councils and improving religious services, said Wednesday evening that "serious changes need to be made in manpower." "Cutbacks in manpower will not be just a few percentage points," said Spiegler, who hinted that the religious services system suffered from rampant waste. He refused to say precisely how many workers would be let go. "There must be more supervision and control," said Spiegler. "Work needs to be more clearly defined, work hours need to be more closely monitored and better service has to be provided to citizens." The Dior committee presented recommendations for a reorganization of religious services 10 months ago. So far no details of the plan have been revealed. In the meantime, about 30 financially strapped cities and towns are not paying their part of religious council employees' salaries. As a result, hundreds of religious council employees have not received full salaries and pension benefits for between one and six months. Some are not getting paid at all. Shlomo Stern, head of the Histadrut's religious services union, said a strike of burial services was scheduled for next week. "We cannot strike burial services for a prolonged period, but we will take steps to put pressure on the government to make sure we get paid," he said. Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Ya'acov Litzman vowed to open every committee meeting with an update on the plight of religious council workers. He said he would force a Prime Minister's Office representative to appear before the committee every single day until a solution is found. Litzman also threatened to delay the transfer of state funds to cities and towns that need Finance Committee authorization. The Prime Minister's Office is responsible for religious services since the dismantling of the Religious Affairs Ministry over a year ago. The state builds synagogues, ritual baths (mikvaot), registers and conducts marriages and divorces, buries the dead and payrolls rabbis and kashrut supervisors across the country. Spiegler rejected estimates provided by MK Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah) that NIS 250 million in back salaries and pension benefits are owed to workers. "People are throwing around numbers that are out of this stratosphere," said Spiegler. "Our data base is updated to September 2004, so we don't even know how much is owed to workers yet. But it is much less than the estimates I've been hearing." Spiegler said that in 2004 and 2005 the Prime Minister's Office transferred an additional NIS 90m. to religious councils. Another NIS 70m. is earmarked for 2006. The total annual budget for religious services will be NIS 350m. according to the new plan. The Prime Minister's Office will pay 40% and cities and towns will pay 60%, as they do presently. Spiegler said that in 2003 the total budget was NIS 300m. Cities and towns that suffer from chronic budget deficits and, therefore, are not paying religious council employees their full salaries include Rehovot, Bat Yam, Gadera, Emmanuel, Yehud, Or Yehuda, and Arad. Stern said this month an additional 10 cities and towns did not pay religious council employees their full salaries.