Government to layoff 10% of rabbis, kosher supervisors

Over 5,000 religious council workers join general strike.

The government is planning to fire at least 10 percent of rabbis, kashrut supervisors, ritual slaughterers and other religious council workers as part of a sweeping reorganization of religious services to be launched in the coming weeks, sources in the Prime Minister's Office said Wednesday. A total of NIS 77 million has been earmarked for the reorganization, said the source. Another NIS 31m. has been allotted for the war-damaged North and the area surrounding the Gaza Strip. Between 85 and 90 percent of the NIS 350m. annual religious services budget goes to salaries. Meanwhile, over 5,000 workers in the nation's 133 religious councils joined the Histadrut union's general strike Wednesday in protest against salary delays. The reorganization plan is geared toward solving the chronic budget deficits of religious councils in towns. "In places like Hatzor Haglilit, there are two chief rabbis of the city and two neighborhood rabbis for a tiny population, while much larger cities have one or two rabbis," said a Histadrut source. "We've been waiting for this reform for over a year," the source said, adding that the Histadrut supports the reorganization, including the layoffs. "The ball is in the Treasury's court." In Rehovot, one of the most financially unstable municipalities, the religious council suffers from a monthly budget deficit of NIS 250,000. Shlomo Stern, head of the Histadrut's religious services department, said that in the first stage of the strike most essential services were being provided. "Burials are being postponed a few hours, but not cancelled," said Stern. "Couples scheduled to marry in the next couple of days can still pick up their ketuba (marriage contract) but we might stop registering couples for future marriages soon." Stern also said that while most kashrut supervisors were on strike Wednesday, there were many restaurants that could not be left unattended. "If we stop supervision altogether we will have to come in tomorrow and kasher the entire kitchen all over again," he explained. According to Meir Spiegler, head of the Religious Services Authority in the Prime Minister's Office, a three-way group labor agreement will be signed in the coming weeks among the government, the Histadrut and the religious councils that will streamline services. The total annual budget for religious services is NIS 350m., 40% of which is provided by the state and 60% is provided by local government. In financially stable towns, religious council workers get paid on time. However, in about a dozen towns with big deficits the religious councils also suffer. MK Yitzhak Cohen (Shas), Minister of Religious Services in the Prime Minister's Office, said that he hopes to increase state support for religious services so that the state portion of the budget would be 75% while the local government would have to provide only 25%.