PMO orders equality for Ethiopian rabbis

In 2005 Ethiopian spiritual leaders earned significantly less than other rabbis.

ethiopian rabbi 298 (photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
ethiopian rabbi 298
(photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
The Prime Minister's Office ordered religious councils Monday to stop what it called "apparent discrimination" against Ethiopian rabbis and kessim (traditional Ethiopian spiritual leaders). Meir Spiegler, head of the National Authority for Religious Services in the Prime Minister's Office, wrote a letter Sunday evening to all religious council chairmen acknowledging the problem and issuing "unambiguous directives." The Prime Minister's Office transferred NIS 5.823 million in 2005 for the 71 Ethiopian spiritual leaders' salaries, which means the average gross monthly salary was NIS 6,834, significantly lower than other comparably trained rabbis. Not all of this money, however, is being transferred from the religious councils to the rabbis themselves, according to attorney Sharon Abraham-Weiss of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Spiegler's letter therefore ordered the religious councils to make certain all of the funds transferred by the Prime Minister's Office reach their intended recipients. The letter was the first official government document to acknowledge discrimination against the rabbis and kessim by the religious councils, said Abraham-Weiss. "Finance Ministry and Prime Minister's Office representatives admitted there is discrimination during a meeting of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and the Diaspora. It is recorded in the minutes. But now we also have an official document that says so," he said. Abraham-Weiss represents 13 Ethiopians ordained by the Israeli Rabbinate who are employed by religious councils and 58 kessim who have no Orthodox rabbinic training, but were spiritual leaders in Ethiopia. "All 13 rabbis receive significantly lower salaries than the comparable non-Ethiopian rabbis, even though they have the same training," said Abraham-Weiss. He cited as an example Rabbi Shai Ma'arad, an ordained rabbi who works in Arad's religious council, who receives NIS 4,522 a month, instead of the NIS 7,074 received by his fellow workers. "Ma'arad's situation is representative of all the rabbis," said Abraham-Weiss. "The status of the kessim is more complicated from a legal standpoint because there is no comparable position for non-Ethiopians in religious councils," he added. Rabbi Moshe Rauchverger, Chairman of the Union of Neighborhood Rabbis, denied there was any discrimination. "Kessim are not rabbis any more than reform rabbis or Christian priests are rabbis," said Rauchverger, who claimed kessim had no real knowledge of Orthodox Judaism and had strong Christian and pagan influences. "If we were to recognize kessim, we would have recognize reform rabbis or Christian priests," he added. Regarding the 13 ordained Ethiopian rabbis, Rauchverger said it was the Prime Minister's Office's responsibility to make sure they got paid, not the religious council's. Both kessim and ordained Ethiopian rabbis have an ambiguous legal status. The rabbis and kessim were first hired by the state in 2002 based on a 1995 cabinet decision that created official spiritual leadership functions for the Ethiopian community. Unlike other rabbis, who receive 60 percent of their salary from religious councils and 40% from the Prime Minister's Office, Ethiopian rabbis receive 100% of their salary from the Prime Minister's office. On Monday the Ethiopian spiritual leaders had planned a large demonstration outside the Prime Minister's Office to protest their receiving less pay than their non-Ethiopian counterparts. They had also planned to demonstrate against the rabbinic establishment's ambiguous stance on the Ethiopians' halachic definition as Jews. The demonstration was later called off due to bad weather, but not before Spiegler issued the letter. Spiegler's letter also called on religious councils to adhere to a Supreme Court ruling issued in July 2004 ordering all marriage registrars to treat Ethiopians like any other Israeli citizen. "Most religious council registrars refuse to serve Ethiopians," said Jasmine Keshet of Tebeka, a pro bono legal advocacy organization for the Ethiopian community. "Every Ethiopian couple that applies for a marriage certificate is referred to Rabbi Yosef Hadana, who has an office in Tel Aviv. Couples and their witnesses are forced to travel long distances from Haifa, Ashdod, Arad, Safed and other cities to register," she said. Although certain rabbinic councils in places such as Netanya marry Ethiopian couples without a conversion, these councils only have authority over couples that live in their area; all others must go to Hadana's office in Tel Aviv. Rabbi Reuven Yasu, an Ethiopian rabbi who helps Ethiopian couples register for marriage in Beit Shemesh and Gedera by proving they are Jewish according to halachic standards, said that the rabbinic establishment refuses to take a stand on Ethiopian Jewry's halachic status. This causes hardship for hundreds of Ethiopian couples wishing to be married by the rabbinate, he said. "The chief rabbis of some towns and cities accept the halachic decision issued by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Shlomo Goren that Beta Israel Ethiopians, as opposed to Falash Muras, are full-fledged Jews and are not obligated to immerse themselves in a mikve [ritual bath]," he said. "In these towns there is no problem for Ethiopian couples who prove they are from Beta Israel to get married." Most towns and cities, however, follow the Chief Rabbinic Council's directive in 1985 that demanded all Beta Israel Ethiopians immerse in a mikve before they are registered for marriage, he said. No Ethiopians agree to undergoing conversions prior to marriage nowadays, Yasu said, "so everybody is sent to Rabbi Hadana, who accepts Beta Israel Ethiopians without immersion in a mikve. That means many are forced to travel a long distance to get to Rabbi Hadana." "The rabbinate has to decide once and for all whether Ethiopians are Jews or not. I'm not trying to tell them what to do. If they say Ethiopians have to be immersed in a mikve that's fine, but they should come out and say it clearly."