"Secular politicians must stop using the Chief Rabbinate as a political pawn in coalition agreements," warns Rabbi Rafael Feuerstein, cofounder and chairman of the Orthodox rabbinic organization Tzohar. "It is the secular leadership who should have the highest interest in an apolitical rabbinate," Feuerstein said on Thursday, blasting the makeup of the new Knesset-appointed Dayanim (rabbinical court judges) Selection Committee, which is majority-haredi. After handing rabbinical judge appointments to the haredi political parties, Feuerstein said, "the secular leadership should not come later and complain about the conversion problem or the problem of agunot [women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce]." Feuerstein spoke to The Jerusalem Post following the announcement that his 800-strong rabbinic group had been awarded the 2009 Presidential Volunteer Medal, Israel's highest honor for volunteerism, by President Shimon Peres. The group will be given the award at a June 24 ceremony at Beit Hanassi. The leadership of Tzohar, which seeks to bridge the secular-religious gap in Israel, has long warned of the harm that the politicization of rabbinate appointments - from senior dayanim down to neighborhood rabbis - is causing to Israeli Judaism and to the public's appreciation of Jewish religion and heritage. "There may come a time when we decide we have no choice but to change the rules of the game," warns Rabbi David Stav, cofounder and board member of Tzohar. In a conversation with the Post this week about his organization, Stav said it was "the duty of the chief rabbis to make sure we don't get there, to make sure Judaism is relevant [to secular Jews] and not something worn-out and irrelevant." Tzohar earned the volunteerism honor through its efforts in "bringing religious and secular Jews closer together," according to Beit Hanassi official Matti Weill. "They are a wonderful organization that isn't trying to make secular Israelis into religious ones, but brings the values of the tradition in a very open way into the lives of all Israelis," she said. Born in the wake of the Rabin assassination in 1995 with the realization that the country's secular-religious divide had become a dangerous chasm in society, Tzohar aims to bring non-religious Israelis into contact with Jewish tradition and to show Israeli Orthodox rabbis how to be relevant to the needs of the modern society surrounding them. In doing so, the group feels it is responding to a vacuum caused by the disdain with which many view the official state rabbinate. While "there are very good rabbis in the rabbinate," the system is dysfunctional "because the rabbinate as a whole has been taken over by the dictates of coalition politics," Feuerstein says. Due to political considerations, secular parties offer control over rabbinate appointments in exchange for political alliances with haredi parties, leading to a situation such as the one in Jerusalem, "where the national-religious public makes up about 20 percent of the population, but just four out of 54 appointed neighborhood rabbis belong to that sector." Thus, hundreds of rabbis appointed nationwide have little to no connection with their communities and lack the skills even to communicate with their often secular neighborhoods and towns. According to Tzohar, this system does Judaism a disservice by transforming the image of the rabbi into one of a detached political apparatchik. The solution? "Rabbis must be selected in an apolitical system," says Feuerstein. "Judges are appointed in a special mechanism meant to depoliticize the process, and it's the same for senior civil servants. Why can't this be applied to rabbis? Why don't rabbinic appointment committees include people from the neighborhoods under discussion, even secular people?" "The rabbinate system is politicized," agrees Stav, himself the chief rabbi of Shoham and head of the hesder yeshiva of Petah Tikva. However, the Chief Rabbinate should not be dismantled too quickly, he says. Israel needs the official framework for "very important tasks such as kashrut, conversion and the like," he insists, adding, "You must not generalize about the rabbinate. It includes wonderful rabbis working night and day. But the overall view of the system as a whole is not good." And that has a cost. "We pay a terrible price for this institution: large numbers of Jews who flee the Torah because of how they perceive the rabbinate," says Stav. There are two key problems driving ordinary Israelis away from the rabbinate. One is bureaucratic - "the bureaucracy is at Third World levels," he says - and the second is spiritual. "The rabbinate has to become spiritually creative, to deal with spiritual crises of the nation," he says. "Why doesn't the chief rabbi rule that abusive husbands should be removed from their communities? There is a national spiritual issue called Gilad Schalit. The chief rabbi should be telling me about this, about Judaism's views on releasing murderers in exchange for him. The rabbinate should have a presence in Israeli public life." Until that happens, Tzohar is turning to the rabbis themselves, calling on them to take on a new mission of spiritual guidance, volunteerism and community service. "Every rabbi in this political system has to ask himself how much he is committed to his political masters and how much to the public he serves," Stav implores. Specifically, Tzohar is creating a new breed of rabbi, a privatized communal spiritual guide modeled on "what we have learned from America, where a rabbi sees his rabbinate as a central part of his activities, not a part-time activity alongside his other jobs or halachic interests," says Feuerstein. Rabbis in secular communities "must give religious services to that community. They, too, have spiritual needs, marriages, divorces. We have to reach a situation where the rabbi is trained to deal with these members of the public as well," Feuerstein believes. So in 15 communities throughout Israel, Tzohar has begun creating a wholly privatized rabbinate, with rabbis who are paid by their community, not the state, and are trained to serve the needs of their neighborhood and community generally. The goal of the new rabbinate is to have "ordinary people visiting and identifying with and calling their rabbi to consult with him, to have the rabbi visiting a hospital even if it is to visit non-congregants, to see the rabbi become the connection between local schools and the synagogue," said Stav. Already, the organization's hundreds of members, most holding official rabbinate posts but volunteering for Tzohar initiatives, offer volunteer counseling and rabbinic services meant to change the common view of rabbis among many Israelis. Its flagship project is performing "warm, open" wedding ceremonies, which Tzohar rabbis do on a volunteer basis. Some 3,000 couples each year marry through a Tzohar rabbi, a process that includes pre-wedding counseling and a formal Orthodox wedding ceremony. According to the organization, Israelis are turning to Tzohar instead of traveling abroad to perform civil ceremonies that avoid the rabbinate altogether. The program's success is a testament to Stav's claim that Israeli Jews want their rabbis - "they just don't want to be driven crazy by them," he says. Tzohar also offers premarital bridal counseling, a service mandated by the rabbinate "but which it often does very poorly," according to Stav. The organization has tried to humanize and give meaning to the process, which is meant to impart the religious laws of family purity to aspiring brides. Some 1,500 brides have already gone through the process with the group. To ease the conversion crisis, Tzohar helps Jews who cannot prove they are Jewish to conduct genealogical research, including funding trips to archives in Russia and Ukraine. Tzohar's motivation, according to Stav, is a real desire in Israeli society for authentic spirituality. "We see a thirst in secular society for more Judaism, for more Torah," he says. "And Tzohar's job is to satisfy that need.