Who will be Israel's next chief rabbis?

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: Next summer, Israel’s chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, will end their 10-year terms.

 ASHKENAZI CHIEF Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at an event in Jerusalem earlier this year. Who is lining up to replace them?  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
ASHKENAZI CHIEF Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at an event in Jerusalem earlier this year. Who is lining up to replace them?
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Next summer, Israel’s chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, will end their 10-year terms, but the race to determine who will replace them is already in full swing.

Since the election of the chief rabbis is highly politicized, the presumptive new government’s parties have already been discussing possible candidates, and government support for candidates of two of the parties is expected to be part of the coalition agreements.

The parties expected to be able to pick their candidates for the prestigious role are Shas and the Religious Zionist Party. Shas is expected to be the party to choose the main candidate for the position of Sephardi chief rabbi, and RZP for that of Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

The chief rabbis are elected by a board of 150 people. These voters include 80 rabbis (of cities, councils and neighborhoods, rabbinical judges, the IDF chief rabbi) and another 70 public representatives such as mayors, heads of local councils, ministers and MKs.

The chief rabbi sits on the Chief Rabbinate Council. The members of the council are elected for a period of five years. Upon assuming office, every member is required to sign a declaration of allegiance to the State of Israel at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. The chief rabbis must be citizens or residents of Israel.

THE CHIEF Rabbinate of Israel in Jerusalem.  (credit: FLASH90)THE CHIEF Rabbinate of Israel in Jerusalem. (credit: FLASH90)

There are three possible RZP candidates for chief rabbi. The strongest known candidate is Rabbi Micha Halevi, chief rabbi of Petah Tikva and head of Yeshivat Ateret Nehemiah in Tel Aviv. He is a student of Rabbi Haim Druckman, the most senior rabbi in the religious-Zionist communities. He was one of the rabbis who established the Tzohar rabbinical organization, but he then left it due to misunderstandings with its management.

The second RZP candidate is Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, the head of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council. He is the son of Rabbi Avraham Shapira, the previous head of Mercaz Harav and a former chief rabbi. Yaakov Shapira was a candidate in the last round of elections in 2013 but didn’t receive enough support. The problem is that he is 71 years old, and the law states that the chief rabbi must be under the age of 70 when he begins his term.

The third candidate is Rabbi Eliezer Igra, who is a rabbinical judge in the Great Rabbinical Court of Appeals, the head of the Beersheba Beit Din and the rabbi of Kfar Maimon. Igra, too, was a candidate for chief rabbi in the 2013 elections, but shortly before the elections he withdrew from the race. He is an alum of the Kerem B’Yavneh Yeshiva and served in the IDF with Yonatan Netanyahu, the older brother of prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. He is the father of nine children. Igra has already appeared in press releases as “the front-runner” for the chief rabbi position.

There have also been reports that a fourth candidate is Netanya Chief Rabbi Kalman Ber, who is also an alum of the Kerem B’Yavneh Yeshiva.

Shas’s possible candidates for Sephardi chief rabbi include Rabbi Yehuda Deri, brother of the party’s chairman, Arye Deri. He is a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council and the chief rabbi of Beersheba. He, too, was a candidate for chief rabbi in the 2013 election. A second Shas candidate is Rabbi David Yosef, brother of the current Sephardi chief rabbi. Yosef is the chief rabbi of Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood and is also the head of the Yehaveh Da’at Kollel.

Who are the interesting candidates?

ONE OF the interesting candidates for chief rabbi is Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s “chief rabbi in exile,” as he considers himself, and the president of the Conference of European Rabbis. Even though Goldschmidt isn’t a natural candidate with political support of a specific party, his name came up in a few conversations with officials involved in the process. Goldschmidt currently lives in Jerusalem. He fled Russia at the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war, saying he had received threats to his life for giving support to Ukrainian Jewish refugees.

The reasons that a few figures cite Goldschmidt as a candidate are multiple. First of all, Goldschmidt has always been consistent about maintaining good relations with both the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and religious-Zionist rabbis. In his annual conferences in different capitals of Europe, he will always invite the chief rabbis and senior figures in the haredi communities. In the last conference which took place in Munich, he made sure to invite Shapira.

While most of the previous and current chief rabbis don’t speak English, Goldschmidt speaks many languages and has connections with heads of state and influential leaders in Europe and around the world. He was born in Zurich to a family that had lived in the country for four generations. He speaks seven languages fluently, including Hebrew, English, French, German and Russian.

Goldschmidt left Switzerland for Israel alone at an early age to pursue rabbinic studies at the Ponevezh Yeshiva. He pursued his studies at the Telshe Yeshiva, Chicago, and continued at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, where he received his MA in Talmudical jurisprudence. In parallel, he pursued his secular studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he received his master’s in 1985. After a short courtship, he married Dara Lynn Brodie from Monsey, New York, a student at Yeshiva University. They married in New York in 1985 and moved to Jerusalem, where Goldschmidt continued his rabbinical studies in the Shevet Umechokek Institute for Rabbinical Judges. In 1987 he was ordained by the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yitzhak Kolitz, Rabbi Yisrael Grossman and Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg. After ordination, the Goldschmidt family left Jerusalem to start an outreach center in the North, in Upper Nazareth, with a group of fellow rabbinical students. In 1988, Goldschmidt was approached by a coalition of Jewish organizations dealing with Soviet Jewry to go and serve as an adviser on Jewish law for the Chief Rabbinate of the Soviet Union.

During the revolution in the former Soviet Union, Goldschmidt moved to Russia in 1989 and began establishing Jewish institutions. He also initiated the creation of guidelines for the Interior Ministry for identifying who is considered Jewish, after generations of communism wiped out most of FSU Jews’ Jewish identity.

Goldschmidt knows how to speak to haredi politicians in “haredi” and to religious-Zionist politicians in “religious Zionist.” He may look like a haredi rabbi, and he is considered to be one of the halachic authorities in Europe, but he also is an academic. Goldschmidt was a visiting scholar at the Davis Center in Harvard in 2009, and he spoke at many academic institutions, such as Oxford University, and parliaments around the world, such as the US Senate, the EU Parliament, the Council of Europe and the Knesset.

Sources who are involved in the process said that Goldschmidt’s name is considered new, and while he seems to be relevant for the job according to his résumé and experience, he still hasn’t received enough political support.

What could change in the race?

THE RACE is still very quiet and calm, but many things can change the situation.

The RZP could ask to nominate a candidate for Sephardi chief rabbi, such as Benzion Algazi. In addition, MK Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu of the Otzma Yehudit Party is the son of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, one of the most senior rabbis in the religious-Zionist communities. Sources in the political sphere say that Eliyahu intends to make sure his party chairman, Itamar Ben-Gvir, will insist on his father as their candidate. If this happens, then there could be a rift between the RZP and Otzma Yehudit.

In addition, there are three other senior rabbinic positions that are soon up for election: the chief rabbis of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa will be replaced. Some of the aforementioned candidates may choose to run for one of the local rabbinic positions.

We also don’t know whether the United Torah Judaism Party is going to try to influence this race, especially since its constituents feel it hasn’t received enough power in the incoming government. UTJ could possibly back a candidate such as Goldschmidt, who has been in touch with its rabbinic leaders and politicians for decades.

There are a lot of meetings and discussions between all of these candidates and many people who want to influence this race, which will slowly become public.