Deal done to end haredi hegmony over capital's chief rabbi

Ovadia Yosef's son will be elected capital's Sephardi chief rabbi, while Religious Zionist rabbi will get Ashkenazi slot, at expense of haredim.

After opening the Karta parking lot on Shabbat, Mayor Nir Barkat is about to score another victory over the capital's haredi community by gaining the election of a Zionist chief Ashkenazi rabbi for Jerusalem. The post has been vacant for a decade, along with that of the Sephardi chief rabbi, after both died in close succession. With the support of two of the coalition parties - Habayit Hayehudi, a spin-off of the former National Religious Party, and the secular Yerushalmim party - Barkat is pressing ahead with his plan and has already obtained the silent approval of the Shas party in return for his support for the candidacy of one of the sons of Shas's spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for the position of Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem. While Shas won't interfere with the election of a Zionist rabbi to the Ashkenazi seat, for this to actually happen the Religious Zionist parties and their various constituencies will first have to resolve their own differences and present one candidate acceptable to all. An ad-hoc committee of the highest representatives of the Religious Zionist movement was scheduled to have met yesterday after press time to choose one candidate out of the seven who answered the call by the movement to present their candidacy. Barkat, who is close to some of the "hot" names in the Religious Zionist movement, such as the head of the Tzohar movement, Rabbi Rafi Freuerstein - and others. such as Rabbi Michael Zafrani - has made it clear that in his eyes, the election of a chief rabbi from the anti-Zionist camp was unacceptable. He even tried to convince his supporters that the time was ripe to put an end to the practice of separate Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis, but he was forced to drop that idea and instead decided to concentrate his efforts on the election of a Zionist Ashkenazi chief rabbi for the city, a move that has gathered pace over the last few weeks. The leading candidates for the seat from the Religious Zionist movement are Rabbi Arieh Stern, the rabbi of Kehilat Horev in Katamon; Rabbi David Levanon, rabbi of Kehilat Noam in Kiryat Moshe; Rabbi Yosef Carmel, head of the Eretz Hemda Institute; and Rabbi Nachum Neriah, who teaches at Yeshivat Ha'kotel. The history of the chief rabbinate institution began, in fact, with the British, who were the first to enable a chief rabbinate for the Jewish population in Eretz Israel. It ended up in 1921 with the nomination of Rav Kook as Ashkenazi rabbi and Rav Ya'acov Meir for the Sephardi community. Long before that, the Sephardi community, which constituted the majority of the Jewish population of the country until the end of the 19th century, especially in Jerusalem, had a supreme spiritual representative known as the Rishon Lezion, who was officially recognized by the Ottoman authorities and later by the British. Mayor Barkat has on may occasions, and most recently in a speech at city hall to mark the announcement of elections for the vacant positions, said that "Some 70% of the Jewish population of Jerusalem is not haredi and they are Zionists. These are the people who need the services of the chief rabbinate, and they deserve to obtain these services from a Zionist rabbi." "It is obviously the secular or at most the traditionalists who need the services of the chief rabbinate," says city councilor Rachel Azariya (Yerushalmim), herself Modern Orthodox with a clear religious and feminist agenda, and one of those most involved in efforts to gain the election of a Zionist chief rabbi for the city. "We, inside the religious Zionist community, are intertwined with religious life and services. We don't really need this institution. But secular Jews , olim, even traditionalists, often require the services of the rabbinate. It is clear that a haredi chief rabbi is not suitable. People need to feel some kind of connection, thus a Zionist rabbi is essential," she says. But while Azariya's position is supported throughout the Religious Zionist movement, a rivalry is developing between the Yerushalmim councilor and Deputy Mayor David Hadari from Habayit Hayehudi. While both come from Religious Zionist Modern Orthodox communities, the two differ on a wide range of issues. Azariya, who heads the Yerushalmim party, is a religious woman, yet her party list is by no means a religious one. On the contrary, it aims to represent the city's Zionist residents, notwithstanding their religious ties. Azariya is a prominent feminist who, among other things, created and led for years the Mavoi Satum organization, which represents and supports agunot - that is, women who are stuck in unhappy marriages and whose husbands will not grant them a religious divorce. Hadari belongs to the more conservative stream in the Religious Zionist movement. Azariya did not hesitate to openly support the mayor's decision to open the Karta parking plot on Shabbat, arguing that the interests of the general public, including secular residents who drive on Shabbat, needed to be taken into account. Tensions between Hadari and Azariya have surfaced recently. Sources at the mayor's office say Barkat is aware of the tension and is following developments closely. "No one here wants to see any tensions developing into an open conflict. We all have a common goal to achieve," the source said. "Bringing about the election of Zionist chief rabbis was part of our agreement to join Barkat's coalition," remarks Hadari. "We really wished it could apply to both positions (Sephardi and Ashkenazi), but in politics one has to be realistic. It was clear that the only serious chance we had was to go for this agreement with Shas and to focus all our efforts on the election of a Zionist Ashkenazi chief rabbi." According to the law, a corpus of 48 representatives elects a candidate: 24 representatives of the synagogues in the city; six representatives of the minister of religious affairs (Ya'acov Margi of Shas); and 18 representatives of the municipality, who are chosen by the mayor from among coalition members and others; the mayor is also included among the 18. An open call to the synagogues was published a few weeks ago, and 250 out of the some 500 synagogues in the city have answered the call and asked to send their representatives to the 24 members of the electing corpus. It is interesting to note that the Conservative and Reform synagogues in the city have all answered the call and asked to be represented. While it seems that Azariya's party will not avoid supporting Reform candidates, despite the views of the majority of the majority of the Religious Zionist movement on the issue, there is no chance that Hadari will support the election of Reform candidates to the corpus. But on the other hand, these are exactly the allies he needs in order to ensure a Zionist majority in the corpus. For the moment Hadari is one up on Azariya, as he has been named one of the 18 members representing the municipality on the corpus, together with Rabbi Benny Lau and Rabbi Michael Zafrani, both of them prestigious figures in the Religious Zionist movement. One of the problems is how to choose the 24 synagogue representatives out of the 250 who have already registered. According to Hadari, one of the solutions might be to designate representatives by neighborhoods through the self-administrated neighborhoods centers. Such a move would be very supportive of the Conservative and Reform movements, which are present in large numbers in some neighborhoods. Thus it seems that, paradoxically, those whom the Religious Zionists want to avoid for fear of getting into troubles vis-à-vis the religious establishment are exactly those who might save them from failure in the race against any eventual haredi candidate. The participation of the representatives of the Conservative and Reform synagogues in the 48 members electing corpus might turn critical. Meanwhile, Hadari is taking measures to ensure that the corpus is selected transparently and that the Religious Affairs Ministry's six representatives are not aligned solely with Shas. In order to ensure that the 48 members of the electing corpus are chosen in total transparency, a committee has been formed, which includes Mayor Barkat, municipal officials and representatives from the Religious Affairs Ministry. Hadari is working to try to ensure that there will be only one Religious Zionist candidate. "If we fail to agree upon one candidate, we will lose the chance to install a Zionist at the city's chief rabbinate," says Hadari. A special committee of three of the heads of the main streams within the Religious Zionist movement has already been created and is hard at work on the issue. The committee consists of Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat Gan; Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, head of the Gush Etzion Yeshiva; and Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Or Etzion Yeshiva. "It is not to be taken for granted that spiritual leaders such as Rabbi Lichtenstein, Rabbi Druckman and Rabbi Ariel sit together and try to promote such an endeavor," says Hadari. Azariya finds herself in rare agreement with Hadari on this point. "It is not a simple achievement at all to see these three sitting together and collaborating," she says. "I am very much in favor of presenting one candidate for the whole Religious Zionist constituency. It is of the utmost importance that we obtain a candidate who understands that Jerusalem is a city of all its residents - religious and secular. A chief rabbi has to give answers to all. I personally would have preferred a rabbi identified with the Tzohar movement. As far as I am concerned, a rabbi from the Tzohar movement would be best suited to serve the general public - the non-religious or secular residents who from time to time need religious services, such as weddings and funerals. But it didn't work out, so what I would like to see is a chief rabbi who cares about the whole public, not only those close to his own community," she says. "People have to understand the nuances between these different rabbis - between those who have an academic education, those who have a long beard and those who shave. We're not talking here about different political positions, we're talking only about their respective positions on rabbinical and religious issues, which are part of the obligations of a chief rabbi." says Hadari. "And here, with what is at stake, they have accepted to sit together and cooperate because it is so important." Rabbi Rafi Freuerstein, the head of the Tzohar organization, was present when the election process was announced at city hall and is very active in trying to find one accepted candidate for the Religious Zionist movement. Azariya recalls how at the launch at city hall Freuerstein noted that while Jewish law forbids travel on Shabbat, "It is a fact that there are people who travel on Shabbat, and they need parking lots." The attitude of the chief rabbi toward the secular population is not the only thing that concerns Azariya. She also brings up the question of what the winning candidate's attitude toward women will be. "I would have liked to see women on the electing corpus, but I'm realistic. I went to meet the three rabbis leaders, and I presented my credo. I will follow the decision they will make; I will support the candidate they will choose. But I wanted to explain to them that in order to obtain support around, I need to present a candidate that could convince my constituency. We need someone that people will want to follow. Of course, he has to be gadol ba'Torah, but he has also to be aware of the people around, of those who are not part of the religious world and do need the services he is in charge of. And among the seven candidates, there is at least one like that," she says. "For the moment, we are doing our utmost, but these things are so complicated and delicate - anything can jeopardize the whole move," says Hadari. "Women are disappointed that we don't have their representatives on the election committee of the Religious Zionist movement. I understand them, but we really couldn't do it otherwise. The religious kibbutzim have objected because they don't have a representative. Others have complained that there are only a minority of Jerusalem residents on the committee. I can understand them too, but I can't help it: some of our top leaders just don't live here. The people from Merkaz Harav also complained they are not represented enough. It's true. But again, there was no other possibility. I'll tell you something: I also have my own complaints, but I try to remember what is at stake here and to cope with it." While both Azariya and Hadari have their complaints, the real issue is that unless an agreement is reached, the Religious Zionist movement could either fail in is attempt to gain the seat or succeed but end up with a chief rabbi lacking in stature. "What nobody dares to say," said one high-ranking figure in the Religious Zionist movement, "is that none of the 'big names' will agree to run unless he is assured of victory. And since no one could give assurance about that, we are left with candidates who have nothing to lose if they are not nominated," he said. "Considering what is at stake, lack of courage and political calculations are obviously at play. Still, I believe that what we are witnessing here is another aspect of the 'Barkat effect.' Once Barkat proved that he and the residents of Jerusalem could turn over the situation and put a secular, young and Zionist leader as mayor instead of a haredi apparatchnik, people began to believe that change could also be affected on other issues. If you like, it's our local version of 'Yes. we can.'"