Time to set term limits for municipal rabbis

The status of municipal rabbis has reached rock bottom.

Mayor Nir Barkat shares a toast with chief rabbis Arye Stern and Shlomo Amar. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Mayor Nir Barkat shares a toast with chief rabbis Arye Stern and Shlomo Amar.
Rabbi Avraham Shlush was until recently the chief rabbi of Kfar Saba, a post he had held for 58 years. Many people in Kfar Saba are probably not aware of the fact that during his term as chief rabbi he neglected one important aspect of his job – actually living in Kfar Saba.
He lives in Jerusalem, and in recent years has barely visited the religious council of Kfar Saba, his office and place of work. He’s also one of the oldest rabbis in Israel, part of a group of rabbis that were appointed before 1974, when the municipal chief rabbi position was for life.
When the people of Kfar Saba had had enough and wanted to do something about it, Rabbi Shlush insisted on living in Jerusalem and refused to resign.
It had to come to a Supreme Court decision to discharge him from his duties, and not without a legal fight on his behalf.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Shlush is not alone. A couple of months ago, an article on the Kan 11 news channel showed that there are more municipal rabbis who do not live in cities they are ostensibly responsible for. Rabbi Shlomo Ben-Hamo, Sephardi chief rabbi of Kiryat Gat, doesn’t live in the city. He lives in Kiryat Arba. And there are others. In Haifa there has not been a chief rabbi for the past three years, since the last chief rabbi passed away. The Chief Rabbinate’s council appointed Rabbi Mordechai Abramovski, chief rabbi of Zichron Ya’akov, as the rabbi in charge of signing kashrut certificates. This is while he lives in Netanya.
The status of municipal rabbis has reached rock bottom. There’s a need for a rethinking of the position, and especially there’s a need to set term limits.
One of the main problems with the current situation is that once a municipal rabbi is elected to office, he doesn’t need anyone ever again. A rabbi can get elected at the age of 35 and then serve for 40 years, without having to regain the public’s trust.
Another example comes from Jerusalem. After 11 years without a chief rabbi, in 2014 two rabbis were elected as chief rabbis of Jerusalem. Thanks to a petition to Supreme Court filed by Ne’emaney Torah V’Avoda on 2013, the electing body was diverse. For instance, women comprised a third of it. All candidates had to gather support, and part of it was meeting in person with members of the electing body.
One of these meetings was between Rabbi Shlomo Amar, previous chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel and the leading candidate for the chief Sephardi rabbi of Jerusalem, and Rabbi Ehud Bandel, a leading conservative rabbi, representing Meretz. The meeting itself, between a former chief rabbi and a conservative rabbi made a lot of noise in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) media. Rabbi Amar asked Rabbi Bandel for his support, and that was eventually delivered in the vote.
However, that support was easily forgotten. It didn’t prevent Rabbi Amar from lashing out against the Reform and Conservative movements regarding their demand to implement the Western Wall deal.
In June 2017, after Diaspora Jewry had voiced strong criticism of the freezing of the deal, Rabbi Amar gave a speech in which he said the “reformim” (a general name for Reform and Conservative representatives) are bigger deniers than those who deny the Holocaust and that they’re evil.
Do you think he would have spoken these words or anything resembling them if he was still dependent on the general public for re-election? Of course not.
Rabbi Amar doesn’t need anyone and his term is set to be finished when he reaches 75, several years from now. He doesn’t need to bother keeping his tongue and behaving in a respectable manner. The public’s opinion and feelings are of marginal importance.
But they don’t have to be. All we need to do is to make these rabbis understand they’re not chosen by God to their positions. Rather, they need to regain the general public support, regardless of the public’s religious beliefs or gender. They will do so if they were up to re-election every several years. The term of the chief rabbis of Israel is set to 10 years.
We should all come together and demand to set the same term for municipal rabbis. This will only strengthen the status of municipal rabbis and their relevance to the Israeli society.