New regulations would expand Haredi control over municipal rabbis, sideline women

After Knesset bill nixed, Religious Services Ministry pushes similar changes that critics say would ’emasculate local authorities and completely centralize role of municipal rabbi’

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Shas party member Michael Malkieli at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Shas party member Michael Malkieli at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Only a month after a bill giving the Chief Rabbinate of Israel considerable say in the appointment of all new municipal rabbis was shot down in the Knesset, the Religious Services Ministry has introduced a set of proposed regulations that would accomplish the same goal while sidestepping intense public and legislative opposition.

The new regulations, which were published for public comment late last week, would greatly expand the influence of the ministry and rabbinate at the expense of local authorities — while at the same time also eroding the role of women in the process.

If approved by the ministry following the period of public comment, the regulations would lower the number of residents required for the appointment of a second municipal rabbi in a city from 100,000 to 50,000, roll back former Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana’s reform limiting the terms of municipal rabbis to 10 years, and allow for the appointment of rabbis with full-time jobs.

It would also drop the number of women legally required to serve on rabbinical selection committees from 40 percent to one-third as well as greatly reduce the level of representation currently enjoyed by municipalities on these panels.

Currently, local governments have a majority on the election committees, with 50% of the votes going to city councilmen and the municipality director-general and the rest evenly split between public representatives chosen by the municipality and the religious services minister.

Under the new regulations, municipality director-generals would be replaced by the heads of local religious councils (who are often appointed by the minister) while the municipality’s public representatives would be cut out of the process entirely.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, left, attends a Chief Rabbinate Council meeting with his Sephardic counterpart Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau’s father and predecessor Meir Lau, in Jerusalem on December 24, 2023. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate)

Instead, the rest of the committee would be split between public representatives chosen by the minister and members of the Chief Rabbinical Council.

Responding to the regulations, the heads of over 100 local authorities wrote a letter of protest to Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli from the Shas party, accusing him of seeking to create jobs at their expense while they are hemorrhaging money due to the war, Calcalist reported.

Last month, the coalition nixed a bill, backed by Religious Zionism and Shas, which would have significantly increased the number of municipal rabbis across the country.

Critics of the bill said that it would have benefited the ultra-Orthodox Shas party by creating jobs for its apparatchiks and increasing the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s say both in appointing rabbis and in how they operate.

Israel has about 470 municipal rabbis in total. Their monthly salaries range from NIS 9,000 ($2,400) to NIS 43,000 ($11,200). Some 30 cities without a rabbi would be forced to hire one under the bill, and Tel Aviv and Haifa, which do not currently have any rabbis, would need to hire a minimum of two.

In an analysis of the bill over the summer, the Israel Democracy Institute found that it would allow for the hiring of 1,070 new rabbis, though there were only plans for 514, at a cost of NIS 120 million ($33 million).

According to Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of the ITIM nonprofit, an advocacy group that helps Israelis navigate their country’s religious bureaucracy, the Shas-controlled Religious Services Ministry is pushing “a fundamental change in how things work” during wartime with the hope that “nobody notices because missiles are flying.”

Shas chair Aryeh Deri speaks during a campaign event ahead of the municipal elections in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024 (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Shas chairman Aryeh Deri is trying to “emasculate the local authorities and completely centralize the role of the municipal rabbi [so that] instead of serving a local community and being held accountable to the local municipal council, municipal rabbis will simply be the long arm of the centralized rabbinate,” he alleged.

“This will further disenfranchise the average citizens of Israel from religious services and the Jewish experience,” he said.

Having 50 percent of the vote “very easily gives [the rabbi and ministry] the power to do what they want,” explained Farber. “They just need one person on the city side. Let’s say they need a new mikva in a city and they say ‘we’ll give it to you if you vote for us’ — all they need is one member of the city council and then they have a vote from the outside.”

Kahana, now a National Unity lawmaker, agreed, tweeting that after Shas and Religious Zionism’s failure to pass their rabbinic services law, “they intend to do it by regulation.”

“I call on the mayors to resist with all their might the attempt to deny them the right to choose a rabbi suitable for their city,” Kahana urged. “Nothing will stop [Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel] Smotrich and Shas from turning the rabbinate into a job factory and driving people away from Judaism.”

A spokesman for Malkieli declined to comment.

Canaan Lidor contributed to this report.

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