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Religious affairs minister said planning shakeup of religious councils

Matan Kahana intends to replace 90 council chairs with academics, including women; move expected to draw fire from ultra-Orthodox parties

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana speaks during a Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on August 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana speaks during a Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on August 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana is reportedly planning major changes in the country’s religious councils, which provide various religious services including marriage and burial for the Jewish population.

In a first move, 90 heads of religious councils have been notified they will not have their positions extended when they expire in four months, a measure intended to make room for new candidates, according to Hebrew media reports Monday.

The positions are to be filled from a pool of prospective candidates who will be required to hold an academic degree and will be open to women, reports said. Kahana’s intention is to build councils that better reflect the local populations that they serve.

He also plans to introduce tighter term caps on council heads, some of whom have been serving for many years.

Most of the councils are chaired by officials directly selected by the religious affairs minister.

The changes are likely to create friction with ultra-Orthodox parties that for years controlled the Religious Affairs Ministry and, as a result, the councils. Those parties are now in the opposition and have lost that influence.

There are 130 religious councils tasked with providing various religious services in local municipalities throughout the country. They deal with issues of marriage, kashrut, burial, mikveh immersion pools, cultural activities, and more.

Kahana has made female representation on religious councils a central plank of his agenda at the helm of the ministry.

The councils are legally required to have at least 30 percent female representation, but in practice the figures are much lower.

In July, for the first time in 17 years — and only the second time in Israel’s history — a woman was appointed to head a religious council. Haya Kliger, 71, took over the Sde Ya’akov-Jezreel Valley Council, which she had served on since 2000.

Another clash may be developing over the appointment of new judges, known as dayanim, for religious courts.

The Kikar Hashabbat website reported Tuesday that ultra-Orthodox parties fear that Kahana will push for two Modern Orthodox rabbis to be appointed as judges in the courts, despite past strong objections from ultra-Orthodox leaders.

According to the report, Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, are considering taking action if rabbis David Bass and Benayahu Bruner are appointed as religious court judges. One option under consideration is to boycott the judges’ selection committee so as to not be seen as participating in the development.

No date has yet been set to convene the selections committee.

The new government, the first in years not to include ultra-Orthodox parties, has sought to reform Israeli religious institutions.

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