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'More power to residents, more accountability from rabbis'

Religious services minister quietly tries to fix broken municipal rabbi system

Matan Kahana updates method of selecting city rabbis in bid to make the process more efficient and less corrupt, and have greater female involvement

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana speaks during a conference in Jerusalem on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana speaks during a conference in Jerusalem on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana signed off Sunday on a major reform of the way municipal rabbis are chosen, with the goal of making the process less political, more efficient, more egalitarian and less prone to corruption. The reform may also shift more power to Kahana’s national-religious camp and away from the ultra-Orthodox.

The move was hailed by progressive religious organizations, which described it as a long-needed effort to overhaul a broken system. Compared to Kahana’s previous reforms — over kashrut certification and a so-far-unfinished effort to alter the process of conversion to Judaism — his changes to the municipal rabbi selection method have faced far less scathing criticism from Haredi officials.

The selection process for city rabbis, who receive near-lifetime appointments, has long been tied to corrupt and undemocratic practices, prompting a number of appeals to the High Court of Justice over the years along with highly critical state comptroller reports. In 2018, one such report found many municipal rabbis hiring family members for government jobs and collecting high salaries, partially funded by the state, while spending extended periods outside of the country for fundraising and other purposes unconnected to their city positions.

The current system’s issues have also led to a major backlog in the nomination of municipal rabbis, resulting in dozens of locations going without one, including major cities like Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Haifa and Beit Shemesh.

Kahana’s reform is composed of two main elements: changing the makeup of the selection committee to move the decision-making process away from the Religious Services Ministry, where it is more likely to become embroiled in political squabbling, and setting a term limit for rabbis in order to ensure that they remain representative of their communities.

“After years of municipal rabbis not being appointed due to political considerations, the new protocols will allow the appointment of rabbis in the dozens of cities that don’t have one today,” Kahana said in a statement Monday.

Municipal rabbis are meant to serve as the direct religious authority for the Jewish residents of their city or town, signing off on things like marriage licenses and kashrut certificates for local restaurants. Some cities have two municipal rabbis, one representing Ashkenazi Jews and the other representing Sephardi Jews. The position is a relatively well-paid one, with rabbis for small towns of 5,000 residents earning roughly NIS 273,000 ($80,000) a year and those for big cities earning over NIS 400,000 ($119,000) a year.

Representatives of the Chief Rabbinate deliver a kashrut certificate to a local restaurant in central Jerusalem, on December 31, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Critics of the system used to select the rabbis lament that it has sucked the meaning out of the role, as those occupying the position have little incentive to work on behalf of their community.

“How many Jewish citizens of Israel know who their city rabbi is? How many, even from the religious community, know his name? How many have asked their city rabbi a question or heard a [Torah] lesson from them in the past year? Ever? The answer in most cases is: very few. For most Jewish residents of Israel, their local rabbi simply isn’t relevant,” wrote Shuki Friedman of the Israel Democracy Institute in a 2018 essay.

Indeed, a survey published by IDI in January showed that the majority of non-Haredi Israelis said they either did not know the name of their city’s rabbi or did not know if their city even had a municipal rabbi. Even among non-Haredi religious Jews, only roughly a third said they knew their city rabbi’s name (though the survey did not check if they were correct). A significant percentage of non-Haredi Jewish Israelis also incorrectly answered whether or not their city had a rabbi.

Tani Frank, director of the Hartman and Triguboff Institutes’ Center for Judaism and State Policy, said Kahana’s reform was far more consequential than it appeared, as it would make a seldom-thought-about but still powerful position more accountable.

“This appears to be a niche issue, but in practice, it is a significant change. Municipal rabbis are an important factor in providing religious services — they set the Jewish law policies of their communities and sign marriage and kashrut certificates. They are also representatives with not insignificant political influence. This is why it was so important for Shas for years to hold the [religious services] ministry,” Frank said Monday.

However, as the changes are being made as an executive order by the minister, and not as a piece of legislation, they could in theory be easily reversed by Kahana’s eventual successor.

The current method of choosing a municipal rabbi involves a committee with half of its members coming from the local council, a quarter from local synagogues, and a quarter from among local residents, acting as representatives of the religious services minister.

In the past, this makeup of the selection committee often ensured a Haredi majority, as the position of religious services minister is typically held by an ultra-Orthodox politician, often from the Shas party, so his (all Shas lawmakers are male) representatives came from that community. The representatives of the local synagogues were also predominantly Haredi, as the religious services minister was often involved in choosing which synagogues would be represented and would choose ones that aligned with his candidate. In other cases, it resulted in deadlocks, preventing the appointment of a city rabbi.

In some cases, such arrangements led to questionable deals between different religious communities in the same city. Such was the case in the city of Petah Tikva in 2011, when the national-religious representatives agreed to support the Haredi candidate for the city’s Sephardi rabbi — who happened to be the brother of a cabinet minister — in exchange for the Haredi representatives backing the national-religious candidate for Ashkenazi rabbi. That case led to a High Court hearing on the matter, in which the justices expressed grave concerns over the selection process.

Kiryat Ono Chief Rabbi Rasson Arousi of the  Chief Rabbinate’s Commission for Dialogue with the Holy See speaks out against Russia’s war in Ukraine at Jerusalem’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, March 21, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Kahana’s new method will do away with the representatives from local synagogues and replace them with residents of the city or town appointed by the local council. Under the new rules, at least 40 percent of the members of the selection committees must be female.

The new makeup is meant to ensure that the selection committee better reflects the overall population of the city or town.

More significant than the selection process, however, is the establishment of term limits for municipal rabbis, which would force them to be more responsive and considerate of the needs of the community lest they find themselves out of a job.

Until 1974, the position of municipal rabbi was a lifetime appointment, and a handful of rabbis who were appointed before that year are indeed still serving in their positions. In 1974, the policy was altered to force a city rabbi to retire by age 80. This was lowered further in 2007 to age 70, though in practice most municipal rabbis’ terms are extended until age 75.

Kahana’s new policy will limit the terms of municipal rabbis to 10 years. The local council would be allowed to extend the term by an additional 10 years until the age of 70. Kahana’s reform is also retroactive, meaning any current municipal rabbi serving beyond the age of 80 will be forced to retire within the next year.

In addition, Kahana’s new policy will make it easier to remove a sitting municipal rabbi on health and mental acuity grounds.

In the past, such removals were approved by the local rabbinic council, whose members often had deep ties to the city rabbi, and the religious services minister. Under Kahana’s reform, the decision to remove a municipal rabbi on health grounds will be made by a more independent “medical board,” his office said.

The entrance to the Rabbinate offices in Holon on February 17, 2016. (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)

In an effort to further mitigate the potential for corruption, the new policies will also forbid someone from serving as a municipal rabbi if they have been indicted on serious criminal charges or if they’ve received a disciplinary reprimand from the rabbinate with a recommendation that they not serve as a city rabbi.

“It’s more power to residents in choosing a rabbi, more accountability of that rabbi toward the local council that appointed him and fewer candidates in the pocket of a particular person or group,” Frank, of the Shalom Hartman Institute, said of the measures.

Most aspects of Kahana’s reform appeared first in a 2013 position paper written by the Institute for Zionist Strategies think tank, a right-leaning Zionist organization.

The measures were hailed by multiple non-Haredi religious groups.

Neemanei Torah Va’avoda, which represents Orthodox Jews on the liberal side of the spectrum, said it had high hopes for Kahana’s reforms.

“We have been working for years to attempt to change the regulations for appointing city rabbis in order to improve local religious services and ensure they are more suited to their public. We believe that the new regulations will be helpful in appointing city rabbis who will be acceptable to the general public, and will deepen their sense of commitment and responsibility to the public they serve,” the organization said in a statement.

The Itim organization, which advocates for reforming many key aspects of Israel’s religion-and-state policies, also lauded the move.

“After years of work we have succeeded in turning city rabbis into a more significant position that will be connected to the city and to the needs of its citizens. Congratulations to Minister Matan Kahana on this meaningful effort,” the group said in a statement.

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