20% of Town Rabbis Not Living in Their Communities, Contravening Ministry Order

Rabbis poised for labor dispute, arguing that Religious Services Ministry is worsening employment terms.

Tomer Appelbaum

Nearly 20 percent of Israel’s state-funded community rabbis do not live within their own jurisdictions, in violation of their contracts. Of the country’s 257 community rabbis, 52 live in other locales, in contravention of Religious Services Ministry orders and the terms of the tenders under which they were hired.

The ministry is expected to announce soon the appointment of some 60 new community rabbis, amid a brewing labor dispute with the rabbis currently in office. The ministry is attempting to set work standards for the rabbis, who argue that these are worsening their employment terms. The rabbis are working with the Histadrut labor federation and have petitioned the labor court.

Israel currently has 118 city rabbis and another 257 town rabbis. The latter group serve regional councils, towns within regional councils, moshavim or kibbutzim. Occasionally, the ministry permits one regional council to employ several rabbis. Mateh Yehuda regional council, for instance, has four rabbis, and individual communities also employ their own rabbis.

In 2002, the Knesset passed a law stating that rabbis must live within the communities they serve, or no more than two kilometers away. The law applies to rabbis serving cities and neighborhoods within cities; it does not apply to the town rabbis.

The law did reduce slightly the number of rabbis living outside the communities they serve, but it is still a problem – especially in light of the growing strength of the “community model” of delivering religious services. It’s well-known that many state-funded rabbis got their appointments due to their political connections, and have no prior connection to the communities they were hired to serve.

Many of the rabbis who live outside their jurisdictions complain about the difficulty of living in largely secular communities without an active ultra-Orthodox congregation and schools for their children – a ridiculous argument in light of the fact that there are Chabad rabbis in every corner of the globe, often stationed with their families in remote locations that are hundreds of kilometers from the nearest Jewish community.

Due in part to critical State Comptroller’s Office reports, over the years the finance and religious services ministries have tried, and failed, to get community rabbis to move into their jurisdictions. The Religious Services Ministry says it’s serious about the issue this time. A few months ago, director general Elhanan Galat issued a memo with guidelines for the conduct of community rabbis, including the stipulation that they live within the communities to which they minister.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef Chelouche, the chairman of the association of Israeli community rabbis, is fiercely opposed to the new guidelines – which also include maintaining and submitting monthly reports of their activities. He himself is one of four regional rabbis for the southern Sharon district, despite living in Petah Tikva.

“The Religious Services Ministry unilaterally issued a director general’s memorandum. Not only that, it also violates explicit collective-bargaining agreements,” Chelouche said. “The collective agreement says we must work a five-day week. That means a rabbi’s work is five days. Like every other professional in the community, he comes and goes and does not have to be there on Shabbat, and in any event does not have to live there. The ministry makes decisions willy-nilly and doesn’t think logically.”

In response, the office of Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan said it was righting wrongs that were years in the making, and is appointing about 60 new community rabbis who, for the first time in Israeli history, will be required to report on their activities on behalf of their communities and will also be required to live within the communities to which they are appointed.