A new bill to reform the municipal rabbinate would limit municipal rabbis to 10-year terms and allow only one per city rather than two.
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Currently, this job has no term limits, so municipal rabbis often serve until well beyond the official retirement age. Moreover, many receive exorbitant salaries, costing the state more than NIS 500,000 a year.
Additionally, current law allows any city with over 20,000 inhabitants to have two municipal rabbis, one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, just as there is both an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi chief rabbi. The government recently submitted a bill to replace the dual chief rabbinate with a single chief rabbi, but that bill doesn’t address the issue of municipal rabbis.
The new bill, submitted by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah), would also set age limits on municipal rabbis and clarify the municipal government’s role in choosing them.
In August, Haaretz revealed that dozens of municipal rabbis – including many who serve small or medium-sized communities – each cost the taxpayer over NIS 500,000 a year. The report was based on data from the religious councils’ financial statements for 2011 that were posted on the Religious Services Ministry’s website.
Topping the list was the rabbi of Gan Yavneh, which has 22,000 residents. His wage costs that year came to NIS 928,843. In second place was the rabbi of Elkana (3,800 inhabitants), whose wage costs totaled NIS 765,377, and in third place was the rabbi of Yavneh (33,000 residents), whose wage costs came to NIS 724,343.
Rabbi Yehuda Stern of Elkana told Haaretz at the time that he “doesn’t set his salary and doesn’t deal with it,” but he later said his salary was exceptionally high that year because it included back wages from previous years, when he wasn’t paid in full due to the town’s financial problems. In 2012, the data shows, his wage costs fell to NIS 531,000 – still more than NIS 44,000 a month.
Another recently submitted bill, by MK Zvulun Kalfa (Habayit Hayehudi), would allow rabbinical courts to serve as arbitrators. Until about 10 years ago, rabbinical courts routinely filled this function, but then the High Court of Justice ruled that they had no legal authority to do so unless the Knesset enacted appropriate legislation. Since then, several bills have been submitted on the subject, but none has passed.
Kalfa stressed that his bill wouldn’t permit a rabbinical court to impose religious sanctions on people who declined to accept its arbitration, so there would be no religious coercion. Nevertheless, he said, many Orthodox Jews believe religious law requires them to try to resolve disputes through the religious courts before turning to a civil court, and the law should allow them to follow their conscience on this issue.