After More Than a Decade, Jerusalem Is to Have Chief Rabbis Again

Religious politicians lining up behind Ashkenazi, Sephardi candidates.

Moti Milrod

After years of political squabbling, Jerusalem is set to have two chief rabbis (one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi) again. Mayor Nir Barkat announced Sunday that on October 21 an electoral panel will vote on the important positions.

The issue is at the top of the agenda of both Barkat and the three religious parties Shas, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi. Barkat, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett (who is also economy minister) and his deputy minister, MK Eli Ben Dahan, support Rabbi Aryeh Stern, who is identified with the religious Zionist camp, for the position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi. The ultra-Orthodox parties, meanwhile, claim that the election process is improper and have asked the High Court of Justice to intervene. They argue that the protocol for filling the positions in effect give the religious services minister and the mayor the power to decide who will be hired for the positions, and say the electoral panel does not accurately represent the composition of the city’s synagogues.

The selection committee convened on Sunday in Barkat’s office to confirm the composition of the electoral panel, which includes 12 representatives from synagogues in the city, 24 representatives from the city council and 12 rabbis and public figures nominated by Bennett, with Barkat’s consent.

Jerusalem has been without municipal rabbis since 2003, when both Yitzhak Kolitz and Shalom Mashash died in office, aged 81 and 95, respectively.

Bennet and Ben Dahan hope to fill at least one of the positions with a zionist. They and Barkat dearly want to complete the selection process before November, when Stern will celebrate his 70th birthday and thus be too old to be nominated for the position. Stern has the support of leading rabbis from the religious Zionist movement, and Barkat’s promotion of his candidacy is part of the mayor’s promises to his voters from that movement.

That consensus gives Stern power in the face of the candidates that the Haredi parties are likely to put forth, such as Eliyahu Schlesinger, the rabbi of the city’s Gilo neighborhood.

The situation is different when it comes to choosing the city’s chief Sephardi rabbi. Bennett and Barkat have openly expressed an interest in reaching an agreement with Shas on the matter, but it is not clear whether they would support potential candidates such as Yehuda Deri, the municipal rabbi of Be’er Sheva (and brother of Shas chairman Aryeh Deri) or David Yosef, the son of the late Shas founder Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and a member of the party’s Council of Torah Sages.

Former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar has been mentioned as someone who could win the support of both Bennett and Barkat and could win the election even without the support of Aryeh Deri and the rabbis of Shas, from whom Amar has been alienated for a long time. Another possibility is the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, who is infamous among secular Israelis for his anti-Arab pronouncements. It isn’t known whether he is interested in the job.