It Pays to Be a Small-town Rabbi in Israel

Veteran rabbis earn tens of thousands of shekels every month and are appointed for life.

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These are glory days for Israel's rabbis. Only recently they got to decide the main political battle of the summer — the election of the chief rabbis. Wheeler-dealers and politicians, ministers and those close to the Prime Minister's Office, and of course the candidates themselves, all went on pilgrimages to the homes of those of the rabbis participating in the electoral body, wooed them, tried to convince them, made promises.

Once every 10 years, in the elections for the chief rabbis, the hottest positions belong to the rabbis of local councils and small communities. They all shed their anonymity momentarily and became kingmakers.

The golden age of Israel's rabbis arrives only once every 10 years, and at the same time they are guaranteed a salary that lasts all year round, throughout those years. Dozens of municipal and community rabbis — with the small and medium-sized among them most prominently represented — each cost the taxpayer over half a million shekels annually. Some of those same rabbis apparently work very hard for the community in which they live, but even that doesn't necessarily prove their necessity.

Dozens of the rabbis with official positions are superfluous, even according to the minister of religious services, who declared his desire to eliminate them. Some of those same rabbis are responsible for small communities of only 2,000 inhabitants, and it's not clear how many of those inhabitants even require the services of a government-appointed rabbi. Not all the rabbis are meticulous about living in the communities where they are supposed to live. In some of those communities there is no hevra kadisha (burial society) and no kashrut certificates are issued. Some of those same rabbis have little activity to document in their official reports, and yet they themselves bring home handsome sums. It should be noted that some of the rabbis earn money simultaneously — sometimes at a very handsome salary — from Jewish studies institutes that they run. And we still haven't mentioned the extra — and prohibited — income that was also pointed out by the state comptroller in his most recent report: that received by municipal rabbis for performing weddings.

A glance at the rabbis' salary figures is possible thanks to the financial reports of the religious councils themselves, rather than to the work of a politically biased organization. The website of the Religious Services Ministry publishes the reports, including the most updated data — for 2011.

For the past 53 years Rabbi Meshumar Tzuberi, the rabbi of Gan Yavneh (about 22,000 residents), has headed the list. According the financial report of his religious council his salary is NIS 928,843 a year. He is followed by Rabbi Yehuda Stern from the West Bank settlement of Elkana (about 3,800 residents) with NIS 765,377 a year, and after him Rabbi David Abuhatzeira from Yavneh (33,000 residents) with NIS 724,343. Rabbi Itzhak Halevy from the settlement of Karnei Shomron (about 6,500 residents) costs the taxpayer NIS 688,171 annually. In communities such as Rosh Pina, Elyachin, Azor, Even Yehudah, Kiryat Motzkin and others, the salary of the rabbis is clearly inflated relative to the meager amount of activity reported in the financial reports, in other words, the actual activity that they perform in the areas of marriage registration, kashrut, burial, eruvs and more.

A municipal or community rabbi in effect has a lifetime appointment. In all the communities it is customary that the rabbi does not resign unless he himself chooses to do so, but in most cases the moment of resignation is the moment of death. Rabbis continue to serve even after retirement age, for the most part with a salary but sometimes on a voluntary basis. In a discussion in the Knesset Finance Committee about a year and a half ago, it turned out that in Israel there are about 150 community rabbis, and about 60 percent of them continue to serve although they are past the age of 75.

The Religious Services Ministry has determined a key for rabbis' salaries, according to seniority, the size of the community and their rabbinical degrees, but historical arrangements have created a chaotic and totally disproportionate system. In the past the salaries of the municipal rabbis was linked to that of the head of the municipal authority, or of ministers (in the case of the big cities), but the salary has undergone significant vicissitudes that have created differences in status among the municipal rabbis. Alongside the veterans who were appointed 30 years ago and earlier, and can earn tens of thousands of shekels a month, some of the rabbis who were appointed in the past decade earn only about NIS 7,500 a month. They have called in recent years to narrow the gap relative to the veteran rabbis, which was the reason at the time for the special session in the Knesset Finance Committee.

Last June Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett and his deputy, Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan (both of Habayit Hayehudi), convened a festive conference in which they announced a historic reform in religious services. "Today there are 133 religious councils. We will merge them into about 80 councils, which means that we are saving a lot of money that will go to citizens instead of officials," declared Bennett. "This is a step that the local councils did not succeed in implementing, and we're doing it."

Meanwhile, Bennett is unable to implement the first stage of his reform, passing the so-called Tzohar law to open marriage registration districts, thereby enabling couples to choose a rabbi other than the one in their district, a step that he also announced at the same press conference. This week is turned out that the law promised by Bennett has disappeared for now in a quiet agreement between Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri and Yisrael Beiteinu head MK Avigdor Lieberman. Deputy Minister Eli Ben Dahan promises that the law will pass in the end. And what about reducing the number of municipal rabbis, neighborhood rabbis and those on the religious councils? That project will have to wait.

The Religious Services ministry stated in response: “The salaries of municipal rabbis are set under an agreement with the treasury wages director and by law. The ministry funds the religious council based on its delivery of religious services, and this [funding] includes salary expenses (for the rabbis, the council employees, and its pensioners).

“All the rabbis who appear in the article are longtime rabbis who were appointed years ago under old agreements. New rabbis do not get similar sums. The ministry’s human resources department is working together with the budget department and in keeping with recovery plans to change the system of salaries, get rabbis to retire, and make cuts in wage payments.”

Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed.Credit: Nir Kafri

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