In First, Woman Tapped as Judicial Assistant in Israeli Rabbinic Court

The fight to allow women to serve in the role, considered to be among the most senior ones in the rabbinical court system, has been underway for more than a decade

The Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem
Olivier Fitoussi

For the first time ever, a woman has been appointed to serve as a judicial assistant in an Israeli rabbinic court. The post, to which attorney Shira Ben-Eli was appointed, is considered to be among the most senior ones in the rabbinical court system, and involves close contact with its decision-making processes.

The announcement was conveyed by the rabbinical courts administration and the Civil Service Commission to the Jerusalem District Labor Court, on Sunday.

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The fight to allow women to serve in this role has been underway for more than a decade. In 2015, Bar-Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status and ITIM – an NGO that assists Israelis struggling with the religious bureaucracy – filed for a restraining order against the Civil Service Commission and the rabbinical courts administration, for discriminating against women by preventing them from becoming judicial assistants in the courts.

In the past, the requirements for this job were rabbinic ordination or qualification as a dayan, a rabbinic judge, which in effect blocked women’s participation. Under threat of intervention by the labor court these conditions were lifted, but requests for candidates continued to be publicized internally within the courts administration, where only men are employed, thus still constituting an obstacle for women. During the hearing of the Rackman case, however, it was agreed to open the process up.

The rabbinical courts administration and Civil Service Commission announced on Sunday that, “The respondents are pleased to inform the court that the committee that examined candidates for two positions of judicial assistant in the rabbinic court chose a female candidate for one of the posts. No candidate, male or female, was chosen for the second position as of yet because no applicant was found with suitable knowledge and experience.”

The Rackman Center and ITIM declared that the decision was “the result of a long legal battle that the organizations have been waging for years. For the first time in the 100-year history of the official rabbinical courts in Israel, a women will serve within the judicial system itself, and thus for the first time a woman will be an official part of the decision-making process in a religious judicial body.”

Attorney Keren Horowitz, who heads the department for promoting legislation and policy at the Rackman Center, said: “For all the importance of this appointment, we must remember that for now this is an appointment of a judicial assistant and not an assistant dealing with halakhic matters [i.e., related to traditional Jewish law], and we are still far from the day when we see a woman serving as a rabbinic court judge. We hope this appointment is the harbinger of the genuine and full involvement of women in the rabbinical courts, and wish the new judicial assistant every success. We are sure the religious courts will be blessed by this appointment.”

Attorney Elad Kaplan of ITIM said the NGO welcomed the “appointment of the first woman as a judicial adviser to rabbinic court judges. This is an important milestone, in the realization that the religious establishment belongs to all of Israel and women must serve in significant positions. We hope this step marks the beginning of a broad change involving the appointment of additional women to other key roles in the courts and other institutions.”

Sunday’s decision is yet another step in a wider move in recent years, in which more and more women are wielding influence on the Orthodox religious establishment from within.

Two months ago, the deputy attorney general ordered that women be appointed to the body that elects members of the Chief Rabbinical Council. Three months ago, attorney Rachel Shakarji became the first woman to be appointed supervisor of religious properties earmarked for public charitable purposes in the religious courts system.

Previously, two women were appointed to other senior roles in the rabbinic courts – as head of human resources and as deputy director of the religious courts, a post that involves overseeing the training of religious court judges and publication of verdicts. In addition, a woman was selected some time ago, for the first time, to serve as head of the department that supervises the service of judges in the rabbinical courts, and the licensing of rabbinic “pleaders” who represent clients in those courts.