Tel Aviv Declines Religious Affairs Ministry’s 'Jewish Identity Coordinators'

Meretz Councilman Michael Gitzin calls the program a 'system of political indoctrination' that has 'no place in secular community centers.'

Prayer at Zion Synagogue in Tel Aviv.
Moti Milrod

The Tel Aviv municipality recently decided to stop collaborating with the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ Jewish Identity Administration because city hall feels that one of the administration’s programs with the city is overly identified with the Habayit Hayehudi party, according to a senior official.

The program in question brings “Jewish identity coordinators” to the municipality’s community centers. Meretz Councilman Michael Gitzin said: “The Jewish identity systems of Habayit Hayehudi have no place in secular community centers in any city in the country.”

This is apparently the first time that a local authority has foregone collaboration, and the funding that goes with it, with the Jewish Identity Administration.

The “community Jewish identity coordinators” program was one of the first programs of the administration, which was established during the previous government, in which Education Minister Naftali Bennett then served as religious services minister. The program was designed first and foremost to operate among secular Jews through an Orthodox association called “Or Torah Stone.”

It was decided at the time that the program would operate in communities where there were so-called “Torah nuclei” – Orthodox families and individuals who do religious outreach in secular neighborhoods. The reason for the decision was the “prominent need for the appointment of a person from within the community,” to head the program, so it would not be “perceived as something from the outside.”

A few months ago Haaretz reported that the coordinator of the program in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Itay Kremer, had appointed rabbis Yuval Alpert and Eran Yunger as “community Jewish identity coordinators.” Alpert was appointed for south Tel Aviv and Yunger for north Tel Aviv.

In 2013, Kremer headed the Habayit Hayehudi roster in the municipal elections in Bat Yam and is currently director of the Torah nucleus in Jaffa, one of whose founders was Alpert. Both are signatories to a newsletter published by the Torah nucleus, which states: “When there are mixed marriages in Jaffa in almost every building, we must strengthen Jewish identity in classrooms in Jaffa, already 20 percent are born of mixed marriages, usually Jewish girls with Arabs.”

In 2014, the group received some 640,000 shekels ($164,658), two thirds of which came from the Education Ministry.

There are 35 “community Jewish identity coordinators” in some 60 communities throughout Israel, including Haifa, Petah Tikva, Herzliya, Hod Hasharon, Netanya and Modi’in. According to Finance Ministry figures from 2014, the program costs about 5.7 million shekels, with funding divided between the Jewish Identity Administration and Or Torah Stone. The program is attractive to municipalities because they are called on to contribute relatively little funding.

According to a senior official in the Tel Aviv municipality, the cooperation with the Jewish Identity Administration will be replaced with a “municipal organization, so we will not need outside services.” Even if the program was conducted in cooperation with the community centers, “the people selected to head it were very identified with the national religious sector and the Torah nuclei. We wanted to see a more pluralistic system,” the senior official said.

The municipality had little say in the program because funding came almost entirely from the Jewish Identity Administration and the association, the official added.

“This is not open space for dialogue on Jewish identity, but rather a system of political indoctrination that comes to influence the formal and informal secular education system,” Gitzin said.

The Religious Services Ministry said in response to the municipality’s decision: “From time to time there are organizational and structural changes, and collaborations are created or cease. We are certain that the professional decisions of the municipality are without fault and things were done from of a considered and professional viewpoint.”