How the National Civilian Service Became a Habayit Hayehudi Activist’s Private Playground

Sar-Shalom Jerbi, head of the National Civilian Service Administration, has family members in several voluntary service NGOs.

Sar-Shalom Jerbi
Olivier Fituosi / JINI

December 3 was a holiday: the day when two new non-profit associations joined the six NGOs that operate the National Civilian Service (Sherut Leumi) in Israel, an alternative to military service. The six organizations, which are responsible for recruiting and placing the volunteers, were chosen in 2007 when the National Civilian Service Administration was established, and since then their number has not grown. But one day they discovered that another two NGOs had received the desired recognition.

“The number of volunteers is steadily increasing,” explained then-Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi), who is in also in charge of the National Civilian Service Administration, due to coalition agreements. “There is a need for additional groups to provide the service.”

A quick glance at the numbers reveals that they really are growing: In the past year almost 18,000 people volunteered, the largest number since the administration was established, but the number of recognized NGOs did not increase accordingly. “There’s no problem expanding the service,” according to the veteran NGOs, “just let them allow us to do it. The new groups have been added for foreign motives, and the process by which they were chosen them will demonstrate that.”

The process really does arouse questions. Neither the administration nor the Agriculture Ministry issued a request, tender or invitation for all the NGOs in Israel to compete for the desirable status. Eyebrows were raised when it transpired that one of the new NGOs, Hibbur Hadash, is closely connected to the man who heads the administration, Sar-Shalom Jerbi.

Jerbi is a member of Habayit Hayehudi, and in the past served as the party’s secretary general. He became head of the administration in June 2010, after a petition filed in 2009 by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel led to a rejection of his appointment as director general of the Science and Technology Ministry – an appointment of Minister Daniel Hershkowitz, the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi at the time .

In the decision, Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia wrote: “This is a good man whose values are not in dispute. The question focuses entirely on his suitability, in terms of his professional abilities, to be appointed to the position.” It was also ruled that the political link between Jerbi and Hershkowitz was too strong. Jerbi did not remain unemployed: The consolation prize was the job of head of the National Civilian Service Administration, in exactly the same office.

The administration, which was established in the Social Affairs Ministry in 2007, was transferred to the Science and Technology Ministry in April 2009 as a result of a coalition agreement, and eventually became an independent authority. Jerbi continued to serve with the administration and remains there to this day, at a time when it was bounced among a large number of ministers, all of them from Habayit Hayehudi. In 2013 it moved to the Economy Ministry, which was then headed by Naftali Bennett. Shortly afterwards it was transferred to the Senior Citizens Ministry, headed by the late Uri Orbach. In 2015 it moved to the Agriculture Ministry, headed by Ariel.

In the past the National Civilian Service was composed mostly of young women from religious community, but in recent years it has also been accepting Arabs, youth at risk, people with disabilities and more. Yet despite the expansion, the administration is run as though it were the private fiefdom of Habayit Hayehudi.

The six NGOs that operate the service recruit volunteers after they have received permission from the army, sends them to the various destinations for volunteers (community centers, schools, etc.) and also handles their personal needs, pays them and takes care of their room and board. Every National Civilian Service activity is under the auspices of these NGOs, and the administration is supposed to be the supervisory regulator. They draw their budgets from government ministries and by collecting registration fees from the volunteers: The state gives 1,500-2,000 shekels (about $500) per volunteer, depending on the job, rent etc.

The Finance Ministry attempted to cut the existing budget in 2014, which led all the NGOs to attack then-Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy, and the cutback was not implemented. The groups frequently claim that they suffer from a deficit because the budget provided by the government is insufficient. Despite the claims, nobody is willing to give up their affiliation with the National Civilian Service, and as mentioned, there are those who are demanding to join.

That being the case, apparently it is not only the money that interests all those NGOs, but also the considerable power that stems from the ability to distribute quite a number of jobs, and to rub shoulders with officials in the ministries and decision makers. The groups work with the ministries – for example, for volunteering in schools, the Education Ministry issues a tender; for the police force, it is issued by the Public Security Ministry.

The largest of the six veteran NGOs is the Israel Volunteer Association, which every year places 5,500 volunteers. Yaron Lutz, the CEO, earns a gross salary of 420,000 shekels ($111,000) annually. Lutz also has a connection to Habayit Hayehudi – he is an honorary delegate in the party’s central committee, and claims that he accepted the title only because he thought it would help the association. Lutz’s sister-in-law worked for the NGO for years, and left only a year ago. About two years ago the group signed an agreement with Kidum (which prepares students for nationwide exams), where Lutz’s sister works in marketing.

Another veteran NGO is Sherut Leumi. The director general, Gavriel (Gabi) Zrihan, earned a gross salary of 920,435 shekels in 2014, up from 851,670 shekels in 2013 and 728,000 shekels in 2012. Zrihan employs his son Elad, who serves as the vice president in charge of recruitment and development. His salary, the second highest in the NGO, was about 450,000 shekels in 2014. These salaries account for 32 percent of the NGO’s salary outlay, according to the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations. In 2013, on the other hand, there were large surpluses of over 3 million shekels, which was more than 30 percent of the turnover. The NGO claimed that it was saving the sum to purchase apartments for the volunteers, but that didn’t happen due to the high price of real estate.

Jerbi says that it is not his job to supervise these NGOs and that they themselves decided on the salaries. The Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations plans to address the issue, including a threat to revoke its certification of proper administration.

Jerbi’s relatives are closely associated with the National Civilian Service. His aunt, Nurit, is the coordinator of volunteers for the Israel Volunteer Association in the Jerusalem area. She began working there in the early 2000s, at a time when her nephew Sar-Shalom was working in the association, from 2001 to 2004. His cousin, Kfir Getz, works as a rabbi in the Sherut Leumi NGO, and one brother, Haggai Jerbi, is a senior coordinator of the National Civilian Service for the ultra-Orthodox public in the Public Security Ministry.

Sar-Shalom Jerbi
Olivier Fituosi / JINI

We were informed by the ministry that Haggai Jerbi attained the job legally in a public tender in June 2015. However, “in light of the family connection to the head of the administration, and for the purposes of caution and of appearances, the ministry instructed that on issues where joint work is required the responsibility will be in the hands of Haggai Jerbi’s superior. Haggai Jerbi was also instructed not to participate in discussions in which Sar-Shalom Jerbi participates.”

Another of Jerbi’s brothers, Moti Jerbi, is the director general of Yeshivat Hakotel, which was able to receive a job slot for a Civilian National Service volunteer.

Sar-Shalom added another area of activity for the administration called “special projects,” which enables the administration to pay for and distribute over 700 jobs. On the list of the administration’s special projects are mainly Orthodox groups, a large percentage of them connected to Habayit Hayehudi – including branches of the Bnei Akiva youth movement and many garinim torani’im – religious Zionists who try to help underdeveloped communities – all of which receive volunteers from the National Civilian Service paid for by the government.

Jerbi’s wife’s connection

Added to this is Jerbi’s strong connection to Hibbur Hadash, which has now joined the circle. The NGO was established in 2009 under another name, Ish Lere’ehu Yomar Hazak, for “encouraging and giving Torah lessons to strengthen Jewish tradition in the cities in the periphery, conducting cultural and social activities in the spirit of Israeli Judaism,” and more. One of its founders is another brother of Sar-Shalom, Yitzhak Jerbi. Another is Nuriel Getz, Jerbi’s uncle, the deputy mayor of Ma’aleh Adumim representing Habayit Hayehudi and also a member of the party’s central committee. Founder Naama Baruchi is today the head of Jerbi’s bureau in the administration. The person who registered the NGO at the address of his office was her attorney, Ben-Zion Arbiv, today the treasurer of Habayit Hayehudi.

Another founder is Yitzhak Dayi, the deputy mayor of Petah Tikva on behalf of Habayit Hayehudi. And another is Yoram Kamisa, another member of the party’s central committee. Kamisa is the director general of the Organization for Social Equality and National Service, a well-known NGO (one of the six) that is active in Rahat. Although it works in the Bedouin sector it is headed by a Jewish director general, Kamisa, who together with Yitzhak Jerbi founded another NGO that has now received approval as a recognized non-profit for National Civilian Service volunteers. Jerbi is now supposed to serve as Kamisa’s regulator, and to supervise Hibbur Hadash.

An examination of Hibbur Hadash’s activity reveals that until 2015 the NGO was not active at all, and then it twice changed its objectives, apparently in order to suit them to the needs of its new role. In addition, on January 22, 2015 the NGO’s monitoring committee recommended “operating the NGO in order to achieve its objectives.” The NGO therefore has not been active since its inception, but that did not prevent its founders from choosing a new board of directors in 2011, to replace the founders. One member of the new board is Elyakim Neiman, who among other things is associated with Yeshivat Hara’ayon Hayehudi (the Jewish Idea) founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane and the chair of the Hemla (Mercy) NGO, which is identified with Bentzi Gopstein’s organization Lehava (a word meaning flame, and a Hebrew acronym for Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land). Jerbi knows him well too, and not only because he is a neighbor in the Mitzpeh Yeriho settlement, but because his wife, Nili Jerbi, works for Hemla.

Jerbi doesn’t deny that he is familiar with the NGO, but claims that he refrained from handling the issue and gave the job to another authority employee, who is subordinate to him. But it’s not clear why his wife was considered in the first place, in light of her total lack of experience in any social services activity, certainly in the area of volunteer work, and according to what criteria she received the desired recognition from the administration. Jerbi claims that the veteran NGOs were not chosen through a public tender either, and therefore neither were the new ones, as the law does not require it.

Still, according to the procedure for recognizing groups authorized to recruit volunteers for the National Civilian Service, an NGO can have no connection to a political faction or party. This clause does not accord with the fact that all the members of the board of directors of Hibbur Hadash are members of Habayit Hayehudi or close to the party. The Hibbur Hadash reports from 2013 indicate that it has no salaried employees and that its revenues total only a few tens of thousands of shekels. It’s not clear from where or for what purpose this money was collected. “This is a skeleton NGO that was awaiting its turn,” says a source familiar with the NGO’s conduct, “and now it has come.” Today the NGO actually does have a director general and a chairman – but the number of employees is unclear.

Threat to petition High Court

Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel
Moti Milrod

Ofek, the second NGO that received permission to begin placing volunteers in the National Civilian Service, has no connection to Habayit Hayehudi. Ofek, which does not appear on the website of the Registrar of NPOs as an independent NGO, belongs to another NGO, Merkaz Ma’ase, whose objective, as listed with the registrar, is “to expand the profile of volunteerism in Israel and to implement it in the education systems.”

The NGO was founded in 2008 by the Rashi Foundation, which at the time was headed by Eli Alalouf, today a Kulanu MK and chairman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. Sources familiar with Merkaz Ma’ase claim that it is an active NGO that does excellent work. At present Alalouf is working on a law that would organize the administration of the National Civilian Service – a law that is strenuously opposed by the six existing NGOs. Alalouf even cancelled a discussion at the end of December 2015 because he tried to conduct it behind closed doors, but the committee members refused.

In response, Alalouf said: “It’s important to note that I retired from the directorship of the Rashi Foundation and from any connection with the foundation already in 2012, prior to entering politics. Merkaz Ma’ase was approved as a recognized body in the National Civilian Service by the Agriculture Ministry and the responsible minister Uri Ariel, together with the National Civilian Service Administration and its head, Sar-Shalom Jerbi. The subject was approved without any connection to my position as chair of the committee, since the approval of recognized bodies is not the committee’s responsibility and the issue is not even discussed there.”

Recently the Movement for Quality Government turned to Jerbi and Ariel in a series of letters asking them to explain the choice of the new NGOs. They did so now because the tender for which all the NGOs are competing, for the distribution of 7,400 service jobs, closed on April 7. The two new NGOs can also bid for the tender. Jerbi and Ariel were asked to explain why the list was expanded as it was, and if their explanations are unsatisfactory, the movement will turn to the High Court to block the tender. The National Civilian Service tenders are published for two years with an option for an extension for another two years, but Jerbi tends not to use that option, and despite repeated requests from the NGOs, insists on publishing the tenders every two years.

“Bringing in the two additional NGOs through the back door is a scandal,” says a source close to the administration. “Six existing NGOS that are already familiar with the work are fighting over every tender for placement of volunteers, and could easily increase the number of volunteers. The choice of those two NGOs is simply superfluous. The whole process stinks.”

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The National Civilian Service said that since becoming the director general of the administration, Sar-Shalom Jerbi has introduced unprecedented regulatory changes, including new procedures for volunteering, a supervisory company for the entire authority and insurance for the volunteers. Regarding the family members in the Hibbur Hadash NGO: “His family, founders of the original NGO, resigned in 2011 and the new NGO differs completely from the old one, in its name, objectives and employees. The Justice Ministry ruled that there is no suspicion of conflict of interest due to Jerbi’s former connections with Hibbur Hadash. Still, on his own initiative he turned to the administration’s legal adviser and asked to exclude himself from the approval process ... The Jerbi family has been active for many years in various NGOs and in the public sector, including Moti Jerbi, the director general of Yeshivat Hakotel, and Haggai Jerbi, who works in the Public Security Ministry. Nili Jerbi is a social worker in the NGO who has been helping children at risk since 2005, at the standard salary for her job. She does not hold an administrative position.

“Haggai Jerbi is in charge of national service for the ultra-Orthodox, in a department of the Public Security Ministry that is not subordinate to the authority and does not work with it directly. In the tender he declared his family connection to the director general of the administration, and this was not considered a conflict of interest. The aunt Nurit has been in her job for over 12 years, long before Sar-Shalom became the director general.

“Regarding the connection between Hibbur Hadash and Haybayit Hayehudi, from an examination of the activity of Hibbur Hadash, in the context of examining the conditions for certifying it as a recognized NGO it was found that the organization has no political connection to any political party or faction. Private activity of some NGO members, not in the context of the NGO, does not affect the definition of the NGO.”

Ariel’s office said that the agriculture minister wanted to increase the number of recognized NGOs due to the importance of expanding the National Civilian Service, and therefore approved the request of the only two NGOs requesting recognition. These NGOs work primarily with weak populations and recognizing them was important. Ariel has no personal connection with anyone in the two NGOs, his office said.

The registrar of non-profit organizations, regarding the salary of the director general: “The registrar conducted an in-depth review in which it was found that the NGO operated improperly in light of the employment of a relative of the director general and the significant salary payments. The NGO received a conditional approval of proper administration, based on its promise to repair the faults found in the report. Clearly, if the NGO does not operate in accordance with the instructions of the registrar we will consider taking steps, including cancelling its permit. However, the law does not limit the salary of NGO employees, and therefore the registrar intervenes in these cases only under exceptional circumstances. In the above instance, in light of the combination of circumstances, it was in fact found that there is room to address this issue. “

No response was received from the National Civilian Service Administration.

The Israel Volunteers Association said that the complaints against the director general are groundless, adding that Kidum was chosen because their bid was the lowest and the most comprehensive. The tender was handled by a professional committee without the intervention of the director general. Jerbi’s sister-in-law was employed long before his appointment and is now working elsewhere.

Hibbur Hadash said that one of their goals is to provide a broader solution to those wishing to do national service, and that the NGO was recognized according to the proper procedures.