One Man’s Battle Against the Petah Tikva Religious Council

Rabbi Shimon Biton says he’s a whistle-blower, fighting corruption, but he’s been accused of offenses similar to the ones he battled.

Rabbi Shimon Biton sits in a top-floor apartment on Sprinzak Street in the city of Petah Tikva, surrounded by mountains of documents and waiting for the justice he says he deserves. His distress is palpable as he pulls out affidavits, transcripts, petitions to the High Court of Justice, responses and counter-responses. At this point even he tends to lose his way in the piles.

He has spent 300,000 shekels ($87,000) in his legal battle against the Petah Tikva Religious Council, he says, an expense he can afford because he comes from one of his town’s wealthiest, best-connected families. Biton works at D.C.N., a real estate firm controlled by his brother Sami that is active in Israel and Canada.

The building where we meet is also owned by the family, its apartments used by members who live in Canada when they come to vacation in Israel. Biton and his brother built the apartment house and an adjoining synagogue on the former site of their parents’ small home. Despite his wealth and influence, however, Biton has so far failed in his legal battle against the Petah Tikva Religious Council. As far as he is concerned, Israel’s entire system of municipal religious councils is unnecessary.

For the moment, Biton remains at home, continuing to fight council officials whose conduct has been scrutinized in municipal audits.

He displays dozens of pages that document an official audit of the council that he ordered when he was its chairman. In it are allegations of fictitious jobs, nepotistic hiring practices and the use of the council as a corrupt conduit for public funds.

Biton is no naive neophyte. In the early years of the previous decade, he was a macher in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, advising Haredim on how to obtain the religious equivalent of a college diploma, necessary for promotions and salary increases in government institutions.

Inner workings of Israel’s religious councils

Biton’s detractors say he was removed from his post for poor performance, which he denies, but in any event, the ongoing confrontation that he is waging lays bare some of the inner workings of religious councils throughout Israel, not only in Petah Tivka.

Israel has 132 religious councils, on which 500 non-salaried office holders serve. Biton claims that many of these officials “receive many other things” in lieu of pay. The councils collectively have a budget of about 450 million shekels a year and employ more than 1,800 people. They provide a range of services to the Jewish public, including marriage registration, kashrut supervision and religious burial services.

For years there has been talk of introducing reforms, to little effect. Knesset members David Rotem and Robert Ilatov, both of Yisrael Beiteinu, recently submitted a bill that would abolish the councils altogether and transfer responsibility for the services they provide to local governments. Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan and MK Ayelet Shaked, both of Habayit Hayehudi, opposed the bill, arguing that a draft law sponsored by their party that would reduce the number of religious councils was a reasonable compromise.

Biton served on the religious council of the port city of Ashdod until 2009, and according to sources there he was not particularly confrontational. But things changed when the Haredi father of nine became chairman of the Petah Tikva Religious Council, a post he held from 2009 to 2012. The city’s then-Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon had suggested that he take the job, Biton says.

“On November 11, 2009, I took office and the next day 18 checks were placed on my desk for my signature,” Biton recounted. “I started to look at them and didn’t understand what was going on. I see a check for 45,000 shekels dated November 11, the day I took office. There was a bunch of checks to suppliers, and one was for 2,500 ketubot. I know how many weddings there are in the city all year, and this quantity wasn’t reasonable.”

Biton says that when he asked to see the files of prior weddings performed, he was shown 220 and was told that’s all there was. “It bothered me, so at night, I dug back through the issue of the ketubot and found that in 2006 and then again in 2008 and 2009, each year 2,500 ketubot were ordered. A short time later, I got a call from the owner of the print shop. They realized that I was on to them.”

He says he refused to sign the check for the printing, but a few weeks later someone from the council’s marriage department came to tell him 40 cartons of ketubot had just arrived.

At around the same time, Biton installed a security camera near the time clock to see if council employees were actually working the hours they reported. “I discovered that four or five employees were coming every morning and each of them swiped four or five employee IDs, for the whole staff. Everything was photographed and documented,” he said. “So I replaced the time clock with a biometric clock that reads fingerprints. At that point, everyone came out against me. Senior employees filed a surveillance complaint against me. Police came, discovered the camera, saw that there was no [illegal] surveillance and left me alone. Today that clock is disconnected.”

Biton checked the mileage on the mikveh department’s car, and was amazed to find that workers were using it on vacations and for travel to in-service training, even though the senior council officials who were using it receive a transportation allowance, and the training seminars had no connection to their work.

He says he was also outraged to discover that the official in charge of kashrut, Rabbi Yisrael Sharabi, and the head of the kashrut department, Yinon Parsik, were employing relatives as kashrut supervisors. Parsik’s wife was also a council employee, and Biton claims that while they were working for the council they were on the payroll of Danel, an agency that provides services to the kashrut department and also employed the city’s kashrut supervisors.

In June 2011, Biton sent a letter to the human resources department of the Religious Services Ministry, asking for instruction and alleging the following:

The supervisor of the fish kashrut department, who supervised just three or four stores in town and was drawing a separate salary as a community rabbi, was never in his office during the day. Another individual, who was responsible for kashrut supervision of caterers and also was paid to serve as a neighborhood rabbi, did not swipe a time card and worked just two to three hours a day. Another employee came to the office for just an hour in the morning, although his time sheet showed him working into the evening.

One council employee was assigned to a position defined as 90% of full-time even though he had a second, half-time job with the city. And there was a woman who worked for the council, in a capacity Biton said he did not know. Finally, he asked, what should he do about the worker who was exempted from punching in and out because, as a kashrut supervisor, it would be a disgrace for him to do so.

Biton also criticized Ohayon, the mayor who had appointed him, claiming that he funneling funds through the religious council to a private charity, in an effort to help his reelection bid. That allegation is backed up in the external audit, which noted that in 2008, the council paid 75,000 shekels to a nonprofit organization for containers for the storage of worn ritual objects. According to the auditor, the records were false and the parties involved had agreed to make a second payment of 75,000 shekels for Ohayon’s reelection bid.

“Ohayon called and asked to meet with me,” Biton recounts, adding, “I went to the meeting and told him: ‘Do you know what’s going on at the religious council? Look at the corruption!’ I didn’t get answers. Two months later, the municipality sent the city comptroller to me and a report on the religious council was prepared.” That report, which was released in early 2011, contains like the one by the external auditor, has tens of pages describing improper conduct in the council and confirms many of Biton’s allegations.

In a statement to TheMarker, the Petah Tikva municipality noted that the period referred to in the reports was under the previous administration, when Ohayon was mayor. ”The current leadership is not dealing with the past, and the current [religious] council, which has only been in existence for three months, will examine whether the deficiencies have been corrected.”

The religious council itself declined to comment, but the Religious Services Ministry issued the following statement: “With the establishment of the [current] government [in 2013] and after a new administration took over, Deputy Religious Services Minister Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan and Director General Elhanan Galat issued a directive for proper management to come as the highest priority in running religious councils. The [ministry] administration has expressed zero tolerance on the matter, as reflected in the number of hearings that have been held over the past year.”

Whistle-blower protection

In Biton’s case, in July 2010, after his run-in with the mayor over allegations that the religious council was being used to funnel money to a charity and after Biton opposed the appointment of the son of then-Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias as Sephardi chief rabbi of Petah Tikva, he was summoned to a meeting at which the council requested Biton’s dismissal. Biton contacted the city comptroller, seeking protection as a whistle-blower against corruption. He got it, and assumed it would give him the leeway to continue to make changes at the religious council.

With the protection order expiring in October 2012, Biton sought to have it extended. In December the High Court of Justice rejected the request, saying the order cannot remain in effect indefinitely. The court also found that there was no causal connection between efforts to depose him and his exposure of corruption. His dismissal was being sought because the council wasn’t functioning, the court said, and because his treatment of council staff was not appropriate. The court also noted allegations leveled against Biton over alleged irregularities in the management of the council, including renovations carried out in the marriage division offices without consultation with other council members. He was also accused of ordering an elaborate version of the Book of Esther without consulting his fellow council members.

In a separate legal case in November 2011, Biton petitioned the High Court against the Petah Tikva municipality, the religious council, the religious services minister and others, claiming that the selection committee that is responsible for electing the Petah Tikva chief rabbi was improperly constituted. That case is pending, as are a number of others, including defamation claims against five religious council employees.

In Ashdod, things were different, Biton says. “The foot-dragging and bureaucracy in Petah Tikva are a catastrophe. There is no reason why the head of the religious council can’t be the director of a municipal department,” he adds.

“Why do we need job duplication? Why do we need a bookkeeping department at both the municipality and the religious council? Corruption exists at every religious council that you check out. You’ll find horrible things.”

Eyal Toueg
Alon Ron