Although local authorities are desperate for government aid to fund new public buildings, they are instead receiving millions of shekels from the Housing and Construction Ministry to build religious institutions. In some cases the local councils received funding for religious institutions, such as mikvehs (ritual baths ), without even asking for it. Yet it isn't even the Housing Ministry's job to provide funding for them.
The ministry itself obliquely spells out the problem on its own website, where it lists the institutions that it is responsible for building. The list includes culture and sport centers (matnasim ), other cultural institutions, libraries, theater halls, preschools and schools, welfare institutions - such as day care centers and clubs for seniors - and sports institutions.
When it comes to religious institutions, the Housing Ministry website explicitly states that budgeting for construction is provided by the Religious Services Ministry.
There is another problem with the ministry's policy under Housing Minister (and Shas MK ) Ariel Atias: its budget for building public institutions has all but disappeared, shrinking from nearly NIS 204 million in 2002 to NIS 17 million in 2010. In other words, it can hardly build anything at all, so must adhere to the strictest priorities.
Yet last year the Housing Ministry gave NIS 1.6 million for the construction of a new mikveh in Rosh Ha'ayin. It gave NIS 4.1 million to build religious institutions in Modi'in, and NIS 2 million to build a mikveh in Bat Yam. Another NIS 3 million was allocated for the construction of yet another mikveh - and a road leading to the ritual bath - in Tzur Hadassah, which is near Jerusalem.
Not all the local authority chiefs were thrilled at the Housing Ministry's largesse, mainly on the grounds that they would prefer to get money for other things.
In May 2011, members of the Mateh Yehuda regional council convened and, among other things, discussed the Housing Ministry budget allocated to building a mikveh. Their mood was not good.
"Nothing like this has ever happened to me before," said council head Moshe Dadon during the debate. "I received two confirmations by fax from the Housing Ministry, to build a mikveh in Tzur Hadassah, without anybody asking for it."
The chairman of the Tzur Hadassah council, Zion Gabay - also there for the discussion - professed himself not only astonished but infuriated at the turn of events.
"They've already invested NIS 2 million [in the mikveh and road to it]," he said. "I don't understand the Housing Ministry's priorities. Our town has a shortage of public infrastructure and is sorely lacking in institutions such as culture and sports centers; centers for music, seniors and afternoon activities for children; or a building for teenage girls in trouble. The State of Israel can't find the resources to build these. I am bemused and ashamed that the Housing Ministry has found the money for a mikveh and can't find the money for public institutions that would serve all our residents."
It seems the policy regarding aid allocation to Tzur Hadassah, prioritizing religious institutions over public ones, was no fluke.
The inauguration ceremony of another mikveh built with Housing Ministry assistance, in Neveh Afek, near Rosh Ha'ayin, was attended by Housing Minister Atias himself. In his speech, he stressed that aid had been granted because this was the first mikveh to be built in a neighborhood already 20 years old. Mayor Moshe Sinai thanked Atias for the assistance, but stressed that the neighborhood was missing other public institutions, including day care facilities.
At the inauguration of yet another mikveh built thanks to Housing Ministry aid - Taharat Esther on Halper Street in Bat Yam - Atias specifically stated that the ministry was "putting an emphasis on mikvehs." It is a great privilege for the ministry to take part in building the ritual baths, the minister said, and vowed: "This trend will continue even more strongly."
Commenting for this article, the Housing Ministry mentioned the Brodet Committee (headed by economist David Brodet ), which laid down rules for assistance with funding the construction of public institutions. The Housing Ministry has complied with those directives, it says. "The ministry is not budgeting all religious institutions - synagogues and mikvehs - in the framework of participating [in the construction of] public institutions. The ministry is budgeting religious institutions only in the framework of new construction in new neighborhoods."
In short, the ministry says it is complying with the rules, to the letter.
It adds that the Religious Affairs Ministry had not existed from 2005 to 2008 (it had been abolished, only to be reinstated ). During those years, building religious institutions had been its responsibility, said the Housing Ministry, and only now are the last religious institutions from that period going up.
Duly noted, although some of the mikvehs the ministry has built aren't in new areas at all.
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