Zoning 101 in Jerusalem

In 2001, the neighborhood of Arzei Habira in Jerusalem ran an ad for a neighborhood rabbi. The neighborhoods of Ruhama and Nof V'Gan HolyLand were also included in the tender. In short, the three neighborhoods are about to get a rabbi all of their own, thus joining the neighborhoods of Ezrat Torah, Tel Arza, Neve Zvi, and Shikun Rabanim.

Ah, you didn't know there were so many neighborhoods in Jerusalem? That's OK: neither did the Jerusalemites.

In fact, most Jerusalem residents have never heard of the above neighborhoods. In fact, insofar as is known, there are no such neighborhoods in Jerusalem, which didn't stop the Jerusalem religious council from trying to appoint them "neighborhood rabbis".

The tender to appoint 29 new neighborhood rabbis to Jerusalem, a city that at the time had 56 registered neighborhood rabbis, didn't take off. The Movement for Progressive Judaism  brought the tender to the attention of the ministries of Religious Affairs and of Justice, which canceled the tender on the grounds that it was illegal. But the vast range of neighborhood rabbis in Jerusalem remains; no less than 40 remain listed.

Just how did Jerusalem wind up with so many neighborhood clerics? It was the doing of the Religious Council.

Although religious councils deliver purely local services, namely religious services to their neighborhood community, they are independent. Insofar as is known, they are the only municipal service that is not provided to the residents by the local authorities.

Two years ago the government set up a committee to look at the warped functioning of the religious councils. But the council simply ratified the structure. It explained that if religious services were handed over to the local authorities, the local authorities would simply not provide them.

It appears that the state of Israel trusts the local authorities to provide education, welfare, fire fighting and other rescue services, but not religious services.

Yet the state has complete confidence in the local authorities' ability when it comes to financing the religious councils. The local authorities shoulder 60% of the religious councils' budgets and the government finances the other 40%.

In short, the religious councils set their own budgets, including how much they spend on neighborhood rabbis, chief rabbis, and so on, then demands that the local authorities pay their share.

Since the councils define their own needs, and nobody ever defined a "basic basket" of religious services that the state should supply, the religious councils are free to  impose whatever standard of services they please. For instance, they can decide that a city has one rabbi per 10,000 residents, which is the norm in religious cities; but nobody will ask whether a secular city needs that many rabbis too.

Rebellion in Even Yehuda

When it comes to Jerusalem, which has a religious majority and mayor too, the local authority is happy to pay. But when it comes to a small secular town like Even Yehuda, with 8,000 residents, it may wonder why the devil it has to support two chief rabbis costing NIS 800,000 a year.

And the council chairman of Even Yehuda did rebel at the start of the millennium, and did refuse to pay. And other local authority chiefs started to wonder.

Until the Religious Affairs Ministry was abolished three years ago, the law ruled that budget disputes between the local authorities and the religious council would be decreed by the ministers of Religious Affairs, and Interior Affairs.

For years, both ministries had been controlled by the Shas party, and few and daring were the local authority chiefs that gambled on the religious ministers finding in their favor. They had to swallow the bitter pill. Thus the religious councils turned into a wonderful place for religious political appointments, mainly of Shas people, and turned into a monster employing more than 2,000 people.

In the last four years, though, after the High Court of Justice intervened and the Religious Affairs Ministry was dismantled, some order has been restored to the religious councils. Also, the local authorities were released from the pressure of a Shas minister, and they started to lift their heads anew. Suddenly, financing for the religious councils became a hot-button issue.

A bill of NIS 390 million a year, of which NIS 40 million was paid through fees for religious services, NIS 140 million by the state budget and NIS 200 million from the pocket of local government, that's the issue. Many local authorities are refusing to pay, though.

The financing problem of the religious councils could be solved easily: let the local authorities provide religious services based on local need, not the political ends of various factions. That was the spirit of the treasury's proposal in its 2007 budget draft. But unsurprisingly, the proposal fell through; Shas objected. So the national authority for religious services, which is taking shape as the replacement for the Religious Affairs Ministry, will be undertaking the responsibility for managing the religious councils. Shas promises to make the religious councils more efficient. But as the Buddha said: "Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it."