Ministry Favors Orthodox Bid for Judaism Project, Despite Reform Bid Being Five Times Cheaper

In losing the bidding process, the Reform movement laments 'blatant discrimination against non-Orthodox Judaism and an egregious waste of public funds'

Reform Movement members in the Western Wall, November 2017
Noam Revkin-Fenton

The Religious Services Ministry is launching its Centers of Judaism in the Community program using Orthodox groups whose prices were five times higher than those offered by a Reform group.

In a suit filed to the Jerusalem District Court, the Reform Center for Religion and State said the Reform Movement’s broad nationwide infrastructure made it possible to cut costs and thus offer a low price.

In losing the bidding process, it decried “blatant discrimination against non-Orthodox Judaism and an egregious waste of public funds.” But the Religious Service Ministry’s Jewish Identity Administration says the Reform Center’s offer was “deficient.”

The Jewish Identity Administration was established by then-Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett during the previous government as a unit in his ministry.

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Originally the administration promoted “joint initiative” projects with Orthodox groups, some with connections to the Habayit Hayehudi party, which Bennett heads. Some organizations that could have taken part in the program were not seriously considered, if they were considered at all.

In response to criticism from the public, the Jewish Identity Administration began working with secular organizations as well. About two years ago the Finance Ministry demanded that these joint initiatives be pared back, and the administration was forced to invite bids for its various projects. One project is Jewish Identity in the Community, which since 2013 has been operated by an Orthodox group, Ohr Torah Stone.

In a bidding process last year, two contracts were awarded to Ohr Torah Stone and one to another Orthodox group, even though the Reform movement received a high rating in two stages of the process: assessing the quality of the offer, and the interview and presentation of the work plan. Despite the Reform movement’s experience and low-priced offer, the Jewish Identity Administration preferred to continue working with Orthodox organizations.

“When the Religious Services Ministry discovered that the bid by the Reform center was significantly lower than the other bids in each of the three districts, it began a series of evasions and contortions in an attempt to prevent the only reasonable outcome based on the law and the bid’s conditions – the victory of the complainant,” the Reform movement’s lawyer wrote in the suit.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, added: “We drew up the bid while asking ourselves what was the lowest price we could request and still meet the objectives.”

He said his side tired to conserve public funds while still presenting an attractive offer in sync with the Reform movement’s main area of activity.

But the Religious Services Ministry said that this was “a deficient bid that will be unable to provide a solution for the required services.”

The Reform center said that in the ministry hearing it provided explanations for the pricing, and that unlike the other bidders, the center did not try to profit at the expense of public funds. It said the Jewish Identity Administration “operated out of extraneous considerations stemming from the religious affiliation of the complainant.”

According to Kariv, the ministry’s choice showed “the unholy combination that characterizes all its activity: blatant discrimination against non-Orthodox Judaism and an egregious waste of public funds. The invitation of bids and the exaggerated sums are an example of the way Orthodox organizations in Israel build their deep and broad infrastructure through an improper exploitation of public resources.”

For its part, the Jewish Identity Administration said “the district prosecutor’s office will prepare a response and submit it to the court.”