The Bottom Line / Local Rabbis Living High on the Hog

Justice Ministry officials were quite surprised about a year and a half ago by a verdict issued by the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court.

Justice Ministry officials were quite surprised about a year and a half ago by a verdict issued by the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court. The ruling came in the case of R., who works for the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem.

During R.'s tenure at the Rabbinate, he was caught stealing official kashrut certificates signed by the Rabbinate and selling them to importers of nonkosher meat. This allowed the importers to pass off their nonkosher meat as strictly kosher, thereby reaping windfall profits by cutting out all the expenses involved in slaughtering kosher meat overseas.

But the surprise contained in the verdict was not related to R.'s crimes or his breach of trust, both moral and religious. What surprised the Justice Ministry was the news that not only did R. work for years for the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, he also lived in the capital with his family.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with living and working in Jerusalem, far from it - unless you happen to serve as the rabbi of another Israeli community. And that was exactly the problem in R.'s case. Throughout all the time he worked in Jerusalem and was paid by the state for this work, R. was also employed as the rabbi of a large agricultural community in the center of the country. And for this job, he received another salary from the state.

The rules governing the employment of community rabbis require them to live in the town they serve. Otherwise, how could the rabbi do his job? How could he provide services on Shabbat, when religious law forbids driving? So when it turned out that R. was actually living in Jerusalem when he was supposed to be living in a farming community some distance away, the Justice Ministry took notice. Moreover, the discovery that R. was collecting two salaries for two full-time jobs at the same time raised the suspicion that he was receiving pay for work he was not doing.

It is easy to guess which job suffered: the one that had very little supervision, if any. There are currently about 300 community rabbis. Most serve small, primarily agricultural, villages in the periphery that account for a very small percentage of the Israeli population.

In addition, there are 200 or so mikveh (ritual bath) attendants, who run the local ritual baths. Altogether, therefore, these small towns provide about 500 jobs in religious affairs, at an annual cost of NIS 67 million in 2007.

In comparison, the religious councils, which serve the vast majority of citizens in urban areas, have a combined budget of NIS 145 million a year.

How can it be that such a small percentage of the population receives 46% of the total budget? The Religious Services Authority, which replaced the Ministry of Religious Affairs a few years ago, says that this is due to the large number of responsibilities borne by the rabbis of these small communities, from supplying kashrut certificates to performing circumcisions and funerals.

An alternative explanation is that the religious councils have supervision, in part because each local authority participates in funding its religious council. The rabbis of small communities, in contrast, are outsiders, freelancers. No one supervises them, they report to no one, and there are even legal disputes as to who their employer really is. The state may have absolved itself of all responsibility for being these rabbis' employer, but this does not seemed to have prevented it from paying their full salaries.

The body that was evidently supposed to have supervised such rabbis was the Religious Affairs Ministry. But supervision was never one of its strong points, either in its previous incarnation as a government ministry or in its present life as a government authority for religious services.

The authority claims that it checks up on where community rabbis live. But when the Justice Ministry conducted its own check, it found 100 rabbis, just like R., who do not live in the communities they serve. Only the Justice Ministry's pressure forced the Religious Services Authority to take action against R., or in other words, to take steps to fire him. And even then, the authority tried to reach an agreement under which R. would voluntarily leave the job - or even retire honorably with full pension, at the government's expense.

During the process of firing R., suspicions arose that in addition to his first two jobs - one in the Chief Rabbinate and the other as the local rabbi of a farming community - he may also have held a third position, as the chief ritual slaughterer for an overseas rabbinical authority. If this suspicion is correct, then R. was clearly absent from his job as a local rabbi for most of every month. Didn't anyone take attendance?

According to the Religious Services Authority, "since the legal status of community rabbis is still in doubt, there are no records of their presence at work."

The dismemberment of the Religious Affairs Ministry in 2003, and the subsequent division of its responsibilities among the new authority and other ministries, is what brought R.'s case to light.

This week, the cabinet approved the reestablishment of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, as part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's attempts to buy the support of Shas and to guarantee his political survival at any price.

The cabinet was told that the decision had no budgetary consequences. What the cabinet was not told was how much money the public pays for religious services that the newly reinstated ministry barely supervises or controls.