PMO orders equality for Ethiopian rabbis
Matthew Wagner, THE JERUSALEM POST
Dec. 27, 2005
The Prime Minister’s Office ordered religious councils Monday to stop
what it called "apparent discrimination" against Ethiopian rabbis and
kessim (traditional Ethiopian spiritual leaders).
Meir Spiegler, head of the National Authority for Religious Services in
the Prime Minister’s Office, wrote a letter Sunday evening to all
religious council chairmen acknowledging the problem and issuing
The Prime Minister’s Office transferred NIS 5.823 million in 2005 for
the 71 Ethiopian spiritual leaders’ salaries, which means the average
gross monthly salary was NIS 6,834, significantly lower than other
comparably trained rabbis. Not all of this money, however, is being
transferred from the religious councils to the rabbis themselves,
according to attorney Sharon Abraham-Weiss of the Association for Civil
Rights in Israel.
Spiegler’s letter therefore ordered the religious councils to make
certain all of the funds transferred by the Prime Minister’s Office
reach their intended recipients.
The letter was the first official government document to acknowledge
discrimination against the rabbis and kessim by the religious councils,
"Finance Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office representatives admitted
there is discrimination during a meeting of the Knesset Committee for
Immigration, Absorption and the Diaspora. It is recorded in the
minutes. But now we also have an official document that says so," he
Abraham-Weiss represents 13 Ethiopians ordained by the Israeli
Rabbinate who are employed by religious councils and 58 kessim who have
no Orthodox rabbinic training, but were spiritual leaders in Ethiopia.
"All 13 rabbis receive significantly lower salaries than the comparable
non-Ethiopian rabbis, even though they have the same training," said
He cited as an example Rabbi Shai Ma’arad, an ordained rabbi who works
in Arad’s religious council, who receives NIS 4,522 a month, instead of
the NIS 7,074 received by his fellow workers. "Ma’arad’s situation is
representative of all the rabbis," said Abraham-Weiss.
"The status of the kessim is more complicated from a legal standpoint
because there is no comparable position for non-Ethiopians in religious
councils," he added.
Rabbi Moshe Rauchverger, Chairman of the Union of Neighborhood Rabbis, denied there was any discrimination.
"Kessim are not rabbis any more than reform rabbis or Christian priests
are rabbis," said Rauchverger, who claimed kessim had no real knowledge
of Orthodox Judaism and had strong Christian and pagan influences.
"If we were to recognize kessim, we would have recognize reform rabbis or Christian priests," he added.
Regarding the 13 ordained Ethiopian rabbis, Rauchverger said it was the
Prime Minister’s Office’s responsibility to make sure they got paid,
not the religious council’s.
Both kessim and ordained Ethiopian rabbis have an ambiguous legal
status. The rabbis and kessim were first hired by the state in 2002
based on a 1995 cabinet decision that created official spiritual
leadership functions for the Ethiopian community. Unlike other rabbis,
who receive 60 percent of their salary from religious councils and 40%
from the Prime Minister’s Office, Ethiopian rabbis receive 100% of
their salary from the Prime Minister’s office.
On Monday the Ethiopian spiritual leaders had planned a large
demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Office to protest their
receiving less pay than their non-Ethiopian counterparts. They had also
planned to demonstrate against the rabbinic establishment’s ambiguous
stance on the Ethiopians’ halachic definition as Jews.
The demonstration was later called off due to bad weather, but not before Spiegler issued the letter.
Spiegler’s letter also called on religious councils to adhere to a
Supreme Court ruling issued in July 2004 ordering all marriage
registrars to treat Ethiopians like any other Israeli citizen.
"Most religious council registrars refuse to serve Ethiopians," said
Jasmine Keshet of Tebeka, a pro bono legal advocacy organization for
the Ethiopian community.
"Every Ethiopian couple that applies for a marriage certificate is
referred to Rabbi Yosef Hadana, who has an office in Tel Aviv. Couples
and their witnesses are forced to travel long distances from Haifa,
Ashdod, Arad, Safed and other cities to register," she said. Although
certain rabbinic councils in places such as Netanya marry Ethiopian
couples without a conversion, these councils only have authority over
couples that live in their area; all others must go to Hadana’s office
in Tel Aviv.
Rabbi Reuven Yasu, an Ethiopian rabbi who helps Ethiopian couples
register for marriage in Beit Shemesh and Gedera by proving they are
Jewish according to halachic standards, said that the rabbinic
establishment refuses to take a stand on Ethiopian Jewry’s halachic
status. This causes hardship for hundreds of Ethiopian couples wishing
to be married by the rabbinate, he said.
"The chief rabbis of some towns and cities accept the halachic decision
issued by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Shlomo Goren that Beta Israel
Ethiopians, as opposed to Falash Muras, are full-fledged Jews and are
not obligated to immerse themselves in a mikve [ritual bath]," he said.
"In these towns there is no problem for Ethiopian couples who prove
they are from Beta Israel to get married."
Most towns and cities, however, follow the Chief Rabbinic Council’s
directive in 1985 that demanded all Beta Israel Ethiopians immerse in a
mikve before they are registered for marriage, he said.
No Ethiopians agree to undergoing conversions prior to marriage
nowadays, Yasu said, "so everybody is sent to Rabbi Hadana, who accepts
Beta Israel Ethiopians without immersion in a mikve. That means many
are forced to travel a long distance to get to Rabbi Hadana."
"The rabbinate has to decide once and for all whether Ethiopians are
Jews or not. I’m not trying to tell them what to do. If they say
Ethiopians have to be immersed in a mikve that’s fine, but they should
come out and say it clearly."
While not all rabbis are racist, most certainly are. Ethiopian rabbis have been complaining about this discrimination for years. Outside of one or two Sefardi rabbis, no one stood up for them – and this includes the rabbis of the settler movement and modern orthodoxy, along with the ‘gedolim’ of the haredi world. Shame on them all.