The salary crisis of Religious Council employees has once again raised its head - and well over 400 workers nationwide are again not being paid.
No one in the country is accepting responsibility for the fact that religious councils' employees go for months at a time without receiving their salaries. In Elyakhin, near Hadera, workers have gone unpaid for four months, while in Givat Ze'ev, Hatzor and Emanuel, salaries have not been paid for thee months. In six localities, religious council workers have gone unpaid for two months. Council employees in ten other towns have missed their last paycheck, with no certainty in sight as to the next one.
In Lod, burial workers took the extreme step of refusing to bury three people - including an 85-year-old woman doctor whose son-in-law is a city councilman - who died over the weekend. However, on Sunday evening they finally carried out the burials, after they said some progress had been reached with the municipality on salary issues.
In Bat Yam, religious council workers arrived at work, but instead of their usual routine, the females began distributing pamphlets explaining their straits, while the men sat on the floor and recited Psalms.
"If these sanctions don't work," say Bat Yam employees, "the next stage is to burn tires and block the road in front of the religious council office. We have no other choice; we don't know who to turn to. Each body throws the responsibility on the other one. The national authorities says the problem is with the Finance Ministry, and the Finance Ministry says it's the religious councils' fault. Even the Cabinet minister who has been entrusted with this matter has no authority to make decisions. It's been five years already, and we see no end; the situation is just getting worse. Our debts are simply growing bigger. Most of us are over age 50 and we don't have any other options. We can't even quit because there's no money for pensions."
The critical situation in the religious councils can be traced back to the Sharon-Shinui-NRP government of 2003 and even before. The Ministry of Religious Affairs was dismantled during that government, by demand of the anti-religious Shinui Party and acquiescence of the National Religious Party, and ever since then, the religious councils have functioned whilst falling between the cracks.
MK Yitzchak Levy (National Union) was essentially Israel's last minister of religious affairs; he was a Deputy Minister in the above government, with responsibility for what has been in the purview of the Religious Affairs Ministry. Contacted by Arutz-7 for his opinion, Levy said, "The government then violated the spirit of the religious precept forbidding one to raze a synagogue before building another one in its stead. At the behest of (Kadima MK) Avigdor Yitzchaki, who was then Sharon's top assistant, the whole system of religious councils and the ministry was destroyed, without preparing a substitute or alternative... Now, of course, the problem has gotten worse; the Finance Ministry, as usual, doesn't want to have anything to do with anything that costs money, and provides only patchwork solutions."
Yitzchaki, contacted by phone to explain his view of the situation, would not speak with Arutz-7.
Asked what he would propose now, Levy said, "The government must convene for a special session and make decisions. I prepared a comprehensive solution and presented it to Ariel Sharon and his government, but it was not adopted. It stipulates basically a cutback in the number of religious councils from over 100 to about 30 or 32; there's no reason to have one in every little town. In addition, the funding must come from the national government, with only a little participation on the local level."
The Knesset Audit Committee held a session on the matter last week, at which it became clear that no real recovery program for the religious council is in effect. Committee Chairman MK Zevulun Orlev (NRP) said that he plans to summon Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to another committee session on the issue. The Prime Minister's Office is currently officially responsible for the provision of religious services.
"The picture that has been drawn for us," Orlev explained afterwards, "is one of severe faults in the provision of religious services, and especially in the payment of salaries. The Prime Minister is the ultimate authority for religious services, and we will therefore summon him to a committee session."