Did you know? The “Rabbi of the Western Wall” has no term limit

“Civil servants have the ethical responsibility, due to the trust given to them by the public, to serve the public with morality, efficiency, fairness, and courtesy.” (Professor Yitzhak Zamir)

The Supervisor of Holy Sites is defined by the Regulations for Safeguarding Jewish Holy Sites (1981). The regulations state the supervisor is “one appointed by the Minister, by recommendation of the Chief Rabbis of Israel, to be the chief supervisor over a given holy site.”

In 1995, Shmuel Rabinovitch was appointed as the Supervisor of Holy Sites, and in 2000 he was granted the additional title of “Rabbi of the Western Wall,” although he was never ordained as a rabbi and no such role is defined in Israeli law. As Supervisor of Holy Sites, Mr. Rabinovitch is also responsible for the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, the Tomb of Maimonides, and Jewish sites in Peki’in, among other places. In addition to those responsibilities, Mr. Rabinovitch currently serves as the chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a governmental organization with an annual intake of approximately 60 million shekels.

Beginning in 1967, only three people have served as the Supervisor of Holy Sites. This role has no term limits, unlike other senior positions in the public sector, such as the Chief Rabbis of Israel, and as was recently decided regarding municipal rabbis. 

Existing laws and regulations do not define minimum requirements to serve in the role, aside from the recommendation of the Chief Rabbis of Israel. That fact makes the role effectively an agent of the Chief Rabbis.

To take a step back, let us consider the importance of the public sector. People in these official roles are decision makers who manage daily life. The public sector must represent the needs and interests of the public in its decision making. The efficiency of OECD states is measured by the functionality of their public officials.

In 2015, Government Decision 2464 encouraged rotations among senior staff in the public sector, with limits on position from four to six years, with six years being defined as a proper term. Term limits for municipal rabbis were established in the recent regulations signed by the Minister of Religious Services. In addition to these government decisions, some term limits in Israeli governance are defined by legislation. The State Comptroller is limited by Basic Law to a seven-year term, and Chief Rabbis of Israel serve for ten years. Nonetheless, the tenure of the Supervisor of Holy Sites has no limits at all, despite committee recommendations and government decisions. Someone appointed to such a position could serve for life. 

In a policy paper issued in Hebrew on October 12th, 2021, JPW described two compelling interests in limiting the term of the Supervisor of Holy Sites.

  1. Public interest. As expressed in government decisions, an effective state bureaucracy relies on avoiding stagnation. Unchecked service of public employees can lead to corruption and the erosion of public values, as we see at the Western Wall.
  2. National interest of the entire Jewish people. The State of Israel is the state of the entire Jewish people. Jews who do not reside within Israel still see it as a homeland and work to support it, whether economically or publicly. Changes over the years at the Western Wall Plaza have edged out non-Orthodox Jews, and more specifically, those who are not ultra-Orthodox. 

Accordingly, JPW recommended the following steps:

  1. Make the Supervisor an official role within the Ministry of Religious Services, as part of the senior staff of public officials. Such a move would curb the influence of the Chief Rabbis of Israel on the role, and would result in a direct application of the existing reform in limiting duration of service.
  2. Limit the term of the role so that service will range from four to eight years, with an ideal service of six years. The current officeholder could be gradually phased out of his position within two years. We do not recommend instituting the specific reform passed for municipal rabbis, as this is not a rabbinical position nor an elected one. The Supervisor is not tasked with making rabbinic decisions. Rather, the Supervisor is responsible for administration and enforcement at holy sites.
  3. Administration of the Western Wall and administration of other holy sites should be separated by an amendment to the Regulations for Safeguarding Holy Sites. This should be done due to the symbolic significance and number of visitors to the Western Wall, as opposed to other sites, and should be accompanied by increased transparency at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.