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Avoid Bad Rabbi? There’s an App for That

An Israeli couple at their wedding

(Haaretz) — When Israelis want to be warned of traffic jams ahead they check Waze, the popular crowd-sourced GPS. When they are planning their vacation, they look at hotel ratings and reviews on Tripadvisor to make sure their trip is smooth. So why shouldn’t they have the benefit of crowd-sourcing when it comes to planning their journey into matrimony? That’s what Rabbi Seth Farber — and Rate the Rabbinate was born.

Young Israeli-Jewish couples who are planning to get married have a new-found freedom – the ability to choose the municipality through which they register to get married. Until recently, they had to register in the town where one of them resided. No more. Now, thanks to a bill passed last October known as the “Tzohar Law,” they can take their pick.

“The purpose of the law was to improve the Rabbinate by creating competition,” explained Farber, who heads the organization ITIM, whose stated mission is to help Israelis navigate religious bureaucracy.

“Location is just one factor when choosing where to register for marriage through the Rabbinate. Couples can choose on the basis of friendliness, efficiency, payment policies, attitudes toward new immigrants. The problem was that there was no good way to get people this information.”

When it comes to distributing information, there’s nothing better than an app. “We decided to use the Waze crowd-sourcing model. We all use Waze successfully. Waze is built on social media and goodwill. People who are stuck in traffic tell others in order to help other people avoid getting stuck. So we decided to do the same here. First we researched what the most important criteria were for young couples. Based on their answers, we created the app.”

In fact, Rate the Rabbinate is not technically an app yet. For now, it is only a website — albeit one into which several hundred couples have rated and reviewed their experiences — but the app should be available for iPhone use soon.

Rate the Rabbinate aims to warn couples away from municipalities that make things more difficult, and tip them off to more user-friendly offices nearby, though Farber says he doesn’t “expect a couple from Kiryat Shmona to go to Eilat to register based on our ratings.”

A look at the site shows that, while it is in its early stages, it is already being used enthusiastically, from raving about municipal offices that “are the best in the country” to one in which a reviewer said, “We were treated in an unpleasant and uncaring way. They seemed to be torturing us for no reason. Every time we went in, they remembered a different document that needed to be shown. The hours they were open were inconvenient and unpredictable, and it was impossible to get them on the phone.”

Can’t the system be gamed? Like Tripadvisor, surely a Rabbinate can try to plant favorable reviews. But he says that, over time, the large number of real experiences will trump any attempted manipulation. The biggest sign that the site is succeeding, he says, only half-joking, is the fact they’ve already received calls from municipal Rabbinate officials complaining about their ranking.

Farber laughs. “I tell them, ‘Hey, I can’t do anything about it, it’s not up to me — it’s up to the people out there in the field.”

The goal of the exercise is clearly to act as a catalyst to improve service by encouraging competition between the municipalities initiated by the new law.

“I strongly believe in the long-run it will make the experience better for everyone,” Farber says. “It’s going to change the Rabbinates that aren’t performing well, because a Rabbinate that has a low ranking is going to lose money – every couple that chooses to go out of town is a financial loss for that city. Places with good reputations will thrive; those with bad ratings will suffer.”

Does this improvement by competition have potential to spill over into other areas where the Rabbinate touches Israeli life? Farber believes it could happen in the future. Currently, burial is restricted to the city of residence, and couples who want to divorce have to stay local. But he is hopeful that if the marriage law proves successful, there may be change.

Other areas seem ripe for crowd-sourcing now. For example, for treatment and fees at the mikveh (ritual baths), such an app could prove helpful.

The app will not be able to address one of the biggest complaints with the Rabbinate, regarding marriage establishment – the difficult demands by rabbinical courts requiring couples to prove that they are “Jewish enough” to marry.

But Farber still believes they will have an effect, since it is the local Rabbinate that refers such couples to the court.

“Unfortunately, there are very few rabbinates that respect someone’s right to come in and simply declare they are Jewish. Still, I hope it will fundamentally change the way in which someone is sent to a rabbinical court when there is doubt.”

Instead of being brusquely told they need to prove their Jewishness, Farber hopes the new accountability will motivate the local rabbinates to be more sensitive to the couples, explain the process better, assist them better in their dealings with the court, and follow up with them to make sure the process is moving forward.

“Hopefully, very soon we’ll see a totally different attitude,” he says.

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