Orthodox rabbis to lose their lucrative, exclusive, monopoly in Israel

June 11, 2012
Sarah Benton

Photo from Jewish Press.com; Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatssira, estimated wealth  NIS 1,300,000,000

Israel’s Orthodox rabbis worship God of Mammon, collect $250-million tax-free yearly

Believe it or not, during my late teen years when my life revolved around Hebrew school, Camp Ramah and college studies at Jewish Theological Seminary, I considered becoming a rabbi. While I knew most rabbis, especially congregational rabbis, earned a comfortable living, I never considered doing it for the money.

But apparently there are rabbis in Israel doing as well or better than the most successful corporate CEOs. At least according to the shekel-count trumpeted in the current Forbes Israel edition ranking Israel’s wealthiest rabbis. It’s titled Enormous Wealth. The Hebrew can also mean “Money Rabbi.” The Hebrew word, mamon in the title is the original derivation of the English word, mammon, as in the “god of Mammon.” Let’s make something clear before I enter into this: just because there are wealthy, corrupt rabbis does not impugn all rabbis, nor Judaism as a whole. These rabbis are symptoms of a malady that afflicts Orthodox Judaism as practiced in Israel (and the U.S.). Further, not even all Orthodox rabbis and their followers adhere to these nasty practices.

That being said, there’s no doubt that the scuzziness recounted below does tend to bring Judaism a bad name. All I can say is that these are the equivalent of the Jim Bakkers, John Hagees and Osama bin Ladens of the Jewish people. Forbes Israel’s story illustrates the absolute corruption of Orthodox-Haredi “wonder rabbis” who, like some of their Christian evangelical counterparts, “bless” their adherents in return for donations.

The article begins by considering the rabbis not as spiritual masters or a religious phenomenon, but rather as a business, and rather shady one at that:

Israel’s rabbinical court industry is considered a huge part of Israel’s economic sector. The Babaot (the Mizrahi term for a wonder rabbi is “Baba”) industry takes in upwards of $250-million each year. The fact that this is an especially murky field of business and not fully subject to the Israeli tax authorities indicates the amounts may be much higher.

Here’s Failed Messiah’s take on the matter:

They’re richer than you or I will ever be, and they didn’t get their money by inventing products, curing illness, or benefiting society. They got it by graft, by charging people for ‘blessings’ and by exploiting tax laws.

We’re not talking penny ante stuff either. Israel’s wealthiest rabbi is worth $334-million.

The question is what these rabbis do with their wealth? If they plowed it back into their communities I suppose there might be some defense of these abhorrent practices. But such reinvestment would be up to the discretion of the rabbis. For any rabbi who honored Jewish tradition, they’d be obligated to plow this money back into their communities in the form of tzedakah and various other projects. This in part is what the Chabad movement has done in the various communities in which they exist, especially parts of Brooklyn where its international headquarters is located.

But all too often they aren’t holy men at all, but flesh and blood human beings afflicted with the same avarice and vices of normal people. The problem is there is no transparency, no oversight of either the donations or how they’re spent. Much of the money is off the books, not taxed and goes into a black market netherworld. It could provide dowries to poor brides, build housing, provide jobs, or treat the rabbi to his latest Bentley and penthouse suite at the Plaza (or all of the above). There’s a little too much of Don Corleone and not enough of the Baal Shem Tov.

Failed Messiah puts it pointedly:

Many of these rabbis have extensive private real estate holdings and business investments as well, and some have paid millions of dollars in settlements to Israel’s Tax Authority…to settle tax fraud charges. But the Israeli government is reluctant to press criminal charges against most of these rabbis because they control large voting blocs and, in the case of the Gerrer Rebbe, control a political party that has often had the ability to make or break government coalitions

Forbes also notes that a number of the rabbis have translated their wealth into financial power in their own right with massive investments in the Israeli stock exchange and various financial markets. All this leaves you with the strange image of a great rabbi who showers upon his followers not just God’s blessings but the wealth of his financial expertise.

Those who know little about Judaism may not understand how a rabbi can amass such wealth. But if you think of the miracle ministers who supposedly get the lame to walk or the sick to become well, it’s the same basic principle. You come to the rabbi and ask him to help fix whatever ails you. If you need a wife, he’ll find one. If your child has cancer, he’ll pray for him or her. All this costs money of course. The rabbi’s blessing comes at a price. And many of their followers are quite wealthy. So in effect this is a transfer of wealth from the followers to the rabbi, with the latter seen as such a holy figure that it’s an honor to bestow such wealthy on him. In fact, the wealthier he is the more God’s good graces are seen to shine on him.

But the real question is: is this the way a democratic, western-leaning nation wants a substantial portion of its population to live? To be hanging on a miracle workers every word and funneling millions of dollars each year into his personal accounts? This could also be why the Haredi community in Israel is the least educated, most poor, and most prone to be unemployed. While I have nothing at all against religion per se, this sort of religion impedes social progress and national development.

As long as a substantial and growing portion (giving birth rates) of Israelis live this way, the country as a whole will be held back. Not to mention last year’s social justice (J14) movement which decried precisely the sort of corrupt black market practices characteristic of many of these rabbis and their followers. The rabbis stand for opacity, profiteering and self-dealing while the social justice movement championed openness, fairness, and social equity. Who do you think will end up winning in the fixed system that is contemporary Israel?

So here’s the list of Israel’s Rothschild- rabbis:
♦ Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira, $335-million
Abuhatzeira inherited his wealth from his father, who was murdered last year by a follower who’d paid thousands of shekels for a promised cure that didn’t work.
♦ Rebbetzin Bruria Zvuluni, $5-million
♦ Rabbi Yekutiel Abuhatzeira, $6.5-million
♦ Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak, $7.8-million
♦ Rabbi Yoram Abergel, $9-million
♦ Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, $10.3-million
♦ Rabbi Baruch Abuhatzeira, $19.3-million
♦ Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, $18-million
Pinto collaborated with Ross Torossian and Ofer Biton to extort campaign donations from Pinto’s wealthy New York followers on behalf of the Congressional campaign of Republican Michael Grimm. The pair leaked damaging information about the rabbi to the press, after which Biton urged the rabbi to put Torossian on retainer so he could put an end to the very PR damage the flack was causing him. A classic con reminiscent of a Mafia-style protection racket. Biton, who served as the rabbi’s gatekeeper for a number of years, owns a Manhattan business that sells pornography. It appears that millions of dollars that were collected on the rabbi’s behalf were siphoned off by Biton and Torossian. With a rabbi who buys custom-made Italian suits for his teenage son and antique time pieces, all with money entrusted to him on behalf of the poor, Pinto was a vulnerable mark.

However, not vulnerable enough, as Pinto and his followers have filed a complaint with the police and the NY Times ran a profile of the lurid scam. It hasn’t stopped Torossian, who still plies the New York pro-Israel demimonde as a PR flack for hire. He’s represented the Rubashkin family and Clarion Fund among the more notorious dregs of American Jewry. In the non-Jewish world, he represents gangsta rappers like Sean Coombs. Pinto also invests the proceeds of the alms he collects with another Israeli corporate titan known more for his affilation with Chabad, Lev Leviev. The good rabbi lives the good life in a million-dollar villa in Ashdod, not to mention his luxury hotel accommodations at Essex House, when he’s visiting his followers in New York. There his followers bought him a $28.5-million building on 58th Street serving as his U.S. headquarters. Among Pinto’s celebrity followers are Issac Teshuvah, owner of the Plaza Hotel and various Wall Street titans.

♦ Rabbi Jacob Ifergan, $23.2-million

Donors to these rabbis aren’t just the poor, unfortunate shlubs who need a miracle cure and don’t know any better. Among Ifergan’s donors are the cream of Israel’s corporate elite including Nochi Danker (owner of Maariv) and Shari Arison (wife of Ted, owners of Carnival Cruise Lines), and others. He and a number of the other rabbi-Rothschilds have become advisors to the tycoons of Israeli industry. Imagine Billy Graham going into business offering blessings and consultancies for Fortune 500 companies. That’s what you have going on in Israel.

♦ Rabbi Nir Ben Artzi, $25.8-million
♦ Rabbi Issachar Dov Rokeach (Belzer rebbe), $46.4-million
♦ Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter (Gerer rebbe), $90.2-million
Failed Messiah says this about him:

“When he’s not protecting pedophiles like Avrohom Mondrowitz and threatening to topple Israeli governments, the Gerrer Rebbe has amassed a fortune worth a cool $90 million.”

♦ Rabbi David Chai Abuhatzeira, $193.2-million

This story is covered in English language media here [Jewish Press for photos and different take on this story] and here [Globes , see below].

“Forbes Israel” ranks Israel’s richest rabbis

Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira is Israel’s richest rabbi with an estimated fortune of NIS 1.3 billion.
Li-or Averbach, Globes

Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira, the great-grandson of the Babi Sali, is Israel’s richest rabbi, with an estimated fortune of NIS 1.3 billion, according to the “Forbes Israel’s” ranking of Israel’s ten richest rabbis. The magazine says that the social protest hurt the fortunes of the rabbis’ activities, by greatly reducing their income from donations from tycoons. The value of a rabbi can have little significance for the personal wealth of an individual rabbi, but includes charitable activities and their properties.

The rabbinical communities have an annual turnover of over NIS 1 billion, according to various estimates, but the nature of a community’s activities, which are difficult to monitor, has given risen to much higher estimates of turnover. The value of the rabbinical communities are based on interviews and conversations with scores of officials from the rabbinical communities by experts on the haredi (ultra-orthodox) communities, the Israel Police, assessors, and various haredi sources.

Current and former Israel Tax Authority officials also contributed to the rankings. Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira inherited most of his fortune from his father, Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira, who was murdered last year by a follower in Beersheva. The fortune of Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira’s uncle, Rabbi David Hai Abuhatzeira is estimated at NIS 750 million. Many national and local politicians pay homage to the rabbi at his court.

Gur Rabbi Yaakov Arie Altar is ranked in third place, with a fortune of NIS 350 million. The Belz Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach is in fourth place, with a fortune of NIS 180 million. Rabbi Nir Ben-Artzi is in fifth place, with a fortune of NIS 100 million, followed by Rabbi Yaakov Ifargen, with a fortune of NIS 90 million, and Rabbi Yeshayahu Pinto, with a fortune of NIS 75 million. Many rabbis actively participate in the business world as partners in or owners of companies. Leading rabbis also invest in capital markets and in real estate in Israel and other countries.

Rabbi David Hai Abuhatzeira is considered a financial expert, with real estate and stock investments in Israel and around the world.

Israeli minister: I will retire if forced to pay non-Orthodox rabbis’ salaries

Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi responds to announcement that Israel is prepared to recognize Reform, Conservative rabbis; MK Shelly Yacimovich, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and Gerald Skolnik also respond.
By Yair Ettinger, Haaretz 29.05.12

Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi said Monday that if he is forced to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis, he will request permission from Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to immediately retire from his position.

The Shas MK’s declaration followed an announcement that Israel is prepared to recognize Reform and Conservative community leaders as rabbis and fund their salaries. Rabbis belonging to either stream will be classified as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities.”

Financing of non-Orthodox rabbis will be the responsibility of the Culture and Sports Ministry and not the Religious Services Ministry, according to a deal between the State and the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. In addition, non-Orthodox rabbis will not be employed directly by the local authorities, but will instead receive financial assistance.

At this stage, there will only be 15 listed “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” that are eligible to receive equal payment of their Orthodox counterpart, and the move will only apply to regional councils and farming communities, without extending to large cities.

In response to MK Yaakov Margi’s announcement, President and CEO of Hiddush For Religious Freedom and Equality, Rabbi Uri Regev, that “Only in an Israeli reality, where inside the government and coalition there still exist representatives who refuse to assimilate democracy and the rule of law and are striving for a halakhic state, can the religious services minister announce that he continues to oppose the decree of law and instructions of the attorney general.” Regev added that “It is regretful that it took years for the attorney generals to recognize the state’s obligation to act in the spirit of equality.”

Opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich, who is also Labor party chairman, responded to Israel’s willingness to recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis as an important turning point in the relationship between the State and all streams of Judaism in Israel and around the world. The move “advances pluralism and tightens the ties between Israel and the Jews of the world, particularly American Jews,” said Yacimovich, adding that “The Labor party observes Orthodox Judaism, but is of the opinion that there is room for expression of all streams of Judaism.”

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), head of the lobby for Civil Equality and Religious Pluralism, praised the attorney general’s announcement, calling it a “significant step in the challenge for pluralism and freedom of religion.” Horowitz accused the ultra-Orthodox of hijacking Judaism in Israel and using it as a political tool to create countless jobs. “The time has come to recognize all streams of Judaism and release it from the grip of the haredi politicos,” he added.

The head of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement Rabbi Julie Schonfeld said, “This is a historic day for Israelis and Jews around the world.” Schonfeld added, “In order for Judaism to grow and thrive in Israel, it is necessary that the government recognize its obligation to provide equal funding to various Jewish religious streams and expressions that flower in the Jewish state.” “The announcement of Israel’s Attorney General Weinstein represents a dramatic step forward in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel”, said Rabbinical Assembly president Gerald Skolnik, who also stated that he hopes the decision would invite new spiritual and Jewish opportunities that “will strengthen Israel, and bring Israelis to a new appreciation of Jewish tradition.”

Habayit Hayehudi Chairman, who is also Science and Technology Minister, Rabbi Daniel Hershkowitz, said that it doesn’t make sense for decisions regarding the Jewish identity of Israel to “be determent by legal advisors and state officials.” At a political conference in Ra’anana, Hershkowitz continued, saying that “as they cannot decide who is eligible for an academic degree, they cannot determine who is entitled for the title ‘rabbi’.” Hershkowitz stated that he will call a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address “the gravity of the matter.”

Israeli orthodox rabbi stirs up racism debate
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes BBC News,

Tzfat, northern Israel —From a pine-covered mountaintop in the far north of Israel, the Sea of Galilee is just visible through the mist below. This is the idyllic setting for Tzfat, as it is known in Hebrew, or Safed, as Arabic-speakers call it, a holy place for Jews. It is said to have been founded by a son of Noah after the great flood.

In the past few weeks it has also become famous for a decree made by its chief rabbi who instructed residents not to rent rooms or houses to Israeli Arabs. In his little, stone house in the heart of the old city, I meet 89-year-old Eliyahu Zvieli. He moved here after fleeing the Nazis during the Second World War. Now he has been condemned by the rabbi for renting part of his house to three Arab students.

“I went through the Holocaust,” he says. “I know how much we suffered as Jews because of anti-semitism, so I cannot accept such an opinion.” Far from being cowed, the old man is angry. “The rabbi’s salary is paid by the state so when he expresses opinions like this it is like he spitting on the same plate that feeds him,” he declares.

Threatening behaviour
One of Mr Zvieli’s Arab tenants, Muhammad Hamoudi, was born in a nearby village and came to Tzfat to study nursing at the medical college. The fact that he is an Israeli citizen means nothing to those who want him and his fellow students out.

Eliyahu Zvieli has received threats for renting Israeli Arab students including Muhammad Hamoudi “People have called the house and threatened to attack, they said they would burn it down if we don’t leave,” he says. In the past 10 years, Tzfat has seen a large influx of ultra-orthodox Jews many of whom believe that Jews and Arabs cannot, indeed must not, live together.

Shortly after the latest controversy began big, white posters started appearing all over the city. One reads: “Don’t rent rooms to Arabs. Don’t give work to Arabs. Don’t give Arabs any foothold in our community.”

Most have now been taken down, but the man who inspired them is still the local chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu. He is completely unrepentant. While the chief rabbi refused repeated BBC requests for an interview, a fellow rabbi did agree to a meeting. “The Bible tells us that Jews should not give a place to Gentiles. Israel is the land given to the Jews by God, anyone else is here as a guest,” states David Lahiani.

Endangering secular state
The Israeli government has generally kept quiet about what many would consider a blatant case of racism against the country’s Arab minority. But minister for minorities, Avishai Bravermann, is an exception.

“We are in a battle against forces who do not accept the basic concept of liberal democracy,” he tells me. “They are endangering the state of Israel as a liberal democratic state.”

With an extremely high birth-rate, Israel’s ultra orthodox community is the youngest and fastest-growing segment of its Jewish population. Their beliefs are a direct challenge to Israel’s secular democracy and to the 20% of Israel’s population that is Arab.

Rabbi calls for annihilation of Arabs

Rabbi Yosef is known for his outspoken comments
BBC news

The spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has provoked outrage with a sermon calling for the annihilation of Arabs.

“It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable,” he was quoted as saying in a sermon delivered on Monday to mark the Jewish festival of Passover.

Rabbi Yosef is one of the most powerful religious figures in Israel, He is known for his outspoken comments and has in the past referred to the Arabs as “vipers”. Through his influence over Shas, Israel’s third largest political party, he is also a significant political figure. As founder and spiritual leader of the political party Shas, Rabbi Yosef is held in almost saintly regard by hundreds of thousands of Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.

The Palestinian Authority has condemned the sermon as racist and is calling on international organisations to treat the rabbi as a war criminal.

‘Arab terrorists’
Rabbi Yosef said in his sermon that enemies have tried to hurt the Jewish people from the time of the exodus from Egypt to this day.

“The Lord shall return the Arabs’ deeds on their own heads, waste their seed and exterminate them, devastate them and vanish them from this world,” he said.

Shas spokesman, Yitzhaq Suderi defended the rabbi, saying his remarks referred only to “Arab murderers and terrorists” and not the Arab people as a whole.

‘Stirring up hatred’

Palestinian cabinet minister Hassan Asfur urged international civil institutions and human rights organisations to consider Rabbi Yosef a war criminal in future. The utterances were “a clear call for murder and a political an intellectual terrorism that will lead to military terrorism”, he said in remarks reported on Palestinian radio. He added that no punishment would come from Israel “because its political culture and action are in line with [the rabbi’s] racist statements”.

Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit also condemned the sermon, saying: “A person of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s stature must refrain from acrid remarks such as these.” And he added: “I suggest that we not learn from the ways of the Palestinians and speak in verbal blows like these.” Salah Tarif, the only Arab cabinet minister in the Israeli government, also criticized Rabbi Yosef, saying “his remarks add nothing but hatred”.

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