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 and here. For Hebrew readers, Forbes published several other related articles: Social Protest Movement Cut Tycoons’ Contributions to Rabbis, Rabbis Amass Hundreds of Millions, Most of It Involving Fraud, How Big Money Flows to the Rabbinical Courts
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.