Rabbis and Money

All the things I could do
If I had a little money
It’s a rich man’s world” (ABBA)

A new sordid affair involving rabbis and money is headline news this morning. The head of one of Israeli Police’s elite investigative units is suspected of taking bribes from Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto and some of his disciples. The investigation is run by both the FBI and the Israeli Police and apparently involves also a congressman.

I can’t say I fell off my chair. Rabbis and money have gone together for a long time (just as the Catholic Church and money are no strangers). Specifically for Rabbi Pinto, I can say I saw this coming. Here’s the story.

Some years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Irvine, California, on an academic course. An Israeli acquaintance living there asked me if I wanted to accompany him and a friend to Los Angeles on Saturday evening, to hear a famous rabbi speak. This acquaintance of mine is not religious (far from it) but he heard this rabbi was particularly interesting to listen to and was curious to hear him.

We arrived to this building which served as a Jewish Centre and entered a very crowded hall. A band played some Jewish songs for well over an hour, while everyone waited for the rabbi to arrive. When he did, you could feel the excitement in the air. It was as if the entire place was pulsating. People clambered over each other to kiss the rabbi’s hand or touch him. When things settled down, the rabbi sat down and, with his eyes closed, remained seating silently for a few minutes. The silence was so total you could hear a coin drop onto a soft carpet.

When he did, the rabbi delivered one of the most interesting lectures I heard. I can’t remember what he spoke about, but it was around that week’s parasha (the Torah portion read in the synagogue every Shabbat) and it was fascinating to listen to. I was glad I made the trip to hear this guy speak.

But then came the most interesting part. The rabbi starting speaking about his brother, who was sitting next to him. The building we were in was apparently newly acquired and the brother was the head of the learning centre established there. The rabbi spoke of the many expenses involved in acquiring and maintaining the building and asked for those present to open their hearts and make a contribution. He said he was looking for volunteers who would commit to donating $1,000 per month for one year. Within 5 minutes he had more than 10 volunteers (quick math: $120,000).

But didn’t stop there. He kept pushing for more volunteers. A few more people raised their hands and received the rabbi’s blessing. When the trickle of volunteers died down, the rabbi asked for more, with closed eyes and a pained expression on his face. He stood there like that, not moving, until a few more heeded his plea. I don’t remember the exact number, but in about 15-20 minutes, the rabbi managed to get pledges for well over a quarter of a million dollars. I was astounded. I never saw such a thing in my life.

When we exited the building we saw two huge shiny Cadillac limousines parked outside, belonging to the rabbi and to his brother. There were a couple of burly men standing guard by the cars. I remember turning around to my Israeli friend and saying that someone who manages to raise so much money, so quickly and easily, for the sake of “charity” and yet drives around in such cars, is bound to get in trouble one day.

That rabbi was Yoshiyahu Pinto.

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