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Netivot, Israel - Israel's Richest Rabbis Become Savvy Businessmen

Published on: July 13, 2012 08:23 AM
By: AP
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FILE -In a Thursday Jan. 26, 2012 file photo a Jewish woman stands next to pictures of rabbis for sale near the tomb of the Baba Sali, Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, during the annual pilgrimage to his grave on the 28th anniversary of his death, in the southern Israeli town of Netivot. Over the past few decades, dozens of rabbis have carefully positioned themselves at the fulcrum of Israeli power and influence. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)FILE -In a Thursday Jan. 26, 2012 file photo a Jewish woman stands next to pictures of rabbis for sale near the tomb of the Baba Sali, Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, during the annual pilgrimage to his grave on the 28th anniversary of his death, in the southern Israeli town of Netivot. Over the past few decades, dozens of rabbis have carefully positioned themselves at the fulcrum of Israeli power and influence. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

Netivot, Israel - One summer night, on the outskirts of a sleepy desert town, a who’s who of Israel’s elite gathered for an annual feast to honor a rabbi whose gaze is said to pierce the soul.

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He’s Rabbi Yaacov Israel Ifargan. But he is better known as, simply, the X-ray.

Over the past few decades, he and dozens of other rabbis have carefully positioned themselves at the fulcrum of Israeli power and influence. They have attracted throngs of adherents - most notably some of the country’s top business moguls, who pay top shekel for an audience with their rabbi to solicit blessings and discuss business matters.

These magnates have helped fuel the rise of a rabbinic aristocracy whose members have channeled the donations they receive into multi-million-dollar empires. After gaining experience dishing out advice to Israeli tycoons, the rabbis have become shrewd businessmen themselves, managing hefty investments in stocks and real estate at home and abroad - with much of their earnings allegedly kept far from the watchful eyes of Israeli tax collectors.

Their chief critic calls them swindlers and frauds, and some fellow rabbis are critical of their practices.

The Israeli edition of Forbes magazine published a first-of-its-kind ranking last month of Israel’s 13 richest rabbis. In the number one spot was 36-year-old Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira from Beersheba, a blue-collar southern desert city, whose wealth is estimated at $335 million. The X-ray rabbi placed sixth, with an estimated net worth of $23 million.

“Every single shekel brings about true peace,” announced the X-ray rabbi’s half brother, Rabbi Hayim Amram Ifargan, from the dais at the recent gathering, in a gentle nudge to the crowd of VIPs to continue their support.

He, too, is a part of the Ifargan family franchise. His spiritual adherents call him “The MRI.” In the women’s section behind a laced divider sat “The Arbitrator” or “The CT,” Ifargan’s millionaire sister Bruria Zvuluni, a go-to spiritual counselor who claims to have mediated feuds between Israeli crime kingpins. Though she is not a rabbi, she made it to the bottom of Forbes’ list.

In a Sunday July 1, 2012 photo,  Rabbi Yaakov Israel Ifargan, right, known as the 'X-Ray' rabbi for the belief he has the ability to diagnose patients by eyesight only, sits next to businessman Nochi Dankner, left, at the annual gathering of the rabbi's followers and supporters in the town of  Netivot, southern Israel. Over the past few decades, Ifargan and dozens of other rabbis have carefully positioned themselves at the fulcrum of Israeli power and influence. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)In a Sunday July 1, 2012 photo,  Rabbi Yaakov Israel Ifargan, right, known as the 'X-Ray' rabbi for the belief he has the ability to diagnose patients by eyesight only, sits next to businessman Nochi Dankner, left, at the annual gathering of the rabbi's followers and supporters in the town of Netivot, southern Israel. Over the past few decades, Ifargan and dozens of other rabbis have carefully positioned themselves at the fulcrum of Israeli power and influence. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Cozying up at Ifargan’s long table were lawmakers, one of Israel’s top lawyers, and two of Israel’s wealthiest businessmen: Menahem Gurevitch, chairman of a leading Israeli insurance company, and billionaire Nochi Dankner, head of Israel’s largest holding company and a close confidant of Ifargan for the last 14 years. The Israeli army’s chief rabbi and a top police commander were there, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his blessings in a recorded video message.

Rabbis who make fortunes for themselves and encourage others to make money with their blessings draw the wrath of some fellow Jewish clerics.

“It’s disappointing when religion descends to this,” said Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman institute, a modern Orthodox Jewish learning center in Jerusalem. “It’s not some channel of divine power for personal wealth accumulation. That’s small religion.”

Most rabbis in Israel are not raking in millions. They are instead salaried government employees, assigned by Israel’s official rabbinate to perform religious rites for the Jewish public such as marriages and burials, or to enforce Jewish dietary laws in restaurants and hotels.

They are nowhere near the level of the high-flying spiritual gurus like the X-ray.

Such gurus set up public office hours in their homes to receive Israelis on all rungs of the social ladder, as long as they come with cash. In exchange, adherents receive amulets and little pieces of paper containing the rabbi’s personalized blessing. The most successful rabbis have founded charitable institutions and small religious seminaries, which act as conduits for the incoming cash flow.

Menachem Friedman, an expert on Orthodox Judaism and professor emeritus at Bar Ilan University, says religious Jewish businessmen since the 19th century have solicited rabbis’ blessings for cash to ensure their success - though today the sums have reached unprecedented amounts.

“If the market is dangerous and shaky, the millionaires who benefit from that market have less confidence. They need these rabbis to give them that security,” Friedman said.

The country’s richest rabbinic dynasty is the Abuhatzeira family, scions of the revered Baba Sali who left Morocco for Israel in 1963, gaining a following among Israel’s large Moroccan and Middle Eastern Jewish immigrant population. The Baba Sali died in 1984, but his portrait - a shriveled face wrapped in a white shawl - still graces the walls of Israeli homes, businesses and falafel stands.

His grandson, Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira, became the richest of them all, building himself a three-story villa said to include an events hall, deluxe guest rooms for important donors and an underground tunnel allowing him safe passage to his synagogue and office across the street, according to journalist Yossi Bar-Moha, who says he obtained the house plans from the Beersheba municipality.

Bar-Moha published a series of exposes in Israeli dailies accusing the rabbi of cheating his followers into believing he had no money in the bank, and violently threatening some to pay up.

The Israeli police’s national fraud squad opened an investigation in the late 1990s, discovering $125 million in his personal account. He reportedly reached a settlement with Israel’s tax authorities to pay a fraction of what he owed them.

Last year, a desperate adherent whose donations to the rabbi hadn’t improved his lot stabbed Rabbi Abuhatzeira to death. His son, Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira, inherited his wealth and his spot at the top of Israel’s affluent rabbinic aristocracy.

“These rabbis are charlatans, swindlers and cheaters. They have no real knowledge. And people eat it up,” said reporter Bar-Moha, who heads Tel Aviv’s journalists’ association.

An Israeli tax official, speaking anonymously because of the issue’s sensitivity, said in the past two years tax authorities have approached some 20 religious figures, requesting earnings reports. Some rabbis have been investigated for tax fraud. No convictions are known, but some have reportedly reached settlements with Israeli tax authorities.

Reached for comment, advisers of some of the rabbis profiled by Forbes either would not comment on the income estimates, or said they were wrong but would not provide other figures. A spokesman for Rabbi Ifargan said his charitable institutions and received donations are above board.

At the end of the feast, adherents followed Rabbi Ifargan up a hill to pray at the hulking stone pyramid that houses his father’s grave. Ifargan emerged from the tomb surrounded by paparazzi, bodyguards and a host of followers shouting out requests for the rabbi to pray for their health and for their children to find a good match.

When an Associated Press reporter asked the rabbi the secret to his success, Ifargan stopped. The 46-year-old rabbi with a pointed jet-black beard and brimmed hat fixed his gaze for a few moments, cocked his head up toward the heavens and shrugged.

Then his bodyguards whisked him into a black Mercedes-Benz, and they sped off.


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1

 Jul 13, 2012 at 08:28 AM UseYourHead Says:

People get the leaders they deserve.

2

 Jul 13, 2012 at 08:34 AM bubii Says:

Hopeless dupes thats what theese people who follow him are.

3

 Jul 13, 2012 at 09:17 AM DACON9 Says:

if you would pay to lunch with donald trump or bill gates then certainly you should pay for Rabbis spiritual advise withhoned business insight whether through the rabbis meetings with the wealthy or because of his spiritual gifts or both.
ALL WEALTH IS FROM GD.
For donnie hartman to insult, to disparage leadership whether rabbis or secular shows that you should not follow hartman.

4

 Jul 13, 2012 at 10:00 AM Shtarker Says:

This report really shakes me. For those whom Hashem has blessed with a keen mind and an outstanding hinuch, the best schorah should be the Torah.

5

 Jul 13, 2012 at 10:09 AM charocza Says:

nobody ever talks about how many people have been helped by these tzadikim, they work all hours of the day they have hardly any family life they are totally devoted to the community at large i know from experience and other people's experience stop letting jealousy be contronling issue and the media found another subject to get people against the rabbis and the chareidim this is all it is
look who is behind this article AP which stands for the Associated Press they are investigating rabbis let them go look into the church this is small money compared to what is going on in the church or even better let them go look into the arabs what they do with the oil money
what are they looking into rabbis all of sudden this is the same double standard like everything else holding our rabbis to highier standards than clergy from other religions
i hope we learn to find things to unite us and divide us and increase our beleif in hashem so that we can go to him directly without any intermediary

6

 Jul 13, 2012 at 10:22 AM Anonymous Says:

If a rabbi is loaded, he probably did not give enough tzedakah.

7

 Jul 13, 2012 at 10:23 AM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #4  
Shtarker Says:

This report really shakes me. For those whom Hashem has blessed with a keen mind and an outstanding hinuch, the best schorah should be the Torah.

Right. They are entitled to make a living from brachas but to become rich from them seems arrogant and excludes most other people.

P.S. most mekubalim who claim magic powers are fakes.

8

 Jul 13, 2012 at 10:45 AM Shtarker Says:

Reply to #5  
charocza Says:

nobody ever talks about how many people have been helped by these tzadikim, they work all hours of the day they have hardly any family life they are totally devoted to the community at large i know from experience and other people's experience stop letting jealousy be contronling issue and the media found another subject to get people against the rabbis and the chareidim this is all it is
look who is behind this article AP which stands for the Associated Press they are investigating rabbis let them go look into the church this is small money compared to what is going on in the church or even better let them go look into the arabs what they do with the oil money
what are they looking into rabbis all of sudden this is the same double standard like everything else holding our rabbis to highier standards than clergy from other religions
i hope we learn to find things to unite us and divide us and increase our beleif in hashem so that we can go to him directly without any intermediary

Your 'logic' makes no sense: Other religious leaders behave inappropriately so why can't ours do the same?

9

 Jul 13, 2012 at 10:58 AM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #5  
charocza Says:

nobody ever talks about how many people have been helped by these tzadikim, they work all hours of the day they have hardly any family life they are totally devoted to the community at large i know from experience and other people's experience stop letting jealousy be contronling issue and the media found another subject to get people against the rabbis and the chareidim this is all it is
look who is behind this article AP which stands for the Associated Press they are investigating rabbis let them go look into the church this is small money compared to what is going on in the church or even better let them go look into the arabs what they do with the oil money
what are they looking into rabbis all of sudden this is the same double standard like everything else holding our rabbis to highier standards than clergy from other religions
i hope we learn to find things to unite us and divide us and increase our beleif in hashem so that we can go to him directly without any intermediary

Well said charocza...

The only thing I would like to add is...

You are 100% right that a lot of the secular media constantly tries to find wrongdoings by our Rabbis and Klal Yisroel as a whole. And certainly there are churches and arabs that do way worse with their money than us.

We always have and always will be "picked on" and singled out by the media.

For the above reasons we as Yidden should be more careful and be that much better than other nations. We were given a tremendous gift and we should take advantage of it.

10

 Jul 13, 2012 at 11:07 AM PowerUp Says:

Well its obvious which people go to those rabbi's , people who do not want to fix them self in yiddishkeit, since those rabbi's don't ask anything but cash.....so its clear that those things have nothing to do with yiddishkeit, I would not even call them swindlers, because they do provide a service, just it has nothing to do with hashem. Or what hashem wants from a rabbi

11

 Jul 13, 2012 at 11:09 AM PowerUp Says:

People don't realize, that its not a swindle, they do have powers, and the powers could come from kabalic sources, and they can even be a "parush" or have a very high level of "prishes" and still have nothing to do with hashem, L'havdil, there are some goyim who have those powers.

12

 Jul 13, 2012 at 11:48 AM Anonymous Says:

Bar-Moha has a very big axe to grind. His family were minor rabbonim in Morocco who did not get very far in EY. So, while he may be on the mark about some of the fakes, he also disparages Baba Sali ZYA, who even said that tap water was as worthy as his water if you have true emunah. (He did not charge for the water or for his arak either - he himself was very depressed when his true heir Baba Meir ZYA passed away before him as he knew the rest of his descendants were not worthy.)

The Gerrer Rebbe's wealth is not from his rebbisteve. He lives simply and has his assets under private management.

13

 Jul 13, 2012 at 11:58 AM Anonymous Says:

When the rabbi has a nice home and a nice budget to travel to places to bring his truth (I hope) to our people, that is good and fine. When the rabbi starts to become showy or otherwise ostentatious, he has lost faith with Hashem and needs to be discarded as a true spirit in our faith overall with the ideas we need to promote Torah. But wait folks. Hashem has a plan for all of us. It could be a set up to test Israel or it could be a downfall of the justly starlight seeking rabbinic voice. Either way, I have not given a thought to this matter much before but perhaps I have not seen too many rabbis driving Rolls Royces yet.

14

 Jul 13, 2012 at 01:20 PM Anonymous Says:

I think it is very unlikely that Hashem intends for you to save to go to a rabbi to get the answers. If you can not have a normal rabbinical relationship, the idea of a rabbi being paid high fees to be your rabbi squeaks of total disregard for your own neshama. I would think that no matter how desperate your own personal situation seems in your eyes, the idea of an extortionary levitation of health or being is not the way to go. But of course, your troubles might be so bad that even that might merit health and honor in the high halls of the heavens. But realize that your own prayer and your own charity and service is what Hashem regards as trying and not your connections that you pay for especially.

15

 Jul 13, 2012 at 01:49 PM ShmuelG Says:

Why are all the rabbis mentioned in the article sfardi?

16

 Jul 13, 2012 at 03:51 PM Love Davka Says:

Reply to #11  
PowerUp Says:

People don't realize, that its not a swindle, they do have powers, and the powers could come from kabalic sources, and they can even be a "parush" or have a very high level of "prishes" and still have nothing to do with hashem, L'havdil, there are some goyim who have those powers.

He's worth tens of millions of dollars and you call him a "parush"! How can anyone be so gullible?

17

 Jul 13, 2012 at 03:53 PM Love Davka Says:

Reply to #15  
ShmuelG Says:

Why are all the rabbis mentioned in the article sfardi?

The Belzer Rebbe and the Gerrer Rebbe are also among the top 10 wealthiest rabbis (but, as you point out, they are not in the article).

18

 Jul 13, 2012 at 04:22 PM Stainless Stephen Says:

Reply to #15  
ShmuelG Says:

Why are all the rabbis mentioned in the article sfardi?

"Why are all the rabbis mentioned in the article sfardi?"

Because they are cleverer than the vusvusim in making money.

19

 Jul 13, 2012 at 04:50 PM Brighton Beach Belz Says:

Some 'rabbonim' worship the all mighty dollar more than the 'ALL MIGHTY ABOVE'.

20

 Jul 13, 2012 at 05:41 PM catzin Says:

They are all fakes. Who ever goes to a mekubal or to a baba. Do some homework check out who these people are. ? they don't give penny for no one shame on them

21

 Jul 16, 2012 at 01:47 PM ActualJew Says:

my grandfather-in-law was raised a gerer in poland. he said that the rebbe's chasidim excelled in business and came from all over the world for brachot. he would tell them to make him a 10% partner in any deal. if they were successful, they sent money to his massive yeshiva/kollel/shul. if they were not, it was G-d's will (and he did not help to pay their debts).
pretty sweet, actually....

22

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