Uber-connected rabbi aims to end Israeli religious politics

With his tens of thousands of followers, Yoshiyau Pinto could prove a game-changer on the political scene, despite the taint of scandal surrounding him

Rabbi Pinto leads penitential selichot prayers at the graveside of the Peleh Yoe'etz in Silestria, Bulgaria (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Pinto leads penitential selichot prayers at the graveside of the Peleh Yoe'etz in Silestria, Bulgaria (Photo credit: Courtesy)

SELESTRIA, Bulgaria — A new religious movement could be just the thing to shake up religion’s role in Israeli politics. The mass movement Shuva Yisrael counts among its supporters – and potential voters – tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Israelis.

But Shuva Yisrael is not a political party, and does not intend to become one, according to the man behind it, Rabbi Yoshiyau Yosef Pinto. Speaking to The Times of Israel 30,000 feet above Bulgaria on his way to a graveside pilgrimage, Pinto said that “politics is a lie. In the future I believe that religious political parties will wither away.”

For his supporters, among whom Pinto counts some of Israel and the Jewish world’s economic, political (and underworld) elite, it’s a message powerful enough to ward off the effects of allegations of bribery, influence peddling, and even suicide that have dogged the rabbi and his family for the past year.

And in a twist for a rabbi who is seen by some of his followers as being able to perform wondrous acts, Pinto derided the rabbis who portrayed themselves as kabbalah experts capable of working miracles via charms and amulets, so popular among some groups today. “The great rabbis of the generation, the Kabbalists themselves, have said categorically that these things do not work. They are a waste of time,” he said.

Supplicants at the grave of Rabbi Eliezer Papo in Selestria, Bulgaria (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Supplicants at the grave of Rabbi Eliezer Papo in Selestria, Bulgaria (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The fact that Pinto’s maternal grandfather was Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, the Baba Sali, considered a man of miracles by many Jews around the world, does not deter him from denouncing reliance on “magic” to solve problems. “When a Jew is in need, he needs to pray and repent, and that is the way to salvation,” he said.

Born on Rosh Hashanah in 1973 in Ashdod, Pinto descends from the Abuhatzeira family on his mother’s side, and the revered Moroccan sage Rabbi Haim Pinto (1748-1845) on his father’s. He is married to Rivka, the daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Ben-Hamo, the Chief Rabbi of Argentina. Pinto studied at various yeshivas, including Ma’alot Hatorah in Jerusalem, under Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach.

When he spoke to The Times of Israel this week, Pinto, along with about 700 of his followers, was on his way to the grave of Rabbi Eliezer Papo, referred to as Peleh Yo’etz (“Wondrous Advice”), which is the title of Papo’s best-known work. This is the 13th year that Pinto, often called “Rabbi to the Tycoons” thanks to his close relationship with moneyed followers inside Israel and abroad, has made the trek to the gravesite.

“Rabbi Papo is a rabbi who speaks to this generation,” said Pinto. “He balances observance with positive relations and kindness between people, and this is something the generation today needs to hear badly.”

While the penitential prayers (selihot) he planned to lead at the gravesite could be recited just as well inside Israel, or indeed anywhere, “we draw spiritual strength from our rabbi,” Pinto said. “In his writings, he said he would from heaven help those who ‘do him a favor’ by remembering him at his gravesite.”

That grave is in the rural Bulgarian city of Selestria, where Rabbi Papo is remembered by locals (there is a small museum dedicated to his memory in City Hall) for the wonders he is said to have accomplished there. His latest “wonder,” said Pinto, is to serve as a unifying force for Jews from all backgrounds. “We have secular, religious, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Hassidic, and all other sorts of Jews who join together to celebrate Rabbi Papo’s life.”

Cooks prepare food at a Shuva Yisrael soup kitchen in Ashdod (Photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Cooks prepare food at a Shuva Yisrael soup kitchen in Ashdod (Photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

That fits right in with Shuva Yisrael’s agenda, which, said Rabbi Yossi Elituv, an Israeli journalist and Pinto’s media liaison, is to “unify all Jews wherever they are.” More than an educational and social service group, Shuva Yisrael has turned into a type of modern Hassidic movement, with Pinto at its center. “We accept all people, no one will ever turn a cold shoulder to someone who does not wear a kippa or dress in a certain way,” said Elituv. “Our emphasis is on encouraging people to perfect the way they treat each other, the ‘man to man’ commandments.”

It’s a philosophy that appeals to many. Shuva Yisrael counts at least 20,000 people in Israel and abroad as direct members (those who regularly attend functions or donate money), “but our circle of influence includes as many as 120,000 people,” said Elituv. Pinto himself is an extremely popular figure; his weekly radio lecture draws more listeners than the one conducted by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas political party, according to ratings issued by the radio stations Pinto is heard on. Pinto splits his time between New York and Ashdod, and has many followers in the US.

Pinto counts among his followers mayors of several cities (including Ashkelon, Kiryat Malachi, and Lod), political and media figures (disgraced former Ehud Olmert aide Shula Zaken was on the trip), and businesspeople (Jay Schottenstein and George Soros are among the “regulars,” said Elituv).

Less heralded but prominent on this week’s trip were alleged members of Israel’s organized crime elite, among them members of the Harari family and associates. All Jews deserve a chance to be part of the Jewish people, according to Shuva Yisrael’s approach. “We don’t check the fringes of anyone to see if they are ‘kosher’ or not,” said Elituv.

Street scenes in Selestria (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Street scenes in Selestria (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Generally the event draws as many as 2,000 people, but because of the coincidence of the pre-High Holiday days with the August vacation season, Shuva Yisrael could only arrange for flights to Varna, Bulgaria (the airport closest to Selestria) several days before Yom Kippur, “a time when many of those who would have participated were too busy. But it was important for us to do this during the High Holiday period,” he said.

The group’s main activities, said Elituv, are feeding the hungry, running Torah classes, and operating yeshiva programs for married men (kollelim). “On Rosh Hashanah and Passover we feed about 15,000 people with food packages and holiday meals, and we provide thousands of packages for the needy each week.”

The group operates kindergartens and yeshiva programs for post-high school students — the same population the state is seeking to persuade and/or force to join the IDF. As far as Pinto is concerned, “any student who is not learning seriously should be working or going to the army.”

Pinto defies the stereotype of a mass movement religious leader. “All of the ‘techniques’ people use to get God to grant them favors are not allowed,” and that includes the popular method of relying on the merit of a dead righteous man to “get in good” with Heaven, said Elituv. “Personal effort and prayer is a must for everyone. We are against these tricks.”

Pinto does not include holding prayers at a gravesite in that category; the idea of such a trip is to inspire participants to strive for their own personal perfection. “That’s what we teach,” said Elituv. “We try to make sure that point is well understood.”

It’s a point that Yaakov Emanuel, deputy mayor of the settlement city Ariel and a follower of Pinto’s for 20 years, understands well. “It’s true that you could hold these prayers in a synagogue in Jerusalem, but the traveling is just an excuse to be with the rabbi and to be inspired by him. You need the experience, the atmosphere. Some people can learn ethics and proper behavior by studying, but many cannot. The idea of getting on a plane and going far away to say prayers brings people closer to Judaism than if they just went to a synagogue to hear a speech.”

The stories of financial mismanagement and corruption that have dogged Pinto over the past year or so have not deterred Ariel’s faith in him as a leader. “Very often people like the rabbi are surrounded by less than scrupulous people looking to benefit somehow,” Emanuel said. “Regardless of the stories, it does not take away one bit from the wonderful work that he does, the people that he feeds and the unifying force he has become.”

That sentiment was echoed by at least a dozen other participants who weighed in on the matter. In a speech after prayers at the gravesite, Pinto fretted over the headlines, saying that he deeply regretted that his name had been involved in any scandal, “even though we have done nothing wrong and have no reason to feel bad.” Nevertheless, Pinto said, he felt he had to make up for it and correct the negative perception of himself and his organization, “and we will do so in spades during the coming year.”

Last year, the FBI opened an investigation into followers of Pinto’s who exceeded campaign contributions for a New York congressman, Michael Grimm. Former US representative Anthony Weiner, who is close to Pinto, said the rabbi had previously complained to him that Grimm had been blackmailing him, and that he had alerted the FBI to the allegations. A Pinto follower was said to be behind the extortion attempt, with Pinto claiming that he had been threatened with a “smear campaign” if the rabbi did not persuade his wealthy followers to donate to the Grimm campaign. Grimm has denied the charges, although one of the organizers of the extortion scheme recently pleaded guilty to visa fraud related to the fundraising scandal. In the wake of the FBI investigation, Pinto was investigated in Israel as well.

For believers in Pinto’s ways, it’s going to take a lot more than stories like these to derail their faith. Many of them feel they are onto something big — a “revolution,” as Pinto himself terms it.

Among the travelers to Selestria were as a wide a variety of Israelis as one could hope to see – bareheaded teens in T-shirts and shorts, well-coiffed designer-dress-clad women and girls, ultra-Orthodox bewigged women and behatted men and boys, religious Zionist knitted-kippah wearers, long-nailed women in jeans, prosperous looking businessmen, street toughs — and, of course, the aforementioned mobster-types.

Speaking off the record, a photographer for an international news organization who accompanied the group said that although he was not observant himself, the rabbi’s brand of Judaism was the most appealing he had found. “Although my forbears were very religious, having lived in Jerusalem for 18 generations, I find myself disillusioned with much of organized Judaism today. But I am a great admirer of Rabbi Pinto; his ability to unify all Jews and lack of a political agenda is the most refreshing thing I have seen in the Jewish world in many years.”

Rabbi Pinto (Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Rabbi Pinto (Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Of course, there are limits. Pinto is no reformer, and doesn’t accept the Reform, Conservative, or other approaches to Judaism — as independent streams, that is. “We accept all Jews as they are, as individuals,” Pinto said. “All Jews belong to Judaism. We don’t believe in stigmas, and we also don’t believe in labels. They are just there to divide people. That’s why this is such a revolutionary movement.”

That revolution includes a complete change in the paradigm that has guided Israeli politics over the past few decades — the one that has a large secular (or more correctly, general interest) party allying with one or two religious (Zionist, ultra-Orthodox, or combination thereof) parties to form a government. In this deal, the large party handles the “heavy stuff,” like security and finance, while the religious partner tends to social (and of course religious) issues.

But that paradigm is coming to an end; Israelis have had enough of it and are looking for a change, and that change, said Elituv, will be the one Pinto and Shuva Yisrael bring about. “We don’t have any enemies, and we get along with everyone, but our concepts make some people uncomfortable,” he said. “We don’t believe in the idea of religious parties. Religious people should be, and are, a part of all segments of Israeli society, including its political segments.

“All our services are geared towards everyone — we don’t feed only religious poor people, for example. The mayors who support us are supposed to take care of everyone and everything in their city,” and that goes for the national level too, Elituv said. “Rabbi Pinto has no match in Israeli society today. His revolution is advancing quickly. If the Messiah does not come before then, Shuva Yisrael will be a major force in all of Israeli society five years from now.”

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