The corruption trial of former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger was opened Thursday, making him the first former religious official of such lofty rank to stand accused in an Israeli court.
The indictment against Metzger, which was heard in the Jerusalem District Court, includes charges of fraud, theft, conspiracy, breach of trust, money laundering, tax offenses and accepting bribes.
The former chief rabbi is suspected of accepting some NIS 10 million ($2.58 million) in bribes, of which he is accused of keeping NIS 7 million ($1.8 million) for himself.
Metzger stepped down as chief rabbi on July 24, 2013, due to the pending fraud investigation, just before the end of his 10-year term in office.
In 2014 the National Fraud Unit, also known at Lahav 433, opened a several-month-long investigation that looked into alleged scams involving millions of shekels. The case was then handed to the Jerusalem District Attorney’s office, which examined it before passing it to then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein, who brought the charges against Metzger.
Police said Metzger had stashed €150,000 (about $200,000) with his sister in Haifa, and a search of his home turned up NIS 40,000 ($11,300) in cash hidden in various books. At the time, Metzger contended that the money in Haifa came from an inheritance, but the investigation found that his claim was untrue.
According to the allegations, various nonprofit organizations connected with the rabbi during his term in office received millions of shekels in donations, some of which Metzger allegedly siphoned off for his own personal use.
In addition to profiting from donations to charitable causes, he is also suspected of taking bribes meant to sway his opinion on matters he attended to as chief rabbi.
Following the short hearing, which included statements from the state prosecution and Metzger’s defense attorneys, Judge Moshe Yuad Cohen set the next arraignment date for the beginning of July to allow the defense time to review the extensive material collected during the police investigation.
Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi, whose responsibilities include running the rabbinical courts and regulating the food-supervision industry.
Metzger was voted into the prestigious position in 2003 with the support of the senior ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authority at the time.
In 2005, he was questioned on suspicion of receiving benefits from a hotel in Jerusalem in return for favors, and police recommended he be tried for fraud and breach of trust.
But the attorney general at the time, fearing an unsuccessful prosecution, decided against indicting him. Instead, he wrote a scathing report about Metzger, accusing him of lying to police and recommending that he resign immediately.
JTA and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.