A former chief rabbi of Israel remained invited to speak at a conference Thursday on the “Dignity of the Rabbinate in Israel” two days after pleading guilty on Tuesday for accepting millions of dollars in bribes. Amid a public outcry, the rabbi chose to cancel his appearance, however.
Yona Metzger had been invited to speak at the conference, in the central Israeli city of Kiryat Ono, prior to the finalization of Tuesday’s plea deal. The invite remained in force, but Metzger canceled his appearance Thursday morning after news of it caused a public backlash.
Metzger, who was Ashkenazi chief rabbi from 2003 to 2013, reached a plea deal in the bribery case, admitting to fraud, breach of trust and tax offenses in exchange for a reduced prison sentence of three and a half years.
In addition to the prison term, Metzger will be required to pay a fine of NIS 5 million ($1.3 million), and an apartment in his name in central Tel Aviv will be foreclosed.
Last year, following a lengthy investigation, the Jerusalem District Court charged Metzger with accepting some NIS 10 million ($2.58 million) in bribes. He was accused of keeping NIS 7 million ($1.8 million) for himself.
Ratzon Arusi, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono and a member of the Chief Rabbinate who is responsible for organizing Thursday’s conference, told Army Radio Thursday morning that he disagreed with the decision to invite Metzger to speak and only learned he had been invited to the conference a day earlier.
“The fact is I am embarrassed [Metzger] was invited,” Arusi said, adding, “I don’t think [the invitation] is appropriate.”
Rabbi Yosef Shloush, who chairs an organization of settlement rabbis that invited Metzger to speak, was quoted by the Walla news site as saying Metzger was invited over two months ago and that, at the time, “he was [only] suspected [of bribery].”
Shloush added, “Until last night I did not know anything about the plea deal,” noting Metzger had called him Thursday morning to tell him he would not be attending.
Tzohar, a group of moderate Orthodox rabbis, harshly condemned the conference’s decision to invite Metzger, saying in a statement Thursday that “the fact that Rabbi Metzger was even invited to address a session on enhancing honor for the rabbinate is deeply regrettable and should be construed as nothing less than complete disregard for Torah, morality and the integrity of our community.”
The now-disgraced Metzger stepped down as chief Ashkenazi rabbi on July 24, 2013, just before the end of his 10-year term in office.
His decision came after Israel Police’s National Fraud Unit, also known by its internal police moniker, Lahav 433, opened a months-long investigation into alleged scams linked to Metzger involving millions of shekels of funds purportedly siphoned into his accounts. The case was then handed to the Jerusalem District Attorney’s office, which examined it before passing it on to then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein, who brought the charges against Metzger.
Police said Metzger had stashed about $200,000 with his sister in Haifa, and a search of his home turned up NIS 40,000 (over $11,300 at the time) 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 claim to be untrue.
According to the indictment, various nonprofit organizations connected with the rabbi during his term in office received millions of shekels in donations, some of which Metzger allegedly took for his personal use.
In addition to profiting from donations to charitable causes, he was also accused of taking bribes meant to sway his opinion on matters he attended to as chief rabbi.