For the past 15 years, a large number of French-speaking immigrants to Israel, likely numbering in the thousands, have found employment in call centers selling products to French speakers overseas. Many of these call centers are fraudulent, as documented extensively by The Times of Israel.
Frequently, they misappropriate customers’ money without providing the promised product, whether it is advertising, online investments, diamonds, insurance, cryptocurrencies or a plethora of other fraudulent offerings. Israeli law enforcement has only sporadically cracked down on such call centers, usually at the behest of the French government, creating a vacuum that has allowed this fraudulent call center industry to flourish.
In recent months, however, a number of rabbis and leaders of the French-speaking community in Israel have spoken out against these call centers, to the relief and praise of many in their communities.
In late May, a prominent Chabad rabbi in Netanya issued an urgent plea to parents to keep their children away from French-speaking call centers in the city.
“At this moment many teenagers, starting from the age of 13 have started working in call centers after school,” this rabbi, who has asked The Times of Israel not to name him in this article, wrote in a WhatsApp message that circulated in the city during the last week of May.
“Please pay attention to your kids,” he urged, stressing that many of the businesses were engaged in unethical activities.
“Many of these call centers are not in accordance with Jewish law. Even if the call center where your child works is in accordance with Jewish law, there is always the risk that they will meet a bad person who will constitute a bad influence for them.”
This rabbi, who declined to be interviewed for this article, serves as a rabbi for French-speaking youth in the coastal city under the auspices of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
He concluded his WhatsApp message by stating that while he cannot tell parents what to do, he is worried.
“This message is strictly my personal opinion, but I am very disquieted about all the young people of this city. It is my duty to warn you.”
The week of kosher work
Last March, a group of prominent French-speaking rabbis and startup entrepreneurs launched “The Week of Kosher Work” with lectures held throughout France and Israel on topics like “What the Torah has to say about the world of work,” “Lies and Abuse of Confidence” and “The Meaning of the Commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal,’” A Facebook page for the initiative encouraged people who had worked for a scam call center but left after realizing it was immoral to speak up.
On March 10, the French-language website Torah-box.com contributed to the initiative with the publication of a short film in French dramatizing the experience of a man who gets a job in a call center, becomes more and more adept at scamming clients, becomes accustomed to an expensive lifestyle, only to learn that one of his clients has died as a consequence of the scam.
Several commenters on the video thanked Torah-Box for “breaking the taboo” around this subject in the French community.
“It would be a lie to deny that the French communities in France and in Israel are nourished by this dirty money,” one such commenter wrote. “Many people take their money and sweep the scandal under the rug pretending not to know anything. Charities must stop taking money from anyone suspected of this activity.”
Up to 2,000 shekels for a Torah class
Another prominent French-speaking rabbi, Haim Dynovisz recalled to The Times of Israel his own experience denouncing French-speaking call centers five years ago. His efforts to combat the scams made him the target of multiple death threats.
“I fell into their trap in 2014. In my case it was with forex, which is one of the many villainies carried out by French immigrants. These companies would pay rabbis from NIS 1,000 up to 2,000 per class ($280-$560) to teach a Torah class once a week [at the companies’ offices]. That’s a lot of money for Israel. We were all naive. A large company in Tel Aviv contacted me and I accepted the offer. It seemed legitimate to me. All the employees were wearing kippot. They were religious people or at least disguised as religious people.”
Dynovisz said that after giving several lectures at the forex company, a few of his students in Jerusalem took him aside and persuaded him that forex is a scam.
“Do you understand where you are setting foot? It’s forex, it’s forex,” they kept repeating.
Dynovisz was eventually persuaded, and the next time he went to the forex company, he gave a Torah class condemning forex as a scam.
“Most of the people in the class began to cry. The managers gave me killer looks. Finally I was asked to stop speaking and escorted out of the building.”
Dynovisz said he soon realized that this forex company was but one of many such fraudulent companies throughout Israel.
“I realized that apart from this company there were many others all over Israel, wherever French immigrants live. I grew very upset and posted videos denouncing forex on my website.”
As a result, Dynovisz said he received a large number of death threats and threats of violence, though he has never been physically attacked. Dynovisz said he is not afraid because he is skilled in Krav Maga.
In addition, Dynovisz has raised hackles among his fellow rabbis who continue to accept lucrative offers to teach Torah in forex and other call centers. Some of those he spoke with justify the activities of these call centers, he said, by citing a Talmudic passage that says a Jew is not required to return a lost object to a non-Jew. According to this logic, the victims of the call centers “lost” their money, as opposed to having it taken fraudulently, and since they are not Jewish, there is no obligation to return it to them.
“This interpretation has no foundation,” Dynovisz said. “The Talmudic passage refers not to non-Jews but to idolaters, but Christians and Muslims are not idolaters. It is self-serving because these rabbis want to take money from the call center owners.”
Dynowisz, too, is surprised at the young age of people who work in call centers.
“The average age of the forex employees was very young, 20 years old, and that’s what first raised my doubts. I wondered how someone so young could earn NIS 20,000 ($5,500) a month or more.”