A large contingent of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community met with President Reuven Rivlin at his official home in Jerusalem Monday to request his help in securing the release of a Haredi man imprisoned in the United States for embezzling millions.
While it is not uncommon for religious leaders to meet with the president or the prime minister, a meeting at the President’s Residence or one featuring so many representatives has not taken place in recent memory.
The meeting was attended by the rebbes of the Ukrainian Hasidic dynasties of Vizhnitz and Rachmastrivka, the head of the Lithuanian Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party and other ultra-Orthodox dignitaries. Plans for the meeting were kept under wraps until it was already underway, the Haredi news site Kikar Hashabat reported.
Two of the rabbis who took part in the meeting — the rebbe of Rachmastrivka and Rabbi Ben-Zion Gutfarb of Jerusalem’s Masmidim yeshiva — are affiliated with Haredi movements that do not recognize the State of Israel.
“Those present at the meeting were the most important rabbis there are, the top of the line,” Yitzhak Ravitz, the acting mayor of the Haredi Beitar Illit settlement who is married to Rivlin’s chief of staff, told Haaretz. “The meeting was cordial, and it’s clear that there was chemistry between the president and the rabbis. The president is very connected, comes from a very traditional background. His connection with the rabbis is very real, and he knows the terminology. The rabbis felt they had a partner.”
The ultra-Orthodox representatives discussed with Rivlin the general needs of the Haredi community, asking that he encourage politicians to seriously consider the community’s requests and not indiscriminately reject them, Kikar HaShabat reported. The group also discussed the president’s own family relation to the Vilna Gaon, the “saintly genius from Vilnius” who established modern Lithuanian Judaism.
The conversation then turned to the case of Rabbi Mordechai Samet. Samet, who lived in the ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryat Joel in New York State, was found guilty in 2002 of illegally obtaining $4 million through a variety of schemes and frauds, including filing false death claims and soliciting money for fictitious lotteries, and was sentenced a year later to 27 years in jail. At the time of his sentencing, US District Judge Colleen McMahon called the case “extraordinary” due of the scope of the frauds committed and “the chutzpah of the people committing them.”
“Mordechai Samet lived a life of unremitting fraud. For many years Mordechai Samet’s life has been completely dedicated to the pursuit of crime. He defines the word ‘racketeer,'” she said.
But the ultra-Orthodox leaders requested that Rivlin, who wore a yarmulke throughout their visit, make a special plea to the United States government to request leniency for Samet, who has already served nearly half of his sentence. Rivlin explained to the gathered rabbis and community heads, however, that the issue was not under his control, Haaretz reported.
But Ravitz still saw the meet-up as crucial to maintaining a relationship between the ultra-Orthodox community, which can be perceived by secular Israelis as insular and aloof, and the country’s political leadership. “The importance of the meeting is in its having taken place,” he said.