a man kisses the hand of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, center
Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, adviser to the rich and famous, says allegations are lies by former worker trying to extort him.
Among the posh crowd who summer in the Hamptons, on Long Island, is one of Israel's most prominent rabbis, Yoshiyahu Pinto. Pinto heads up Shuva Israel, an international network of charities, yeshivas and other religious institutions. In August 2008 and in April 2009 he stayed at rented accommodations at 29 Lily Pond Lane, for which his nonprofit organization paid $70,000 and $40,000, respectively. The second stay was just one week.
Why did a nonprofit dedicated to religious study pay to rent a home in the Hamptons for its head? That's just one of many questions that Pinto's critics in Israel and the United States are asking. Pinto's lifestyle does not suit a rabbi, certainly not one who heads a charity, they say.
Pinto told Israel's Channel 2 television this week that he was facing an extortion attempt that involved the publication of all these details about his life.
The rabbi has built a name for himself as advisor to the rich and famous, in spiritual as well as business affairs. He reportedly advised Ilan Ben Dov in the latter's acquisition of a share in Manhattan's Lipstick Building, as well as control of Partner Communications (Orange).
Pinto recently denied to associates that he ever offered business advice, yet documents that TheMarker's has obtained show the picture is not so clear. Shuva Israel had a clear relationship with the Israeli expatriate Haim Revah's company Metropolitan Real Estate Investors, which owns a share in the Lipstick Building. For a while the nonprofit was housed in Metropolitan's offices.
Metropolitan, which invests in real estate for its customers, at one time presented Pinto as an adviser. The company stated in a letter to a potential customer that the rabbi would determine what share of profits the potential customer would receive. And in January 2009, Metropolitan President Jacob Abikzer asked the company's contact in Russia to transfer $50,000 to a New York bank account registered to the rabbi's wife, Deborah Pinto.
Associates of Pinto said neither he nor his wife ever had a business relationship with Metropolitan. They said both are on the Shuva Israel payroll exclusively.
Revah did not respond to a request for comment.
There are other questions hovering over Pinto, who splits his time between Ashdod and New York. Documents obtained by TheMarker indicate that in May 2009 his organization paid $110,000 for three pieces of diamond jewelry at a Madison Avenue store.
Another document shows a $50,000 purchase of watches at a Jacob and Co. store in Manhattan. This week, Channel 2 reported that the nonprofit spent a total of $600,000 on watches. Other receipts show it spent $9,300 on suits for Pinto.
Blessing for $6,000
Even without the jewelry Pinto's lifestyle could be considered ostentatious. He lives in an NIS 11 million mansion on the Ashdod beach that Jay Schottenstein, the Jewish-American owner of American Eagle Outfitters, bought for him. The rabbi is registered as having residential rights to the home. He maintains a central Manhattan townhouse that is registered to the nonprofit.
Pinto makes frequent flight, nearly always in first class, to teach at Shuva Israel's centers in Argentina, Bulgaria, Miami, Los Angeles and other locations.
He recently told associates that everything being published about him lately was part of an extortion attempt by a former volunteer involved in the nonprofit's finances and administration - areas Pinto says he never handled. The ex-volunteer embezzled millions of dollars from the nonprofit, causing it financial problems, Pinto reportedly said.
He reportedly said the FBI and the international and serious crimes unit of the Israel Police have been investigating the case for a year and a half. The Israel Police denied the existence of any such investigation.
Pinto reportedly said the former volunteer was friends with a New York media professional, and that the two were attempting to extort the nonprofit and businessmen close to Pinto. The two threatened to publish intimate details about Pinto and his wife, and to slander them in the U.S. media, Pinto reportedly said.
Pinto has been the subject of critical news articles in the American Jewish media. In March the Jewish Daily Forward reported that his nonprofit was in financial trouble. Pinto told associates that the former volunteer purchased the watches and other jewelry for his own family and had rented the Hamptons home even after Pinto was offered free accommodations elsewhere.
As for why Pinto stayed at the expensive home, Pinto's associates said he wanted to be near his wealthy donors.
Sources in New York who are familiar with Pinto's accusations and his alleged extorters said the rabbi's claims are unfounded. A former employee of the nonprofit said Pinto blamed the organization's financial irregularities on people he fought with.
At least one former employee said the nonprofit was aggressively in pursuing donations from American businessmen.
"I know one very successful U.S. businessman who received a blessing from Pinto," said someone who formerly worked with Pinto in New York. "The following day his representatives showed up at the businessman's office and asked for a donation. 'No problem,' he said, and wrote them a $500 check. But they responded, 'The minimum donation is $6,000.' He called me and said, 'What the hell is going on here,'" the source said.
Associates of the rabbi said in response that if these stories were accurate they were perpetrated by the former volunteer, without Pinto's knowledge.
Jerusalem of gold
Pinto, 39, is popular among the general public as well as Israel's movers and shakers, and has also worked his way into the Jewish business community in the United States.
His closest associates from Israel's business community are Ben Dov and Jacky Ben Zaken. Yitzhak Tshuva, Nochi Dankner and Shari Arison, among other business powerhouses, are known to visit him. He has also received visits from politicians including Yisrael Katz, Tzipi Livni, Eli Yishai, Uzi Landau, Isaac Herzog, Yoel Hasson and Shaul Mofaz.
For someone who says he doesn't consume media, Pinto also has quite a lot of well-placed associates in journalism.
Pinto told associates that he intends to contend for the post of Israeli chief Sephardi rabbi in about a year, "to continue my work as a rabbi and my good works," he reportedly told them.
The first sign that something was amiss in the rabbi's life came in August, when a dispute with his father-in-law, Argentina Chief Rabbi Shlomo Ben Hamo, came to light. That in itself was unusual in the Haredi world.
In a declaration to the Jerusalem District Court Ben Hamo said his daughter Deborah [Pinto's wife] had asked him to open a bank account in Argentina for her and her husband. Money to buy a $1.1 million luxury home in the Jerusalem of Gold project, in downtown Jerusalem, was deposited into the account, he said.
Ben Hamo's statement was filed in response to a lawsuit against him by project developer Yoram Shechter, who claimed Ben Hamo owed him $722,000 on the apartment.
Ben Hamo told the court his daughter and her husband were the apartment's true owners. He said Deborah had pressured him into signing as a guarantor for their loan.
He told the court he made a deal with them and with Shechter in 2007 and that the father-daughter relationship had only declined since then.
"I was the target of insults and threats. In retrospect, it became clear to me that all this happened so that I could be exploited and Rabbi Pinto's money could be laundered," he wrote.
In September a compromise was reached: The apartment would be registered in the Pintos' name, and Ben Hamo would retract his accusations of money-laundering. Associates of Pinto called the decision a major victory, but figures close to Ben Hamo said he, too, got exactly what he wanted - the court ruled the apartment was not his.
The affair has since caught the attention of the Israel Tax Authority, which is reviewing the court documents but said it has not launched a criminal investigation against Pinto.
Pinto told associates this week that he has nothing to fear because both the U.S. and Israeli tax authorities received all of the nonprofit's paperwork as part of their investigation into the extortion affair.