U.S. Prosecutors Probing Israeli Rabbi Over Fraud

Popular Be'er Sheva kabbalist allegedly defrauded American Jews out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Brooklyn District Attorney's office is investigating accusations that a popular kabbalist in Be'er Sheva has defrauded American Jews by reportedly taking hundreds of thousands of dollars for promises that he would use kabbala to help people who wanted blessings, amulets or promises to cure the terminally ill.

The complaints relate to visits by Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira to Borough Park, New York, and Englewood, New Jersey. Abuhatzeira is the grandson of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, known as the Baba Sali, whom his followers consider a sage who was able to work miracles through his prayers.

"This man is hurting people," Borough Park businessman Menachem Ellowich, 53, told the New York Post. Ellowich said he sent Elazar Abuhatzeira a check for $100,000 in exchange for a guarantee that his barren daughter would be able to conceive a child. She never did.

"He ruined my life," Ellowich told the paper. "He ruined my finances by making these promises."

The DA's office confirmed to Haaretz that the investigation is underway, but would not provide details and refused to say how many victims were involved. The Post said there were dozens of complaints from ultra-Orthodox Americans. The Abuhatzeira family refused to comment on the allegations.

This isn't the first time Abuhatzeira's integrity has been questioned. A 1997 Haaretz investigation linked several incidents of corruption to the rabbi.

"Elazar Abuhatzeira is a charlatan, con man and impostor who takes advantage of people's innocence, exploits them and brings to the verge of poverty," said Yossi Bar-Moha, who investigated the rabbi at the time and now heads the Tel Aviv Journalists Association.

Abuhatzeira's followers in Be'er Sheva defended the rabbi, whom they consider one of the greatest kabbalists in Israel.

"Our rabbi is humble and modest," one of his students said. "He would never do such a thing. It just can't be - every word he speaks is the truth."

But another Be'er Sheva resident had a different take, saying, "These rabbis make millions, live in huge houses like palaces, and then ask for donations."

The 1997 investigation found that Abuhatzeira had sold Be'er Sheva land designated for a religious girls school instead of building the school, and was not paying property tax in the Negev city.

In addition, Haaretz reported that his yeshiva of 16 students received NIS 480,000 a year from national and local government funds - enough to run the yeshiva and still have tens of thousands of shekels a year left over, Bar-Moha said. Of those 16 students, half were involved in running Abuhatzeira's affairs.

As a ploy to get donations, Abuhatzeira would overdraw his checking account by millions of shekels, then show people his account statement and ask for money, saying he was about to lose his home, Bar-Moha found. The former Haaretz reporter also said Abuhatzeira would take money to pray on others' behalf, and is now worth millions of shekels.

Thousands of people visit Abuhatzeira every week. They ask for blessings, advice and help in mending their ways. The men who visit the rabbi and the women who write him notes - he does not receive women, and has built a tunnel leading from his house to the study next door so he can go between them without confronting sexual temptation - usually leave him hundreds of shekels each for every visit or letter.

But Abuhatzeira has not been indicted for his alleged offenses.

"To my great regret, the [law] enforcement bodies [in Israel], as compared to the U.S., acted in an incompetent fashion," said Bar-Moha, adding that he believes political pressure has helped Abuhatzeira. "The income tax authorities took only NIS 20 million from him after my investigation, and the state prosecutor closed the case despite the police recommendation to put him on trial."

"The state comptroller needs to conduct a complex examination as to how the authorities reached such surprising and strange conclusions," said Bar-Moha.