Chaos at Jerusalem Rabbinical Courts After Corruption Allegations Exposed

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Israel Chief Rabbi David Lau
Israel Chief Rabbi David LauCredit: Amil Salman

The rabbinical property trusts institution in Jerusalem has been paralyzed for two months, since the deputy attorney general urged to suspend the country's chief Ashkenazi rabbi's decision to replace the head of the rabbinical court panel that deals with the trusts.

The story began in December 2018, when David Lau, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, transferred Rabbi Shlomo Shtasman from Jerusalem to a parallel rabbinical court in Tel Aviv. The move came after the Shtasman began an investigation into alleged large-scale malfeasance at the Jerusalem trusts, or hekdeshot in Hebrew.

A hekdesh is a legal entity, usually dating back to the Ottoman era, that holds property designated for a specific purpose, like educational institutions or synagogues.

The rabbinical court panel from which Shtasman was removed supervises every aspect of the property trusts, which are usually ultra-Orthodox organizations. Some of them are extremely wealthy, and turn over substantial sums of money. Several cases of corruption in the property trusts have been exposed in recent years.

About six weeks ago, Haaretz revealed a biting report ordered by Shtasman on one of the biggest trusts in the city, Hekdesh Etz Chaim. The report said that Etz Chaim’s managers had sold major assets for significantly reduced prices, and were suspected of corruption. The affair is being investigated by police. Another report had been prepared on another hekdesh, called HaVa'ad Haklali.

Behind these developments lie weeks of mutual accusations between Lau and Shimon Yaakobi, the legal counsel to the rabbinical courts regarding the management of the hekdeshot. Yaakobi has accused Lau of deciding to move Shtasman in order to stop him from pursuing his investigation, among other things.

People associated with Shtasman and sources at the rabbinical courts say Shtasman was slated to be replaced by Rabbi Mordechai Ralbag – who is Lau’s son-in-law. Ralbag is the head of the rabbinical court in Jerusalem. In other institutions around Israel, the head of the rabbinical court also heads the trusts panel.

Meanwhile, Shtasman’s position in Jerusalem is being filled by someone else who is due to retire soon.

Earlier this month a group of four legal counsels to the rabbinical court, including Yaakobi, wrote a 22-page letter to the attorney general’s office, detailing accusations against Lau and charging that his efforts to transfer Shtasman impairs the public’s trust in the institution of the rabbinical courts and in Lau, its president. They enumerated Shtasman’s efforts to impose order and supervision over historic property trusts in Jerusalem. They also claimed that canceling the special assembly for property trusts in Jerusalem has created chaos, and charged that Etz Chaim managed to evade the trusts panel’s watchful eye.

The letter of the counsels described the relations between the Ralbag family and other associates of Lau’s and the trusts at the heart of Shtasman’s inquiries.

Shtasman’s ouster will benefit all the interested parties in Lau’s close environment, they wrote; they said it not only provoked widespread public interest but also caused ripples in the rabbinical court system itself. They added that Lau’s decision was unreasonable and tainted with conflict of interest.

The legal counsels wrote that Shtasman received threats: One night, a rabbi came to his house outside of work hours and warned him that his opposition to a proposed arrangement would make life hard for him and could lead to his ouster. He was also warned that he could be framed.

Lau’s chief of staff, Raphael Altman, wrote to deputy attorney generals Ran Nizri and Erez Kaminitz last week, savaging the four legal counsels over their letter as well as Shtasman himself. The letter was a “collection of gossip, a total distortion of the facts and half-truths bordering on libel,” Altman wrote. He stated that Shtasman hadn’t been ousted but transferred to another job as the rabbinical courts reorganize, despite “very harsh” claims against Shtasman himself, including allegations of forging minutes of discussions. Altman also claimed that the former president of the rabbinical courts, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, had been in a much more acute conflict of interest regarding the Jerusalemite property trusts, but the issue was never discussed.

Altman also said that the family relations the letter-writers mentioned were remote – that the writers “outdid themselves” when they wrote that the Ralbags had a strong historic connection with Etz Chaim and the trusts. “Let us examine that strong, close historic connection. The grandfather of Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag’s father, meaning, the father of the father of the father of Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag, was elected 132 years ago to serve as spiritual leader of the Etz Chaim yeshiva,” he wrote.

Altman hints that Shtasman was named a judge only after the intervention of Shtasman’s father, who had been the personal physician of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef during his last days – and writes that a “thorough investigation” found real criminal conduct, including forgery of minutes.

Shtasman’s associates deny it, saying he had been offered a bribe, recorded the conversation and filed the record, but didn’t change the minutes.

The Justice Ministry commented that after receiving Yaakobi’s letter, Nizri held meetings with the relevant people at the rabbinical courts and at the ministry itself. It said that Nizri also talked with Lau and urged him to suspend the new appointments in light of the sensitivity of the issue and the potential ramifications, and to make time to investigate matters properly.

Nizri, Kaminitz and their teams met with Lau in early January, the ministry stated, following which the deputy attorney generals asked Yaakobi to describe the chain of events in writing, with his opinion of the issues at stake. Yaakobi did so and his letter was shown to Lau, who was asked to comment on the accusations. Lau’s answer arrived just recently and is still being reviewed. The ministry said it is aware of the delays caused in the affairs handled by the trusts and that everything is being done to examine the accusations and find a solution.

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