Corruption Trial of Israel's Former Chief Rabbi Begins

Yona Metzger is accused of running a conversion racket for money and charging tens of thousands of dollars to appear in a Holocaust Day ceremony in Poland.

Sharon Pulwer
Sharon Pulwer
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Former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, sitting on the bench,  at the opening of his trial on bribery charges.
Former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger at the opening of his trial on bribery charges. Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Sharon Pulwer
Sharon Pulwer

The trial of former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger on charges of bribery, fraud and other offenses opened in the Jerusalem District Court yesterday.

Metzger is charged with taking bribes of more than eight million shekels ($2 million), as well as theft, fraud, breach of trust, conspiring to commit a crime and money laundering. His personal driver, Haim Eisenstadt, allegedly served as the middleman for most of the bribes.

But having opened, the trial promptly recessed until July 1 to give the defense time to examine the prosecution’s evidence, which includes 150 file folders and two years’ worth of wiretaps. The actual hearing of evidence won’t begin until next January.

The indictment accuses Metzger of accepting $500,000 in cash in honor of his son’s wedding, another $500,000 in exchange for giving a billionaire a blessing to buy a private plane, and $150,000 to convert the children of a Russian oligarch. No decision has yet been made on which of the bribe-givers to indict.

Part of the case relies on a state witness, whose name is under gag order.

The indictment includes five main counts. The first charges Metzger with taking bribes from wealthy individuals who wanted to convert relatives or to get them declared Jewish. Metzger worked his conversion racket together with Rabbi Gabriel Cohen, the head of a Los Angeles rabbinical court. The converts paid Cohen, and he would give half the money to Metzger.

One of Metzger’s converts was the wife of a Russian millionaire who immigrated to Israel. She had converted in Germany, but the Israeli rabbinate didn’t recognize her conversion, so she was denied Israeli citizenship. Metzger sent her to Cohen to convert, and they split the $120,000 fee.

Vladimir Sloutsker, a former head of the Russian Jewish Congress, paid $360,000 to have Metzger and Cohen convert his children, who had moved with him to Israel. Alexander Mashkevich, a Kazakhstan Jew, paid $300,000 for his wife’s conversion.

The second count charges Metzger with fund-raising for various organizations while not telling donors he was keeping some of the money for himself – a fact the heads of the organizations did know. For instance, one Israeli living abroad thought he was donating $375,000 to an Israeli charity, Chasdei Shabbat, but half the money went to Metzger. Metzger also took a 30 percent cut of the hundreds of thousands of shekels he solicited for another charity, Beit Hatavshil.

The third count accuses Metzger of accepting payment in exchange for blessings or attending conferences. For instance, Mashkevich paid him $50,000 to attend a conference of religious leaders in Kazakhstan. Metzger received another $150,000 for officiating at the marriage of Mashkevich’s daughter in France and attending an event in honor of the president of Kazakhstan. In addition, he received tens of thousands of euros in cash for attending a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in Warsaw organized by a German Jewish philanthropist.

The tycoon who paid him $500,000 to bless his purchase of a private plane, Telman Ismailov, later asked Metzger to appoint a crony as rabbi of the community of Caucasus Jews in Israel, which Metzger did. In addition, Mashkevich and Michael Mirilashvili, who jointly own the Israeli television station Channel 20, paid him $250,000 each – in five cash installments – when Metzger’s son got married.

The fourth count accuses Metzger of stealing donations to a yeshiva that operated out of the synagogue where he presided when he was a local rabbi in Tel Aviv.

Finally, he is accused of tax evasion and money laundering for concealing all this income from the authorities, and of suborning a witness by promising unspecified compensation to his driver, Eisenstadt, if he would lie to police investigators.

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