Rabbis in Blue

They paid thousands of shekels to a yeshiva, studied Torah a few hours a week and after two years, hundreds of policemen earned the title of rabbi - and got a salary increase. Most of these "rabbis" are actually secular and many don't even have 10 years of schooling. Some of the country's best known rabbis have been implicated in the affair, now being probed by the Police Investigation unit.

M.'s turn came this past August. Like 580 other policemen around the country, he knew that in the end, the Police Investigation (PI) personnel - from the unit that investigates suspected wrongdoing within the police force - would get to him, too. M., who is with the Afula police, got entangled in what the police are calling "Latvia Affair 2" (referring to the dubious degrees awarded by the local branch of the University of Latvia to senior officials?). Again there are dubious titles that translate into hefty salary boosts, but this time it's not just a matter of an academic degree. This time the police under investigation received the title of rabbi. They have become rabbicops.

"Someone on the force decided that policemen should be a little more intelligent," M. said this week. "We were sent to study Judaism and get a degree that would increase our salary by NIS 2,000 a month, gross. People went. I was one of three or four groups that studied in a beit midrash [religious school] in Beit She'an - I don't even remember what it was called. Tuition was NIS 15,000, and we had classes twice a week. We studied for two years. We did three or four external exams. In some cases our teachers were soldiers. We were supposed to study for 24 months, but after 20 months you could already get the salary hike. The diplomas were sent from National Headquarters and we received the extra pay four months before the end of the studies. My diploma says that I was ordained as a rabbi for salary purposes only."

Senior police sources confirmed this week that three parallel investigations are under way. One, by the National Unit for Fraud Investigations, is dealing with the institutions that issued the rabbinical titles; a second, by PI, is investigating the 700 or so police graduates of these studies; and the third, being conducted by Military Police Investigations, is concerned with 600 personnel from the career army, on similar suspicions. PI has so far questioned 400 of the approximately 700 rabbicops; according to sources involved in the investigation, it will continue for many more months.

The investigations have led to dozens of rabbis and religious teachers, including some of Israel's preeminent rabbis. Those who have been questioned and have given testimony included Rabbi Yitzhak Ohana, former director of the unit for examinations and ordination in the Chief Rabbinate and now the bureau chief of Rabbi Yisrael Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv; Yaacov Gross, the chief rabbi of the Israel Police, and his deputy Aharon Gottesdiener, who took early pension in the wake of the investigation; Meir Rosenthal, from the staff of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger; Yosef Eliahu, the son of former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, from the Darkei Hora'ah educational institution; Rabbi She'ar Yishuv Hacohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa and head of the Ariel network of institutions; Rabbi Benayahu Bruner, head of the Safed hesder yeshiva (combining religious studies with military service); and individuals close to the chief rabbi of Be?er Sheva, Rabbi Yehuda Deri, who organized study groups in his school, Kol Yehuda, in return for payment.

Bring money, get diplomaThe case of the rabbicops was discovered by chance. In 2002, a Border Policeman was facing a disciplinary hearing on domestic violence charges. A senior officer in the disciplinary unit at police National Headquarters who went over the Border Policeman's file noticed something odd: the man's salary slip stated that he was getting an increment because he had a degree. And not just any degree, either, but a rabbinical degree. The senior officer, not understanding how a secular person could be a rabbi, sent a memo about the matter to Avi Werzberger, who was then a senior member of PI. Commander Werzberger began to look into the affair. He discovered that 580 such rabbis were listed in the Israel Police, most of them secular.

At first it sounded like a joke. The PI personnel could hardly believe their findings: hundreds of policemen, the majority holding junior posts as patrolmen, warehouse staff and even mess hall workers, many of whom did not even have 10 years of schooling, were ordained rabbis. They were serving in the north and south of the country and in Jerusalem. Werzberger ordered an intensive investigation, which is now being conducted by his successor, Commander Alex Or.

PI discovered that between 2000 and 2002, about 600 Israel Police personnel had registered to study Judaism. The studies were held in a number of institutions for fees ranging from NIS 10,000 to NIS 15,000, which each person paid out of his own pocket. At the conclusion of the studies, the policemen received a diploma signed by Rabbi Yitzhak Ohana, then a senior official in the Chief Rabbinate, stating, "Rabbi [name] studied for five years in high yeshivas and passed examinations as required. By the directive of [Sephardi] Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi Doron, shalita [may he live long and happily], the above rabbi is eligible for a diploma as the possessor of high Torah education." The document adds, "This diploma does not constitute qualification for serving in the rabbinate in practice."

When PI personnel asked how it was possible to squeeze the five years of study cited on the diploma into two years, they were told that the policemen had studied for 35 hours a week, which was the equivalent of five years of study. In practice, the rabbis who were questioned and the policemen themselves did not hide the fact that none of them had attended so many weekly classes. "At most," says a source who is involved in the investigation, "they studied four hours a week, eight hours a week, and in some cases not even that much."

Sources close to the investigation said this week that not only were most of the rabbicops secular, they also showed great ignorance about the subjects that were taught. Asked basic questions about the content of the subjects they studied, they replied that they could not remember. Some of them could not identify photographs of the city rabbis who were supposed to have examined them orally.

The police believe that the various colleges and other institutions involved raked in hundreds of thousands of shekels from the studies by the policemen and the soldiers. To illustrate, the annual revenues of the yeshiva run by Rabbi Bruner, in Safed, plummeted by NIS 179,000 in 2003. The audit issued on behalf of the Registrar of Associations states that according to the yeshiva's director general, the shortfall is due to the fact that "in 2002 the association gave a course for members of the security forces. That course was not given in 2003." This represents almost a quarter of the yeshiva's revenues from tuition for that year. Bruner and members of the yeshiva's administrative staff were questioned in the case. According to informed sources, about 80 policemen from the north and 40 career army personnel studied at the yeshiva. ("I was not involved in that program," Rabbi Bruner said this week. "We taught policemen Torah subjects in our center and they received ordination not from us, but from the Chief Rabbinate.")

The investigators have receipts for the tuition fee paid by the policemen - who covered the expense through the extra monthly salary, which also goes toward their pension. By a rough estimate, this amounts to millions of shekels from the state coffers. "It was pure commerce," a senior police officer sums up. "You brought money, and after two years you got a diploma and everyone was happy."

Sources in the State Prosecutor's Office take a grave view of the affair. Two meetings were held there in the past year, with the attendance of the ranking personnel in the department and in PI, to "formulate strategy." "It was decided to deprive the policemen of the money and the benefits, because not one of them actually studied," says a prosecution source who is involved in the investigation. "In contrast to the Latvia affair, which was extremely complicated, things in this case were straightforward. Either you attended the 35 hours of classes or you didn't. And they didn't. In practice, not one of the policemen was able to show that he did the 35 weekly hours. And anyway, these are secular people. What kind of rabbis?"

Sources in the state prosecution note that they are now preparing for a situation in which policemen who will not receive the extra salary and other rights for the studies will turn to the High Court of Justice.

Everyone wanted a sliceThe whole affair started back in 1998 and was marked by struggles and intrigues among some of Israel?s leading rabbis. "This is a story involving high emotions within the rabbinate," says Rabbi Ohana. Underlying it is the old rivalry between Shas party spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef - Rabbi Bakshi Doron is from his camp - and former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, who is considered the spiritual leader of the national-religious right in Israel.

According to Ohana, "The story started when Rabbi Bakshi Doron authorized a course for a group from the yeshiva of Rabbi David Yosef." A source in the Chief Rabbinate relates that "Yosef came with a proposal that there were policemen who wanted to take courses, that this would advance their career." Sources in Shas say that Yosef's course was coordinated with the public security minister at the time, Avigdor Kahalani, and with a few senior police personnel.

However, Rabbi Eliahu's institutions soon realized the potential and sought authorization to give their own courses. Rabbi Bakshi Doron and Rabbi Eliahu sparred over these courses - even the attorney general at the time, Elyakim Rubinstein, intervened in Eliahu's favor - and in the end the Chief Rabbinate Council authorized it, sources say.

The impression is that there was great eagerness to be involved in this. What is the interest in regard to policemen and career soldiers?Ohana: "They made money from it. They had schools. They made money. What are you talking about?"

According to a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, the initial demand was for the students to pass exams of the Chief Rabbinate even for the partial title. However, "afterward they started to bypass that." The legal adviser of the Chief Rabbinate at the time, attorney Menachem Yanovsky, says that there were "allegations that some of the students were secular and that the courses had become money machines."

Even though the problematic nature of the courses was clear to the Chief Rabbinate - or maybe precisely because of that - its officials are quick to impute responsibility to the Israel Police. "Who came up with the idea for the courses?" Ohana asks, and replies, "The police - the initiative came from them. Period. The police are feigning innocence here. They came to Rabbi Bakshi Doron in 1998 and said, 'Let's set up a school to train students.' The p-o-l-i-c-e. Rabbi Bakshi Doron tried to stop the plan but they pressured him and pressured him. It was imposed on the rabbinate. That is what happened. That was a time of peace, when the police had a surplus budget. Not like today, when there is a shortfall. They looked for a way to give the police a bonus. And from that, all this Latvia and all these bad troubles began. Those ills all began from that."

So what you are saying is that the police started it and now is investigating itself?"Without a doubt, without a doubt. Incidentally, the police are investigating because PI coerced them. You have to understand - top people in the police were involved in this in one way or another, in the studies, in the schools, in the lectures .... Why did the police authorize it? Does a policeman in rabbinical studies become a better policeman? There are police documents: 'Please hurry, please speed things up.' They expected that the policemen would complete the studies within a year. They wanted everything done fast, fast - for them to complete the studies and get the titles within a year."

Why did you sign diplomas stating that they studied for five years? They studied for two years, and only a few hours a week."That is not the point. It's not that. That is less important. They brought documents that they would complete the studies and some of them did study for five years. That did not interest the police. It did not interest them whether they studied for a minute or an hour. It didn't interest the army, either, and there are documents about that. Everyone is now telling you half-stories, because the police are already fiddling with this for years. It is transferred from one [investigative] team to another and they are looking for where the mistake was made and where the flaw is. Everyone is now looking for others to blame. Every six months they wake up and call you and ask, 'Why was it like this? And why was it like that? And who said what?' And they go around splitting the hairs of hairs."

What did you tell the interrogators?"I gave them the details. Why it was so and why it was like that, who did what. Because it was all documented, you know. What am I, after all? I am an official who received orders. There are hundreds of people who were involved in one way or another, and millions of witnesses. It is not something that was done in secret. After all, who was all the paperwork about the rabbinical training sent to? To the police. Let's not make people out to be all that stupid."

Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi Doron, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi: "I was against authorizing these courses. There was a majority in favor in the Chief Rabbinate Council. A committee that the council appointed set criteria according to which only a person who had been a chief rabbi could give the courses."

Oded Wiener, director general of the Chief Rabbinate: "The Chief Rabbinate holds ordination examinations for the rabbinate which are known for their quality and strictness. Anyone who does not pass them cannot serve as a rabbi." The members of the security forces, of course, did not pass the rabbinate examinations. Even though Wiener has held his post since 2000, he maintains that the events under investigation occurred before he became director general.

Ask the Chief RabbinateOne of the best-known bodies whose staff was questioned in the rabbicops case is Darkei Hora'ah, under the aegis of Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, a former Sephardi chief rabbi. Among those questioned was his son, Rabbi Yosef Eliahu, who is in charge of the rabbinical courses of the institution and serves the head of its kolel (yeshiva for married men).

Also questioned was Rabbi Meir Rosenthal, who is described as the organization person of the institution's rabbinical training courses and is now the bureau chief of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Metzger. Rosenthal said this week that he will not comment until the investigation is concluded and emphasized that the investigation is dealing with a period before Rabbi Metzger became chief rabbi.

"The investigation has been proceeding lethargically for three years and so far has not produced anything incriminating against my clients," says attorney Zion Amir on behalf of Darkei Hora'ah. "My clients have undergone a serious and uncalled-for perversion of justice." He added, "The Darkei Hora'ah institutions held a study program that was approved by the authoritative bodies. My clients cooperated in the investigation, responded to questions and did all they were asked in order to help advance it." According to Amir, the fact that the investigation has been leaked to the newspaper has about it "the smell of a political investigation that was born against the background of the forthcoming elections."

The investigation that led to Darkei Hora'ah started in a religious school in Beit She'an where Rabbi Meir Ruyemi taught about 100 policemen. "We taught for two years according to the authorizations," Ruyemi said this week. "We are being bothered for no reason. And we also took token payments."

Did the policemen really come to study with you?"They studied for two years. I teach in Darkei Hora'ah, I am a branch of Rabbi Eliahu's Darkei Hora'ah. All the responsible individuals are in Jerusalem. In Rabbi Eliahu's kolel. Talk to Rosenthal."

What kind of diploma did the policemen get?"It is a diploma of two years of study. In the Chief Rabbinate it is compatible with the title of rabbi, but without ordination. The person will not be able to be a rabbi or a mashgiah [supervisor of kosher food] tomorrow. They studied for a salary increment.

"The police asked why we did not teach for five years, like in law school. They asked me why the Rabbinate wrote that they studied five years and we stated that we taught for only two years. I told them, 'Why are you asking me? Go to the Rabbinate.' Our directive was to teach the policemen for two years, and the army, too. The Rabbinate told us that the diploma is as though compatible with a rabbi who completed five years. As though."

Counting hours in the synagogueAnother well-known religious network whose staff was questioned is Ariel - Centers for Torah and Judaism. Its head is Rabbi Hacohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, who was visited in his office by PI personnel to take testimony. The deputy rabbi of the police, Chief Superintendent Aharon Gottesdiener, was also connected with the Ariel institutions.

Gottesdiener was arrested in March 2003 on suspicion of bribe-taking; namely, that while he was a rabbi in the police Northern District he taught at Ariel and urged policemen to study at the institution. His son received a scholarship at the time, and police sources say that his daughter also worked there. Gottesdiener took early retirement from the police a year ago. People close to him said this week that when the investigation began, he realized that his career had come to an end. He was given the option of suspension until the investigation ended, or retirement; he chose the latter.

One of his confidants said this week the rabbi had shown the investigators that the students in the college studied 35 hours a week, as required. "He brought directives of the Rabbinate showing that the studies include hours of self-learning in the synagogue and he showed that the students also counted hours of learning on their own in the synagogue - exactly according to the Rabbinate directives."

Gottesdiener himself chose not to comment for this article. His lawyer, Shuki Stein, said that he will be pleased to respond to the allegations after the police investigation concludes.

Gottesdiener's boss, Aharon Gross, the police chief rabbi, has also been questioned several times by PI. It was Gross who by his signature authorized the salary increment for the policemen "rabbis." He was the one who forwarded to the payroll unit the document on which he signed that the person in question was entitled to a quasi-academic rank and to the commensurate salary. A source involved in the investigation describes Gross as the person who shut his eyes in this story.

The police spokesman stated in connection with Rabbi Gross' interrogation: "In regard to Rabbi Gross, the investigation is still ongoing in PI. No material was ever received by the police concerning Gross which would make it necessary to consider disciplinary measures against him."

Rabbi She'ar Yishuv Hacohen, who heads the Ariel network, also gave testimony. "There were no cases in which people received a degree without studying and passing a test," he said this week. Hacohen says he opened the courses in order "to help the members of the security forces." For the institutions, he says, "There was more outlay than income. We charged a low price." All the students, he says, arrived at the recommendation of an army or police chaplain and were required to participate in three classes week, and the school was strict about attendance. Some, he said, finished after one year, but it took most of them two years. All the graduates, Rabbi Cohen says, were examined by three rabbis, of whom two were chief rabbis of cities. To reach the five years cited in the diploma, he says, ?previous years of study were added on. In general we accepted people who had studied in a yeshiva or taken a course of a local rabbi."

The chief rabbi refused to signYet another well-known figure in the case is Rabbi Yehuda Deri, the chief rabbi of Be'er Sheva and a brother of former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri. PI personnel visited his school, Kol Yehuda, where dozens of army and police personnel studied. Their studies were coordinated by Rabbi Ofer Ohana, who was questioned half a year ago. That investigation was launched by PI, but the material was also made available to the Military Police, as most of the students involved were from the army.

"I set up a network of Torah studies throughout the city," Rabbi Deri said this week. "Within that framework I was approached by Rabbi Ofer Ohana, who told me, 'Your honor, there is a serious group in the city who would like us to arrange Torah lessons for them so they can learn what is permitted and what is forbidden.' These are studies for which it would be appropriate to receive a diploma. I told him, 'If we have good enrollment, why not?' In the first course we had about 60 guys from the army. They studied for three years, twice a week. Serious studies, with exams. In regard to payment, I told Ohana that with me they will not pay. Anyone who wants can donate a token amount directly to the yeshiva. Maybe a third donated. After that we started more courses."

Rabbi Deri says he has not been questioned, though Rabbi Ofer Ohana was summoned for questioning six months ago. "He brought them all the personal files of the students. It seems to me that they came away with a positive impression," Rabbi Deri says.

"We said all the time that the studies are not for a degree, but purely for Judaism studies" Ofer Ohana explains. "We said we are not a college and we do not issue diplomas. We give Torah lessons. With us it is known that studies are solely for the sake of Torah."

However Boaz Tairi, who teaches in the beit midrash, has a somewhat different account. "I taught there," he says. "The class I taught was the last one that was able to get in, most of them policemen and a few soldiers. They came because they knew that until a certain date it was still possible to study Judaism for a degree. After that the army and the police no longer recognized the studies. I taught every Monday and Thursday, each lesson four hours, in the evenings. A course like that lasted three years."

What kind of diploma did they get in the end?"All told they received the subject of 'prohibited and permitted' and a 'yoreh yoreh' diploma after being examined and succeeding in the studies. There is a concept that a person who studies halakha [Jewish religious law] and afterward is tested on it and succeeds can teach in that subject, and that is called 'yoreh yoreh.' They were tested and succeeded."

Haaretz is in possession of a diploma that was given to a senior NCO in the Israel Defense Forces which is signed by Yitzhak Ohana and lists Rabbi Yehuda Deri as one of the examiners.

A senior IDF officer said this week that the Military Rabbinate has conveyed to the Military Police all the files of those who received a rabbinical degree for salary purposes. According to the IDF, the Military Police can investigate only those who received degrees but not the institutions that trained the rabbi-NCOs. "On that subject we are dependent on the civilian police."

Since 2000, the chief army chaplain, Brigadier General Yisrael Weiss, has refused to sign the diplomas of the graduates of the rabbinate courses. According to IDF sources, when he took over as chief chaplain he stated that he would refuse to sign, because "a rabbi is someone who serves as a rabbi and not an NCO in a workshop or in the personnel administration. They are not rabbis." It was decided in 2000, at Rabbi Weiss' initiative, that rabbinical studies would be recognized only for those who serve as army chaplains. But the implementation of this decision ran into snags. Many of those who took the courses had study authorizations from the army and the degree could not be denied to them. As a result, the decision was not implemented until March 2001.

The army set tough criteria for recognizing the rabbinical studies, insisting on three authorizations: a study authorization from the personnel unit, an authorization from the institution and a certificate from the Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Weiss still refused to sign, even for those who met the criteria, and the head of the Personnel Directorate appointed another officer to sign in his place.

Today, according to an IDF source, the phenomenon of rabbinical studies for salary purposes "no longer exists." Nevertheless, and despite the investigation, those who were recognized are continuing to receive the salary increment.

The IDF Spokesperson's Office stated in response: "The Military Police is conducting an investigation into the matter of the rabbinical titles. When it is concluded, the findings will be transferred to the Military Advocate General?s Office."

We were wrongedThe rabbicops affair is deeply embarrassing to the Israel Police. The rabbicops themselves are especially angry. They and their colleagues say that it was clear to everyone from the outset that the studies were solely for the purpose of a salary increment. The view in PI is that the policemen involved will face only disciplinary proceedings, but in the meantime their promotion has been frozen, they are being investigated and the significant hike in their monthly pay is liable to be slashed."I think we have been wronged," says a policeman who works in the mess hall of a station in the north and obtained a rabbinical degree. "Our whole class in the course was interrogated."

"We are talking about hundreds of policemen who studied and now are suspected of committing a criminal offense," says the chief of a police station in the north, whose men are under investigation. "I do not say that they are guilty, heaven forbid. PI says that the policemen knew they were doing something wrong, that they knew it wasn't really a degree. My policemen are now coming to me and saying, 'No way: we were told to go twice a week for two years and that it is worth a degree.' Someone did not tell them the truth about these studies."

"Suddenly, after two years, they came to everyone who studied with the allegation that we should have studied for five years and not two," M., from the Afula station, relates. "I was summoned to an interrogation and questioned for 45 minutes. They showed me documents connected to the college in Haifa. I didn't know what they wanted from me. If I had known, I would not have invested so much money and time. During the interrogation I struck up a conversation with the interrogator. I told him, 'I am a cop and you are a cop. You know how much effort we put into the studies. You know how much a cop makes. A rookie policeman gets NIS 4,000. So what's the deal?'"

A., from the Beit She'an station, adds, "A few months ago I was summoned to a PI interrogation. Another 10 from the station were questioned with me. I can tell you one thing: whoever went to study got an authorization from the police saying it was all right. Everyone knew what it was all about, that it is a rabbinical title only for salary purposes. I have no authority when it comes to kosher food or marrying people. None of us really thought of becoming a rabbi. They came and told me that I should have studied five years for the degree. 'What five years,' I told them, ' could have studied medicine in five years.'"

The Justice Ministry response: "The investigation is now being conducted and we are unable to provide details."

Jonathan Lis provided reporting for this article.