Hoop Dreams

Halakhic ruling against accepting money from a Christian-Jewish group could shatter Yitzhak David Grossman's hope of becoming chief rabbi of Jerusalem.

Yitzhak David Grossman, a rabbi who is traveling across North America with the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team for a series of exhibition games with U.S. teams and for several conferences and dinners whose proceeds will benefit his charity, has hit a snag.

The problem isn't Maccabi's expected losses, and has nothing to do with the fact that in the first game, against the Knicks, Maccabi coach Pini Gershon was removed from the court due to unsportsmanlike behavior. It's also not connected to the news that former Maccabi manager Moni Fanan committed suicide. Indeed, Grossman, who did everything he could to support Maccabi and its coach, was portrayed in the U.S. media as a nice, white-bearded rabbi, whose only desire was to stir 15,000 spectators, Jews and non-Jews alike, with a rousing rendition of "Am Yisrael Hai" in Madison Square Garden.

What may be a problem for Grossman are the troubles awaiting him upon his return to Israel at the end of his North American travels. Lying in wait for him are rivals who are attempting not only to affect the financial future of his charity, Migdal Or, but also to besmirch the rabbi's reputation. They are also taking steps intended to keep the rabbi of Migdal Ha'emek from realizing his dream of winning a heated race for chief rabbi of Jerusalem.

That dream may go unrealized because of a surprising step taken by Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who recently added his signature to a letter prohibiting charities from accepting donations from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. But although the organization, which allocates huge sums every year to hundreds of projects in Israel and the Jewish world, is the stated target of the religious ruling spelled out in the letter, it indirectly targets Rabbi Yitzhak David Grossman, who for years has been receiving millions of dollars from the group.

In effect, the ruling is nothing new. The extremist rabbis of the Eda Haredit formulated and signed the ruling eight years ago, but it's only now that Elyashiv has given it his imprimatur.

"We hereby wish to state our opinion, the opinion of the sacred Torah, that it is strictly prohibited to take money or any other benefit in whatever way from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews or similar funds," the rabbis state in their ruling, adding that "anyone who joins them or helps them or their associates" violates serious Torah prohibitions. They state that those who receive funds from the group help idol worshipers glorify the name of "their idols" and "assist and facilitate missionary activities in the future."

For the International Fellowship, which describes itself as an organization aimed at promoting understanding between Jews and Christians and building broad support for Israel, this is another round in the bitter war being waged against it by figures in the Jewish world and in Israel who say the tens of millions of dollars that the group sends to the Jewish state each year are intended to promote hidden political objectives, primarily those of a Christian evangelical nature.

International Fellowship officials were concerned by the latest promulgation of the ruling. Founder and president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein said in a telephone interview from the United States that Elyashiv was persuaded to sign the ruling after being presented with what Eckstein said were lies about the group's activities. Eckstein said the group does not and has never engaged in missionary activity, and that it supports ultra-Orthodox organizations all over the world.

The organization says it provides funding for numerous ultra-Orthodox organizations, including some affiliated with Lubavitch and Karlin Hasidim and some identified with the non-Hasidic (also known as Lithuanian) sects that follow Elyashiv. Eckstein said that if all Lithuanian sects adhere to the ruling, the entire Haredi Lithuanian education network in the Ukrainian city of Odessa will collapse. In Israel, it will keep thousands of children from getting free meals and thousands of senior citizens from having heat in the winter, Eckstein said.

Race for rabbi

The implications of Elyashiv's support of the ruling also extend to the future of the Jerusalem rabbinate.

Although Grossman never explicitly said he was running for the position of Jerusalem rabbi, in a race that's been heating up over the past few months, he has already met with Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to obtain his blessing - and his closest followers told the ultra-Orthodox media last week that Grossman's candidacy is a sure thing. They also told Ynet, the Web site of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, that Grossman, a Lelov Hasid, that it was the "last will" of the Lelov rabbi, who died on Yom Kippur eve, that Grossman run for the post - a claim Grossman's rivals have refuted.

The moment Grossman's name was mentioned as a candidate, the whole race was turned upside down. Until then, the focus of the race had been the power struggle between religious Zionists, who have the support of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and the ultra-Orthodox. For several years, even before being elected mayor, Barkat has been promising his religious Zionist supporters that as mayor he would see to it that at least one of the city's chief rabbis - the Ashkenazi one or the Sephardi one - would be non-Haredi.

For a long time, Barkat strove to reach an agreement with Shas on the selection of the rabbis whereby Barkat and the religious Zionist bloc would join Shas in support of the ultra-Orthodox candidate for the position of Sephardi chief rabbi - Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, son of Ovadia Yosef. In return, the party would support the religious Zionist candidate for the position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi. However, Shas has made it clear that it has no intention of sealing a deal with Barkat, preferring instead to cut a deal with the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim.

Grossman, who met with Yosef in the home of the Shas spiritual leader, seems like a perfect candidate: he is both ultra-Orthodox and an establishment figure; he is an Israel Prize laureate who has lit a torch at the Independence Day ceremony, indicating that he is not virulently anti-Zionist; and he operates yeshivas and a charity that has received international and national recognition.

Now, however, it seems that the biggest obstacle facing Grossman, who never hid his connections to priests or to the International Fellowship, awaits him in his home court, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox world.

At least three other ultra-Orthodox rabbis are seeking the job: Eliyahu Schlesinger, the rabbi of the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem; Moshe Chaim Lau of Netanya; and Yosef Efrati, who heads the Beit Midrash Gavoha for Halacha in Agricultural Settlements in Jerusalem. The latter two have strong backing; Lau is a son of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and a former chief rabbi, and Efrati is close to Elyashiv and is himself one of the strongest figures in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Is one of them behind the surprising timing of Elyashiv's decision to sign the halakhic ruling? Eckstein is convinced that the timing of that decision is no coincidence.

Eckstein said someone must have taken the trouble to lie to Elyashiv in an effort to harm Grossman, who has been a friend of the International Fellowship for years, despite repeated efforts to slander the group. On the other hand, ultra-Orthodox figures, including those close to Grossman, say the timing is indeed a coincidence that has nothing to do with the race for the rabbinate.

Upon his return to Israel, Grossman will have to make two difficult decisions: whether to continue accepting funds from the International Fellowship and from Christian organizations, and whether to pursue his quest to become chief rabbi of Jerusalem.

Grossman was not available for comment, but a source close to him said "there are great rabbis who issued halakhic rulings allowing money to be received from Christians."

"If you ask me, clearly Rabbi Elyashiv's ruling creates a problem here," he said. "I don't know what Rabbi Grossman will decide; perhaps he will stop accepting support from them. All in all, the money from the International Fellowship is approximately 1 percent of Migdal Or's budget."

And what about the decision about whether to run for rabbi of Jerusalem? One ultra-Orthodox figure involved in the matter concluded that "Rabbi Grossman's path to the position is blocked," but someone close to Elyashiv had a different take.

"Rabbi Grossman is coordinating with Rabbi Efrati," the source said. "If Rabbi Efrati doesn't run and Rabbi Grossman runs, he will be the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. The efforts against the International Fellowship only strengthened Rabbi Grossman. No doubt he will review the situation with Rabbi Elyashiv, and then he will be perceived as someone who is adhering to the new halakhic ruling. No one can come and erode his support by claiming he accepted money in the past, because until now there was no halakhic ruling. The one who tried to curse him ended up blessing him."