Rabbi's Wife Weighs in on Financial Feud

The legal battle between the family of Argentina's chief rabbi and his famous son-in-law, Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, deepens.

Late summer breezes buffet the large, elegant house on the Ashdod coast, the Israeli home of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, spiritual leader of tens of thousands of Jews, a man whom Israeli and foreign politicians and the well-to-do see as an oracle.

Recently, while the rabbi and his family have been in Ashdod, and not in their permanent Manhattan home, the place has been bubbling with activity round the clock. The charismatic rabbi, 38, is engaged not only in Torah study, he also meets with his people and the heads of his institutions to update them. Transatlantic calls take place, attorneys and consultants come and go. Police Commander (ret. ) Arye Amit, for example, is constantly at the rabbi's side these days, given what the rabbi's followers call "blackmail attempts." Rabbi Pinto speaks of "attempts" encountered by him and Shuva Israel, the international network of yeshivas and organizations he heads.

Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto
Ilan Assayag

The latest "attempt" - reported some three weeks ago - has been the clash with his father-in-law, the chief rabbi of Argentina, Rabbi Shlomo Ben Hamo, who says that he was used by his daughter and her husband, Rabbi Pinto, to launder huge sums of money. He has submitted an affidavit to the Jerusalem District Court.

Now, Rabbi Pinto's wife, Deborah Rivka, who has a central, but unfavorable, role in her father's statement, is giving a short, unprecedented interview to Haaretz.

The center-stage appearance of the wife of an ultra-Orthodox leader, and all the more so in a newspaper interview, over a sensitive family dispute, would be impossible in routine times, but the situation in Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto's court is in no way routine. The rabbi's wife denies all the accusations of money laundering and says that she and her husband are the only victims here.

"The rabbi is a holy man, does not touch money and does not deal with money. He has no possessions," she says, referring to her husband. "He is man of loving-kindness and devotes himself to those in need. Sometimes, this is what you get in return."

The rabbanit says she regularly consults Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, a senior Lithuanian Orthodox leader, on the matter.

Religious war

The soft-spoken Rabbanit Rivka, who turns 38 in a month, is a key figure in the Shuva Israel network - from preparing lectures with the rabbi and writing the "daily message," featuring lessons in halakhah [Jewish law] and mussar [ethical teachings] from the rabbi, which are distributed to tens of thousands of followers around the world, to managing the rabbi's packed calendar and travel schedule. The couple moves between his 17 centers in Argentina, the United States and Israel. At the Ashdod villa (purchased for the family by American millionaire Jay Schottenstein ) she hosts some 150 people every Friday night, and she is also the confidante of women who visit the court, for example, Michelle Bachmann, who is bidding to be the Republican presidential candidate, Tzipi Livni, Rita, Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff and Tzofit Grant.

Rivka Pinto was born in Buenos Aires, but spent her teen years in Britain, at the prestigious ultra-Orthodox seminary for young women in Gateshead. Even though her father affiliated himself with the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox world, he let her attend university and she earned a master's degree in English literature at Cambridge. She is fluent in five languages. She and her husband have three children, an 11-year-old son, and 3-year-old twins, a boy and girl.

According to the rabbanit's associates, the break with her father occurred at the time of the twins' birth, when her husband turned down Rabbi Ben Hamo's request to name the boy Shlomo after him: "They decided to name the boy Meir, after the Baba Meir (Rabbi Meir Abuhatzeira, Rabbi Pinto's grandfather ). Ben Hamo got up and let loose, did not attend the circumcision. Since then, the war began."

Almost in a whisper, the rabbanit says: "I am still following the commandment to honor thy father. I won't utter a bad word about my father. I would not speak up were it not for the affidavit. I am experiencing great anguish, a lot of pain, a lot of difficult questions internally, but my faith in the Holy One Blessed Be He is strong."

Her father is being sued by an Israeli developer for not paying the full sum for an apartment he purchased in a luxury project in central Jerusalem. Around a month ago, Ben Hamo responded to the suit in a statement that the true buyers of the apartment were his daughter and son-in-law, who pressured him to open a bank account in Argentina in his name, and purchase the apartment for them, in his name, and therefore they owe the money to the developer.

According to Ben Hamo, he initially refused the couples' request to carry out the transactions in his name, but his daughter used every means, including emotional blackmail. According to Ben Hamo, he later realized the whole business was intended to launder money, something that he would not have agreed to do.

While Rabbi Pinto's response is now being written up by his lawyers, his associates are providing an unofficial version and a peek into the secrets of an aristocratic rabbinic family.

While Rabbanit Pinto sticks to decorous statements, the associates say that "Ben Hamo submitted an affidavit only to cover up his embezzlement of huge sums intended for his grandchildren," while "linking up with people trying to blackmail Rabbi Pinto." Three attempts by Haaretz to obtain the rabbi's response were unsuccessful.

Big money

A few years ago, say Rabbi Pinto's associates, financial barons from among his followers gave him a gift of $1,250,000 to set up a fund for the "financial well-being of the rabbanit and their children." Ben Hamo, they said, was the person behind the idea and expressed concern for his health (Pinto underwent a series of operations and treatments for tumors ).

Why were the assets not registered in the rabbanit's name? She says: "We never touched the money. We don't have anything except for one small bank account in America and a house in Jerusalem that we received from our parents after the wedding."

The associates say it was Rabbi Ben Hamo's idea, which the Pintos and the donors agreed to, that the money go into a bank in Ben Hamo's name in Argentina, and later be used to purchase the apartment in Jerusalem in his name. However, after a few years, Rabbi Pinto's aides discovered that his father-in-law, as they referred to it, "plundered" most of the sum and withdrew money without permission. They asked him to return the money to the rabbi, and later on to the donors, but Rabbi Ben Hamo evaded this and "now he is trying to turn things upside down."

Rabbi Pinto's associates say that even though the money was a gift, and not income, the family reported to the authorities in Israel and the U.S. about the $1,250,000 it received from the rabbi's followers, for a fund to benefit his children. They say Rabbi Pinto's report to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service was submitted back in 2008, when the account in Buenos Aires was set up, while the report in Israel was submitted to the Income Tax Authority around three and a half months ago, in the shadow of the worsening clash with the rabbanit's father. The family presented Haaretz with a document attesting to this report.

The full mobilization apparent in the rabbi's court is now reaching its peak. Isn't the source of the current clash in the contact between the Torah world and big money? Rabbanit Pinto: "Shuva Israel's educational and charitable projects serve thousands of needy people - 20,000 people come to our centers around the world. How is it possible to run all of this? Thank God, we don't own a thing in this world except for an apartment our parents bought us after the wedding. My husband is an employee of the organization, everything we receive we give away. We are doing good, and this time we were burned."

At the beginning of this week, Rabbanit Pinto sent a letter to followers in the rabbi's name: "For three years we have been going through a large and difficult existential struggle, we tried to limit the talk and few know the anguish and torment we have been through, but we know that it is atonement for sins and to improve the world for the public and the individual," it stated. The letter contained hints and also a story about "a bad dream" the rabbi had some three years ago, before "all the trouble" started. The rabbanit writes on behalf of her husband, that a year and a half ago he solved the dream and even told a handful of his followers about it: He understood that "the end of the tribulation" would not come before "a matter involving the bloodshed of a member of our family" (the reference was to the murder of his uncle, Baba Elazar, a month ago, in Be'er Sheva ) and after "a great flood in New York and other things that are best left unsaid." Now, the turnaround is to be expected, so the rabbi said, even before the annual "special flight" for salvation by the rabbi and his followers to Bulgaria, which is scheduled to take place in three weeks.

The letter stated confidently that the turnaround would come before then and that on the day of the flight, "we will dedicate a Torah scroll and hold a thanksgiving meal... and we know this with full certainty."

His followers are convinced that this prophecy of their rabbi stands on solid footing.