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Igor, Lev and How Trumpian Politics Hijacked a Leading Orthodox Jewish Group

Young Israel rabbis and officials describe how pro-Trump politics created ‘a synagogue organization doing nothing for synagogues,’ with a ‘partisan,’ pro-settler, pro-Netanyahu agenda that pushed Orthodox U.S. Jews to ‘the edge of disaffiliation’

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From left to right: Rudy Giuliani, Igor Fruman, U.S. President Donald Trump,Lev Parnas and Anthony Scaramucci
From left to right: Rudy Giuliani, Igor Fruman, U.S. President Donald Trump,Lev Parnas and Anthony ScaramucciCredit: REUTERS/ Joshua Roberts, REUTERS/Jefferson Siegel, AP/Paul Sancya, AP/Seth Wenig, Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP, Getty Images/Mariusz Prusaczyk

As Yom Kippur ended on October 9, two Jewish men were arrested on charges of funneling foreign money to Republican political candidates. It doesn’t appear that Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman spent the day praying and fasting: They lunched at the Trump International Hotel in Washington with Rudolph Giuliani, the U.S. president’s personal lawyer, before being taken into custody at Dulles airport just as they were due to fly to Vienna.

Since then, these two Soviet-born businessmen have become stars of the Donald Trump impeachment drama, portrayed as Giuliani’s henchmen in implementing a shadow White House policy aimed at pressuring Ukraine to launch an investigation that would malign former Vice President Joseph Biden, the Democrats’ front-runner to become president in 2020. Parnas and Fruman are seen as instrumental in the firing of Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from August 2016 to last May.

As the U.S. media dove into the backstories of Parnas and Fruman – dubbed Giuliani’s “Florida fixers” – one puzzling detail stood out.

The two men had been honored with the Chovevei Zion Award at the annual dinner of the National Council of Young Israel in March. The honor followed their visit to Israel with the same Orthodox Jewish organization a month earlier. High-profile Republicans like evangelical leader Mike Huckabee and former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci were also on that trip.

Why would one of the oldest names in U.S. Orthodox Judaism honor two nonobservant Jews with no record of affiliation or financial contribution to a Young Israel synagogue or institution? Even more puzzling was that their non-Jewish associate – also with no Young Israel ties or donations – was also honored: Attorney Charles Gucciardo, a Republican donor and Trump supporter, who reportedly paid Giuliani $500,000, as part of a business arrangement between the lawyer and Parnas.

Lev Parnas, left, and Igor Fruman were honored with the Chovevei Zion Award at the annual dinner of the National Council of Young Israel in March 2019.Credit: Reuters Staff/REUTERS

But to many people familiar with the internal politics of the National Council of Young Israel, it was a no-brainer. According to eight Young Israel rabbis and synagogue lay leaders interviewed by Haaretz, the Parnas-Fruman-Gucciardo connection was a symptom of the deterioration of a robust national synagogue umbrella group into a narrow partisan cause.

According to these sources, while the council once focused on supporting Orthodox religious communities across the country, it now largely serves the political agenda of a cadre of lay leaders: Its president, Farley Weiss; its first vice president, Joseph Frager; and the president of political advocacy arm Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), Yechezkel Moskowitz.

This tilt has been controversial for years. But the group’s decision to honor men like Parnas, Fruman and Gucciardo – and a year earlier, Scaramucci – with no apparent reason but to curry favor with Giuliani and the Trump White House, showed the world “mismanagement at NCYI that has brought the organization to its lowest point,” says Charles Miller, a Young Israel congregant from Woodmere, Long Island.

In 2012, Miller, a former Young Israel branch president and national board member, began working with Weiss, an attorney from Boca Raton, Florida, and the newly elected president of the national council. During Weiss’ years of leadership, Miller says, “I came to see that the movement was not addressing what should be its main focus.”

Miller says it quickly became clear that Weiss had “no interest” in bolstering Young Israel synagogues or Modern Orthodox life in America, and that the national organization was “singularly focused on activism as it pertained to Israel.” The group represents over 120 synagogues across the United States and over 25,000 members, but instead of looking for ways to grow and inspire these shuls, “The organization [became] little more than Farley Weiss writing press releases,” Miller says.

An organization gone rogue?

A Young Israel rabbi who requested anonymity concurs, saying he believes the umbrella group has essentially been hijacked to serve a political agenda. “You have an underfunded shell of an entity that needs money or a purpose, someone sees that it’s an organization they can manipulate and, voilà, this is what you get,” he says.

Many of the group’s critics stress that they share the pro-Trump, pro-Benjamin Netanyahu and pro-settlement politics supported by Weiss and Frager. Like most Orthodox Jews in America, their opinions lean right, both in the U.S. and Israeli arenas, unlike their counterparts in other Jewish denominations. (A 2017 survey found that 54 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Trump the previous year and 71 percent approved of his performance as president.)

This Facebook screen shot provided by The Campaign Legal Center shows, from left, Donald Trump Jr., Tommy Hicks Jr., Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, posted on May 21, 2018Credit: /AP

But according to the Young Israel rabbi, the purely political agenda that Weiss and Frager have pursued “unilaterally” in recent years “is not in line” with what he believes a synagogue umbrella group should be – and many others agree. He compares Weiss and Frager’s approach unfavorably with another umbrella group, the Orthodox Union, which focuses on issues of religion, community engagement and kashrut rather than political advocacy. Miller, the congregant from Woodmere, says he was particularly frustrated when Weiss “dismissed” a proposal he had made to work with the Orthodox Union for addressing the high cost of Orthodox education.

Speaking with Haaretz, Weiss rebuffs as “wrong and false” the allegations that his group has neglected its stated mission of promoting “Torah-true Judaism” and is focusing solely on politics. “I completely reject that; it is an improper attack,” Weiss says. “We have a booklet of High Holy Day services, a free Haggadah, we send a kids program to synagogues every week … we have a phone call to rabbis every week.” Today, “there are more services than the shuls have ever gotten from the National Council of Young Israel,” he adds.

Weiss says he only first met Parnas and Fruman before the dinner honoring them in New York last spring. Frager has told the media he met the duo at a pro-Trump America First Action super PAC event in June 2018, where he invited them on his Scaramucci/Huckabee Israel trip.

Weiss says Frager’s decision to bestow the awards gave him pause because it was unusual to honor people who were neither “very active” in the National Council of Young Israel nor “very wealthy.”

But he says Frager convinced him that Parnas and Fruman “were philanthropists, they came on his trip to Israel, that they were excited about Israel, and if that we honored them, we would bring Giuliani to the dinner – and that they could give money in the future.” Frager did not respond to a request for comment on this report.

Giuliani did attend, but any hopes of financial support from Parnas and Fruman were soon dashed, Weiss says: “We tried but didn’t get a donation from them.”

Rudolph Giuliani wiping his forehead as he listens to President Donald Trump speak in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, July 29, 2019.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Weiss acknowledges that “if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have honored them,” so now changes will be made. “We’re going to try to enhance our background checks” on awardees, he says.

Still, he resents the subsequent attacks on Young Israel and believes the group “is being tarred improperly.

“I feel, quite frankly, that we are being attacked and criticized unfairly,” he says, adding that his group could not predict the future. “There are many scandals these days where you see organizations stand by and keep people around who have committed misconduct. We didn’t do that,” he says, adding that Parnas and Fruman “are not part of our organization, and there was no controversy about them when we honored them.”

Funding settlements, celebrating Trump

The Young Israel movement was founded in 1912 by Jews in New York resisting their community’s drift from traditional Orthodox Jewish practice. Young Israel became the embodiment of U.S.-style Modern Orthodoxy – holding the line on Shabbat observance, kashrut and traditional forms of prayer, while embracing the American dream of education and professional advancement via efforts like an employment bureau for Sabbath-observant Jews. In 1926, the name Young Israel was trademarked, letting the national organization set requirements for congregations on gender separation and Shabbat observance.

As recently as 2008, the group defined its main mission as to “broaden the appeal of the traditional community synagogue as the central address for Jewish communal life by providing educational, religious, social, spiritual, and communal programming.” It also offered synagogues interest-free loans to use for organization and expansion.

When Weiss became president in 2012, the group was recovering from years of chaos and financial problems. Following a painful internal battle, the group had sold its valuable Manhattan headquarters and migrated to leased office space. Today, it is based in New Jersey with only three full-time employees.

During his tenure, Chovevei Zion – formally an affiliate of Young Israel – has grown in prominence. For more than 25 years, the group’s political advocacy arm has been the base for the activities of Frager, a Long Island gastroenterologist and longtime fundraiser and activist for the Israeli settlement movement.

Frager is best known for chairing the executive council of the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a controversial organization that for decades has bought land in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The group’s primary donor was the billionaire Irving Moskowitz, who died in 2016 and with whom Frager was close. Frager has also said he is “close friends” with former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and ambassador to Israel David Friedman sitting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's U.S. ambassador, Ron Dermer, in Jerusalem, January 2019.Credit: Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

For a time, Frager was also a paid agent of the government of Qatar. In June 2018, he revealed that from September 2017 through February 2018, he was paid $50,000 to “consult with Qatari officials on strengthening U.S.-Qatar relations” for Stonington Strategies – a lobby group tapped by the Qatari Embassy for outreach efforts with the Jewish community.

Miller and other critics trace the increased politicization of the National Council of Young Israel to 2013, after Weiss fully took over, but say it intensified during the 2015-16 presidential election campaign and once Trump entered the White House.

According to a source involved with the organization who requested anonymity, in 2016 – when Weiss seemed to be focusing exclusively on politics – members of the national board launched an effort to “refocus” the national council away from U.S. and Israeli politics, and to work harder on supporting synagogues across the country.

The board members were particularly unhappy with Weiss’ press releases on domestic and foreign policy in the group’s name with no consultation within the organization, the source says. According to a Young Israel rabbi, Weiss told him at the time that through his Young Israel synagogues, “he knew what people were thinking,” and that no formal procedure for approving his statements was necessary.

Tensions came to a head in 2017 when an effort began to replace Weiss as president. Miller says he was approached by professional and lay leaders after Weiss had been “increasingly inflexible and nonresponsive” when it came to initiatives for serving the synagogue network and sharing best practices.

Miller says Weiss ultimately squelched the attempted coup, using his power over the composition of the committee for nominating the group’s leaders. Frager became the new head of this committee and began replacing members who did not support Weiss, a claim he denies. Thus, the group’s lay leadership was essentially “cleansed” of people who objected to the increased political focus and partisanship, and who “could not agree to the hard partisan turn as crafted by Weiss and Frager with the incentive of Moskowitz money,” Miller charges.

‘Build Israel Great Again’

The politicization of the group and its fight for financial solvency seem to be intertwined. A year ago, a new president was named for the political advocacy arm: Yechezkel Moskowitz, the grandson of the late billionaire. Moskowitz chaired the March gala dinner at which Parnas, Fruman and Gucciardo were honored – an event the JTA news agency described as “mostly a tribute to Donald Trump.” Speakers included Tommy Hicks Jr., co-chairman of the Republican National Committee; Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader; and Huckabee and Giuliani.

Mike Huckabee in May 2015. He was one of the speakers at the National Council of Young Israel gala last March.Credit: AP

Red baseball hats with the logo “Build Israel Great Again” were handed out. (These caps were also distributed during Frager’s visits to the West Bank on a pro-Trump and pro-settlement agenda; the hats are still available for purchase on the Young Israel website.) The gala dinner’s master of ceremonies was Pete Hegseth, a conservative activist turned vocal pro-Trump “Fox & Friends” anchor close to both Frager.

“President Trump is the most benevolent leader the Jewish people have ever known in their 2,000 years in their Diaspora,” Moskowitz told the crowd, adding that the “leftist progressive tikkun olam ideology … is not Judaism.” He said progressives had led America to “levels of immorality unprecedented in the history of this country.”

Moskowitz’s grandmother, Cherna Moskowitz, has donated more than $1 million to America First Action, Trump’s official reelection super PAC, since the death of her husband.

“Moskowitz money” appears to have played a key role in the new orientation of the National Council of Young Israel. An August 31, 2017 email from Weiss to the group’s leaders, obtained by Haaretz, discusses a proposal by Miller and others to hold a regional conference of synagogue branches to confront issues at the organization, including a financial crisis.

In the email, Weiss said those who proposed the conference “either misled the board concerning the fundraising aspect of the regional conference or [lacked] any sense of embarrassment that their proposed urgent financial solution did not work out as planned. This decision could have led to the end of NCYI if it were not for Dr. Frager.”

Weiss praised Frager for saving the organization from ruin by appealing to the Moskowitz family for support, with Weiss’ backing. “Instead of watching the organization financially collapse, because Dr. Frager and I know the regional conference would not raise money, I worked with Dr. Frager on raising money from the Moskowitz family,” Weiss wrote. “Joe spent countless hours in discussions with the family and I supplied Joe with information of our pro-Israel activities and my articles to help obtain the Moskowitz family support.”

According to Weiss, Frager “took two days from work to visit Cherna Moskowitz in Miami. As a result, we received a check for $100,000.”

He added: “The Moskowitz check validated the view that I have expressed to the board that the pro-Israel articles and actions of NCYI for Israel is what will be the best means of raising the needed funds for NCYI. ... Everyone on the board should be sending Joe emails with appreciation for his extraordinary efforts at the critical time, to save NCYI financially.”

By contrast, Miller “could not even put up a potential strategy to raise funds,” Weiss said, “and yet [Miller] complains that the $100,000 is not enough.”

Because it is a religious entity, the National Council of Young Israel is not required to file an annual return with the IRS, which would make its finances – including overall donations – publicly available.

The late Irving Moskowitz, left, pictured in April 2005 with his wife Cherna, during a visit to the isolated Gaza Strip Jewish settlement of Netzarim before it was evacuated later that year.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

But the Moskowitz charities’ Form 990 filings appear to show increased generosity toward Young Israel after the Frager appeal described in Weiss’ email.

In 2015, no donations are listed by the Irving Moskowitz Foundation to any National Council of Young Israel entity.

The following year, 2016, the foundation gave $5,000 to an affiliate in North Miami Beach; in 2017, this $5,000 to a Miami synagogue jumped to $100,000. Additionally, the Cherna Moskowitz Foundation donated $65,000 in 2016 to a branch in Far Rockaway, Queens – the American Friends-International Young Israel Movement.

That gift continued to grow over the years: Cherna Moskowitz Foundation’s donation to the International Young Israel Movement rose to $67,500 in 2017 and then to $160,000 in 2018.

Alienating the affiliates

Following Weiss’ board purge in 2017, the pro-GOP, pro-Trump tilt continued apace. At the National Council of Young Israel’s 2018 gala dinner, a Friend of Zion award was given to Scaramucci, who joked onstage that the event felt like his bar mitzvah.

In a March 2019 op-ed “The Resurgence of the National Council of Young Israel,” Frager cheered the organization’s transformation, writing: “In the past seven years, the movement fell on hard times. It became a sleeping giant. It came out of its slumber in 2017. Its accomplishments since have been extraordinary and immeasurable. It has regained its voice and its vision.”

But for many Young Israel rabbis and leaders, there is little to celebrate. Their feeling of detachment from the umbrella group has only grown stronger.

“I think the branches over the course of recent years have become disenchanted with the national organization and have no connection to it. There aren’t any conventions or regional workshops – that kind of thing doesn’t happen. ... It’s not that Young Israel rabbis and lay leaders don’t care about NCYI, but they’ve given up,” says one rabbi, adding that he had stopped looking at the press releases sent by the group because he found them disturbing.

Supporters of Florida gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis waiting for results at his election party in Orlando, Florida on November 6, 2018. Standing in the middle of the front row is Lev Parnas.Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

A second rabbi says the disconnect had brought many synagogues to “the edge of disaffiliation.” He suspects that many people have quietly stopped paying their dues to the national organization, which he says has “become a synagogue organization that is doing nothing for the synagogues.

“They have been making statements that are so problematic and so partisan, which is unsuitable for congregations like mine – which includes people who are on the right, people on the left, and many in between,” he adds.

The discontent burst into the public eye in March after Weiss defended Netanyahu’s efforts to unite Israel’s religious right parties, including the racist Otzma Yehudit, for the April 9 election. Weiss released a statement defending Netanyahu’s move, but a wide swath of American Jewish organizations – including AIPAC and other groups that rarely criticize decisions by Israel’s leaders publicly – objected to the prospect of bringing the Kahanist party into a potential governing coalition.

Twenty-two Young Israel synagogue leaders signed a letter condemning the statement. The letter widened the criticism beyond Israeli politics; it condemned “all past statements issued by NCYI leadership about political matters – including but not limited to its recent statement about Otzma Yehudit and the Israeli political process,” which, the synagogue leaders said, “do not represent the diverse views within our individual synagogue communities.”

The letter added: “In recognition of the current, highly divisive political environment in the United States, Israel, and beyond, we … call upon NCYI leadership to immediately cease making all political pronouncements.”

Deborah Lipstadt speaking at an event in Jerusalem, October 29, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

After the incident, prominent Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt said she was leaving her synagogue, declaring that she could no longer “be associated with an organization that gives such racism, celebration of violence, and immoral policies a hechsher.” Her Atlanta congregation then removed the Young Israel affiliation from its name, and Lipstadt returned to the synagogue led by Rabbi Adam Starr, who signed the protest letter.

Starr had been harshly attacked in a since-deleted tweet by Yechezkel Moskowitz, who wrote: “Everyone of the Rabbis on this list from reconstructionist lover @RabbiStarrYITH to tree hugger Barry Kornblau should be ashamed of themselves joining with liberal progressive groups like @IfNotNowOrg in attacking @NCYIYoungIsrael for defending Israels democracy.” Kornblau is a rabbi in the Hollis Hills-Windsor Park section of Queens. Later, Moskowitz tweeted that the rabbis were “tools of the progressive left” and told JTA that the Democratic agenda “will destroy America.”

During the controversy over the letter, Starr and Kornblau openly criticized the National Council of Young Israel in the Jewish media.

“There’s been long-simmering discontent among numerous Young Israel congregations, Young Israel leaders, Young Israel rabbis, regarding a whole variety of public policy statements that have been issued by the leadership of NCYI,” Kornblau told The Jewish Star, a Long Island publication. The statement on Otzma Yehudit, he said, had been “the final hammer blow, the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Feeling the heat, Weiss issued a clarification explaining that the statement only represented the views of some board members. It “represented my personal views and that of many on our board, but may not reflect the view of all of the Young Israel synagogues,” he said.

A man wearing a yarmulke supporting Donald Trump as the U.S. president speaks at the Israeli-American Council Summit in Hollywood, Florida, December 7, 2019. Credit: MARIA ALEJANDRA CARDONA/REUTER

Deeply disconnected

Weiss rejects any characterization of the organization as political and insists that it does not endorse political candidates. Since the Otzma Yehudit controversy, he has “tried to involve more people on the board to a greater extent regarding statements we make,” he tells Haaretz. “We are always looking to improve.”

Despite the discontent they say exists among Young Israel branches, neither Miller nor other critics can point to any substantive attempt to wrest control of the organization from Weiss and his supporters.

“A lot of us became extraordinarily exhausted fighting the battle to keep the organization out of partisan politics,” one rabbi says. “It’s hard to fight the indifference – and the feeling that the fate of Young Israel’s individual synagogues is no longer tied to the national organization.

“What you essentially have is a national organization which is deeply disconnected from a significant percentage of the souls of whose name it speaks,” the rabbi adds. “The individual synagogues don’t care and so their leaders just say, ‘Let those crazy people do whatever they want. I have a local community and budget and committees to worry about.’”

It appears, however, that in the wake of the Parnas/Fruman controversy, the backlash against the group’s political advocacy arm has led to a schism.

Yechezkel Moskowitz tells Haaretz in an email that Chovevei Zion is “breaking away, over a one-year period or so, from the National Council of Young Israel.” He says the process will be completed when the organization has its own tax-exempt status.

In a Twitter exchange on November 25, he reiterated that point, tweeting that Chovevei Zion “is no longer the political arm of the national Council, it’s a branch and transitioning out of the organization – period.”

For now, the logo and headline “YI Chovevei Zion Israel Education” continues to appear on the umbrella organization’s website, stating that “Young Israel Chovevei Zion is an arm of the NCYI which focuses exclusively on Israel education and heightening awareness of various issues pertaining to the Jewish State.” It adds that it “takes political and cultural influencers on educationally-based trips to Israel,” and “organizes the annual Israel Day Concert in Central Park” – activities organized by Frager and backed by the Moskowitz family.

The Chovevei Zion site, however, makes no reference to Young Israel. Frager’s name appears on both websites: on Young Israel’s as “First Vice President” representing Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, a Queens neighborhood, and on Chovevei Zion’s as the organization’s “Founder and Chairman.”

The Chovevei Zion site affirms the group’s “beliefs” – a mash-up of pro-Israel and conservative Republican ideology expressing commitments to “sovereign Israel and unified Jerusalem,” “smaller government and increased liberty,” and “fair & free trade and less intrusive regulations.”

Its themes echo those of a podcast launched over the summer, “The Mos Show,” hosted by Moskowitz and Chovevei Zion’s executive director, Nachman Mostofsky. The podcast fosters “beliefs in family, personal responsibility, sanctity of life, lowering taxes, removing overburdening regulation, and less government.” Recent guests have included controversial far-right figures like Laura Loomer and Jack Posobiec.

Screen grab of "The Mos Show" podcastCredit: Screen grab

Asked when a decision to dissolve the formal bonds between the National Council of Young Israel and Chovevei Zion took place, Moskowitz refused to answer.

“Internal deliberations of a not-for-profit are not for public dissemination,” he says. “These discussions that were made by the board of directors shall remain confidential as prescribed by the bylaws of both organizations.”

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