Israel's richest rabbis become savvy businessmen

By Daniel Estrin

Associated Press

Published: Friday, July 13 2012 1:46 a.m. MDT

In a Sunday July 1, 2012 photo, Rabbi Yaakov Israel Ifargan, right, known as the 'X-Ray' rabbi for the belief he has the ability to diagnose patients by eyesight only, sits next to businessman Nochi Dankner, left, at the annual gathering of the rabbi's followers and supporters in the town of Netivot, southern Israel. Over the past few decades, Ifargan and dozens of other rabbis have carefully positioned themselves at the fulcrum of Israeli power and influence.

Tsafrir Abayov, Associated Press

NETIVOT, Israel — One summer night, on the outskirts of a sleepy desert town, a who's who of Israel's elite gathered for an annual feast to honor a rabbi whose gaze is said to pierce the soul.

He's Rabbi Yaacov Israel Ifargan. But he is better known as, simply, the X-ray.

Over the past few decades, he and dozens of other rabbis have carefully positioned themselves at the fulcrum of Israeli power and influence. They have attracted throngs of adherents — most notably some of the country's top business moguls, who pay top shekel for an audience with their rabbi to solicit blessings and discuss business matters.

These magnates have helped fuel the rise of a rabbinic aristocracy whose members have channeled the donations they receive into multi-million-dollar empires. After gaining experience dishing out advice to Israeli tycoons, the rabbis have become shrewd businessmen themselves, managing hefty investments in stocks and real estate at home and abroad — with much of their earnings allegedly kept far from the watchful eyes of Israeli tax collectors.

Their chief critic calls then swindlers and frauds, and some fellow rabbis are critical of their practices.

The Israeli edition of Forbes magazine published a first-of-its-kind ranking last month of Israel's 13 richest rabbis. In the number one spot was 36-year-old Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira from Beersheba, a blue-collar southern desert city, whose wealth is estimated at $335 million. The X-ray rabbi placed sixth, with an estimated net worth of $23 million.

"Every single shekel brings about true peace," announced the X-ray rabbi's half-brother, Rabbi Hayim Amram Ifargan, from the dais at the recent gathering, in a gentle nudge to the crowd of VIPs to continue their support.

He, too, is a part of the Ifargan family franchise. His spiritual adherents call him "The MRI." In the women's section behind a laced divider sat "The Arbitrator" or "The CT," Ifargan's millionaire sister Bruria Zvuluni, a go-to spiritual counselor who claims to have mediated feuds between Israeli crime kingpins. Though she is not a rabbi, she made it to the bottom of Forbes' list.

Cozying up at Ifargan's long table were lawmakers, one of Israel's top lawyers, and two of Israel's wealthiest businessmen: Menahem Gurevitch, chairman of a leading Israeli insurance company, and billionaire Nochi Dankner, head of Israel's largest holding company and a close confidant of Ifargan for the last 14 years. The Israeli army's chief rabbi and a top police commander were there, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his blessings in a recorded video message.

Rabbis who make fortunes for themselves and encourage others to make money with their blessings draw the wrath of some fellow Jewish clerics.

"It's disappointing when religion descends to this," said Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman institute, a modern Orthodox Jewish learning center in Jerusalem. "It's not some channel of divine power for personal wealth accumulation. That's small religion."

Most rabbis in Israel are not raking in millions. They are instead salaried government employees, assigned by Israel's official rabbinate to perform religious rites for the Jewish public such as marriages and burials, or to enforce Jewish dietary laws in restaurants and hotels.

They are nowhere near the level of the high-flying spiritual gurus like the X-ray.

Such gurus set up public office hours in their homes to receive Israelis on all rungs of the social ladder, as long as they come with cash. In exchange, adherents receive amulets and little pieces of paper containing the rabbi's personalized blessing. The most successful rabbis have founded charitable institutions and small religious seminaries, which act as conduits for the incoming cash flow.

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