On the streets of Ashdod, a hardscrabble port city in Israel’s southern desert, Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto is considered the local saint.
Six middle-aged men sitting outside a cafe nodded with recognition when asked about the 37-year-old scion of Moroccan rabbinic royalty. “He’s an honored person here,” one said. Another man, hearing the kabbalist’s name, shouted “Tzadik,” or righteous one, as he hurried down the street.
And his reputation isn’t confined to the Jewish state’s grittier precincts. In the hallowed halls of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Pinto is revered. A December 2010 reception in his honor was attended by five Cabinet members and an Israel Defense Forces major general. In January, he hobnobbed with opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party at a dinner in a Tel Aviv hotel. And as the Forward prepared this story, current and former Israeli government officials contacted the paper on Pinto’s behalf.
“He has a huge influence,” said Yoel Hasson, a member of the Kadima party in the Knesset. “He’s connected to a lot of people in Israel, to people in Israeli politics.”
He also commands respect in Israel and increasingly in the United States as a sought-after adviser for businessmen and real estate developers. Jacky Ben-Zaken, a prominent and wealthy Israeli investor, is an avowed follower who cites the young rabbi as a key adviser in his business affairs and donates millions of dollars to his charities.
In New York, appearances by the charismatic rabbi can draw more than 100 people to his Midtown Manhattan yeshiva, including Israeli-born real estate moguls and Jewish communal heavyweights. LeBron James, the superstar professional basketball player, has also consulted with the rabbi.
But a Forward investigation of Pinto’s Manhattan not-for-profit Mosdot Shuva Israel points to the contrast between the rabbi’s lifestyle and his reputation for modest living, and raises questions about the rabbi’s image as a business guru when his own not-for-profit faces financial problems.
Among the Forward’s findings:
- The $6.5 million Manhattan townhouse where Pinto lives, which is owned by Mosdot Shuva Israel, faces foreclosure;
- Mosdot Shuva Israel has not responded to or paid a $48,000 judgment against it for failure to obtain workers’ compensation insurance;
- The top financial officer of Mosdot Shuva Israel, who does not speak English, could not say how many employees worked for the organization;
- Former donors to the organization claim that associates of the group employed insistent and unusual fundraising tactics.
None of these activities directly involves the rabbi himself, and all focus on a single component of his sprawling international network, which a senior Mosdot Shuva Israel official estimated runs on $50 million to $60 million a year.
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