Friday, December 23, 2011

Jim and Tammy …and Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto

Ahhh… the good life! Jet-setting First Class around the world; living in luxurious homes - in the finest neighborhoods; buying the finest clothing… Who wouldn’t want to live a lifestyle like that? And getting a lot of respect in the process both as a religious figure and an investment genius! What could be better?

For most of us this is a dream. Only the rich and famous get to do that. But what about the Chief Rabbi of Israel? Should he live a lifestyle like that? Maybe. If he can afford it. There is nothing inherently wrong with anyone living the good life including great rabbinic figures.

But that is certainly not the image an aspiring Chief Rabbi should project. It sends the wrong message. It promotes as a value the seeking of riches instead of God. I have no problem with being rich. I wish I was. But I do have a problem with a religious leader who lives an opulent lifestyle by ripping off his own charity to do it.

That seems to be what Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, who announced his intention to run for the position of Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, seems to be doing according to many media reports like the one in the Forward:

Documents obtained by the Forward reveal extensive spending by Mosdot Shuva Israel, Pinto’s New York-based educational and charitable organization, on luxury travel and expensive jewelry. Some of these documents have also been obtained and published by the Israeli press.

Among the expenses covered by the not-for-profit organization:

• $75,000 bill for a month long stay at a luxury hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina;
• $65,000 ring;
• $28,000 for fine men’s clothing.

A representative for Pinto’s organization has declined to comment on the Forward’s findings. But on December 20, The New York Times, citing unnamed officials, reported that federal law enforcement is investigating two former Pinto associates. Meanwhile, in an interview aired December 18 on Israel’s Channel 2, Pinto defended some of his organization’s spending. Asked why his organization had rented the Hamptons home, Pinto responded: “Because that’s where the people of the yeshiva live. That’s where the Hasidim of the yeshiva live during Passover.” The Marker, an Israeli business newspaper, reported on December 20 that Pinto told followers that a former volunteer had made the decision to rent the home even though Pinto had been offered free accommodations elsewhere.

Shades of Jim Bakker. For those not old enough to remember, Bakker was a televangelist in the eighties who preached making lots of money as the one of the highest of Christian virtues. He made no secret of the opulent lifestyle that he and his wife Tammy Faye lived using money raised through his minstry, PTL (Praise the Lord). With luxurious mansions and homes all over the world. He led a lifestyle that rival those of the richest people on earth. He would probably still be doing it if not for the fact that a sex scandal brought him down.

Is this what Rabbi Pinto is doing? One can argue and say that this is not the case. That he preaches the same values other Torah leaders preach. That his expenditures for a lavish lifestyle is not a reflection of his values… but a necessary component of his fundraising success.

If you believe that, then the words “buy”, “bridge” and “Brooklyn” have no meaning to you. For a man who claims to have little interest in material wealth, he has a funny way of showing it. Spending lavishly on oneself with money raised for charitable purposes is anything but ethical – even if it is legal Which I am not entirely convinced it is.

Authorities within Pinto’s network told the Forward at the time that Mosdot Shuva Israel had an annual budget of $5.5 million while the entire network spends $50 to $60 million per year.

What kind of charity has that kind of financial equation? And then there is this:

The New York Times story cited unnamed federal officials who said that law enforcement was carrying out an inquiry into a former Pinto aide named Ofer Biton and public relations executive Ronn Torossian over money allegedly missing from Mosdot Shuva Israel’s coffers.

It is unclear whether Rabbi Pinto was somehow invloved or given some or all of these funds for personal use. Rabbi Pinto has alleged in media reports that he has been the target of blackmail and that funds have been embezzled from his organization.

Blackmail? What did the blackmailers have on this guy? And yet he is still being defended by his admirers including some of the rich and famous:

To those who have met with Pinto, including basketball superstar LeBron James, right-wing commentator Glenn Beck and former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, he is a deeply spiritual man with business savvy and powerful connections. And though the rabbi hobnobs with the rich and famous and lives in an elegant Manhattan townhouse, his associates claim he has little interest in material wealth.

“The rabbi is a holy man, does not touch money and does not deal with money. He has no possessions,” Pinto’s wife, Deborah Rivka Pinto, told the Israeli daily Haaretz in a rare interview in July.

I’m not buying it. His actions speak much louder than his words. Halacha says nothing about wearing a Kapote and a Hamburg… or having a long full growth beard. But it does have something to say about using money designated for charity for a luxurious lifestyle. And this guy wants to be Chief Rabbi?!