Charismatic Moroccan Kabbalist Draws Crowds And Questions

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published June 23, 2010, issue of July 02, 2010.
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It was almost 11 p.m. on a Monday night, and Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto was two hours late.

A crowd of about 200 packed the main hall of the mystically inclined rabbi’s Manhattan headquarters, a four-story building on a tony Upper East Side block just around the corner from Bloomingdale’s. A disciple of the rabbi lectured in Hebrew to the audience, which included secular Israelis, Orthodox Sephardim, Hasidim and a smattering of boldface names who had come to hear him speak. Outside, one man complained about the disciple’s lecture style, but even as the hour grew late, everyone seemed content to wait.

Pinto, an Israeli-born rabbi of Moroccan descent, is little known in the United States. But he was thrust into a sort of prominence following news reports linking him to a Hasidic real estate broker who died June 9 in what the medical examiner ruled to be a suicide. According to press reports, Solomon Obstfeld rented at least one apartment to the rabbi at a below-market rate in Jumeirah Essex House, an elegant Central Park South building. That business arrangement reportedly ended in harsh feelings between Obstfeld and the rabbi.

Obstfeld’s death is currently under scrutiny by a private investigator hired to examine whether foul play may have been involved. Tom Ruskin, a former New York City Police Department detective investigator and president of the CMP Protective and Investigative Group, would not say who had hired his firm. Ruskin said that he would examine many of Obstfeld’s past relationships for hints of what might have happened to him.

“He had some great successes and he had some business deals that didn’t do so well,” Ruskin said of Obstfeld. “We’re looking at each one and the relationships that he had through each of those business deals.”

The recently-deceased businessman was apparently on Pinto’s mind on June 21. After the rabbi finally arrived for the shiur, or class, he announced it would be dedicated to Obstfeld.

A rabbi in the Moroccan mold, Pinto is something between a guru and a Hasidic rebbe. A kabbalist interested in the esoteric elements of the Jewish tradition, he runs a number of yeshivas, religious schools, in Israel and the United States, and sponsors a social service organization that feeds needy families in Israel, mostly in Ashdod. He speaks Hebrew and no English, and his followers in the United States draw heavily from the expatriate Israeli community.

At Pinto’s headquarters, the lecturing disciple cut himself off in midsentence at a signal from the back of the marble-walled sanctuary. The crowd rose as Pinto, 37, walked toward a desk at the front of the room, his followers bending to kiss his hands as he passed.

Once seated, he invited certain men to sit beside him, a position of honor. (Women in attendance sat in a balcony behind a curtain, watching over closed-circuit television.) Throughout the shiur, he was joined at the front of the room by Ronn Torossian, founder of public relations firm 5WPR, and Michael Grimm, a Republican candidate for Congress from Staten Island. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was also in the building that evening.

Pinto is something of a rabbi to the rich and famous. Attendees at the shiur said that Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner had attended a shiur the previous week; Weiner’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Pinto is particularly connected in the New York real estate community. Prominent followers include Haim Revah, whose company, Metropolitan Real Estate Investors, owns New York’s Lipstick Building, and Ilan Bracha of Prudential Douglas Elliman.

According to press reports and people familiar with the rabbi, Pinto dispenses business advice to his followers.

“There’s a component of that where someone believes that the kabbalist can predict the profitability, or lack thereof, of a specific investment,” said Jonathan Nachmani, a real estate investor and a member of the Sephardic community who has met Pinto many times. Still, he maintained that Pinto would “never give a guarantee one way or the other” regarding the prospects of a deal.

Pinto, who was born in Israel, is the scion of two highly revered

Moroccan rabbinic dynasties. His maternal grandfather was the Baba Sali, a Moroccan kabbalist thought by some to have had the ability to work miracles. The Baba Sali moved to Israel from Morocco in 1970 amid a wave of Moroccan Jewish immigration, and died there in 1984.

On his father’s side, Pinto comes from a line of rabbis that arrived in Morocco from Damascus in the 16th century. That line includes Rabbi Haim Pinto, a 19th-century rabbi whose grave is now the site of an annual pilgrimage by some Moroccan Jews. Pinto’s father, also named Rabbi Haim Pinto, is a prominent rabbi in Ashdod.

Pinto’s organization, called Shuva Israel, purchased its East 58th Street building for $28.5 million in March 2009, according to public records. The austere 1928 edifice was once the home of the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, and many of that group’s signs and plaques remain. On the top floor, an elegant library with two levels of shelving sits mostly empty, its circular skylight cracked. Another floor houses a small yeshiva.

Like many Israeli-born observant Sephardim, Pinto dresses in the style of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, wearing a black hat and black coat. His thick black beard reaches down to his chest. While delivering his shiur, which that night was on the subject of the period between the 15th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, he paused frequently to direct questions to specific audience members, to engage in dialogue with disciples in the audience and to answer questions posed to him. He addressed each interlocutor as “tzaddik,” or righteous one.

“He’s certainly a very learned rabbi,” Nachmani said. “He’s really well trained in rhetoric, but his speeches are in Hebrew, so it’s for a limited audience.”

Before the June 21 shiur, most attendees seemed to be speaking among themselves in Hebrew. But Nachmani said that people who speak no Hebrew will often come to the weekly shiurim to hear the rabbi talk.

“That’s the phenomenon of kabbalism, of mysticism,” Nachmani said. “There’s something that attracts people to the unknown or to the divine. They see the rabbi as a go-between between the divine and man.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com. Follow him on Twitter @joshnathankazis.






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