The night I first met Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, I hardly noticed his wife.
She opened the door when I arrived at their Manhattan townhouse, dressed all in black with her head covered. If she said anything at all, I didn’t think it important enough to write down. I was there to see her husband, an enigmatic kabbalist whose growing influence in Israel and the United States I had been investigating for months.
She shook hands with my editor, Jane Eisner, but — because she wouldn’t touch a male stranger — not with me.
This was in February 2011. Now, Deborah Rivka Pinto is in the news. According to reports in the Israeli press, she tried unsuccessfully to kill herself October 14, swallowing an overdose of pills while her husband was being questioned by the police. The two were under house arrest amid allegations that the rabbi had attempted to bribe an Israeli police official.
The restrictions on their movement will last two weeks. Though they have not been charged with any crime, they are barred from leaving the country for another six months.
The stakes for Pinto and his charitable empire couldn’t be higher, both here and abroad. In September, Pinto appeared to be at the peak of his powers. He was a driving force behind what amounted to a bailout of Israeli billionaire Nochi Dankner by Argentinean billionaire Eduardo Elztain. Business experts puzzled over the deal, which they saw as a bad bet for the Argentinean. But Pinto reportedly reassured Elsztain, promising him that investors in Israeli firms “would not be hurt, and will see their money back, even doubled and tripled.”
At the same time, the rabbi’s long-standing problems in the United States seemed to be resolving in his favor. Ofer Biton, a former aide who Pinto allies accused in The New York Times of bilking the congregation out of millions, was arrested on immigration charges. And Pinto himself did not seem to be implicated in the investigation into Biton’s allegedly illegal fundraising from Pinto followers for Staten Island Republican Rep Michael Grimm’s 2008 congressional campaign.