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.
All, however, was apparently not well. According to Israeli media reports, Pinto allegedly attempted to bribe the Israeli police official over a separate money laundering investigation in which he was a target.
Then, on October 16, Channel 10 TV’s investigative reporter, Raviv Drucker, aired a story saying that the police investigation that led indirectly to the house arrest of the Pintos had to do with, among other things, allegations that Deborah Rivka Pinto unlawfully received $1.1 million from a charity run by Pinto’s people. The reporter displayed documents, apparently lists of bank transfers, that show the money transferred from banks in the United States to her bank account in Israel. The TV report noted that Pinto and his wife were asked about this in their investigation and, according to police sources, did not deny receiving the money. Pinto’s lawyer said, in a statement, that there was no wrongdoing and that everything will become clear once the investigation is over.
This isn’t the first time that Deborah Rivka Pinto’s name has been linked to money laundering. Her father, Argentinean Chief Rabbi Shlomo Ben Hamo, filed a lawsuit in the summer of 2011, accusing his daughter and Pinto of pressuring him into serving as guarantor of a Jerusalem apartment as part of a money laundering scheme.
Ben Hamo and Pinto reached a settlement in the case in September 2011.
And, as I reported last year, Deborah Rivka Pinto’s name appears on the purchase of an expensive Manhattan apartment with Ben Zion Suky, the rabbi’s powerful right-hand man, who had been involved in the porn industry.
Deborah Rivka Pinto’s future and that of her husband are unclear. Neither has been charged with any crime. But the two are barred from leaving Israel for six months — likely a hardship for a rabbi who travels regularly to fundraise at institutions he heads around the world.
Still, Pinto has a broad and powerful base that goes far beyond businessmen like Dankner and Elzstain. The same day I visited Pinto’s townhouse, my editor was visited in the Forward’s office by a former Israeli defense ministry official who now runs a state museum and educational institution named for Yitzhak Rabin. That official had traveled all the way from Israel to vouch for Pinto in person, unbidden by us. At a different time, Israel’s consul general in Boston called my editor at Pinto’s behest.
Among the Sephardic rank-and-file Pinto has adherents, too, both in the United States and in Israel. Men on the streets of the southern Israeli city of Ashdod praise him. His photo hangs on the wall of a kosher falafel shop in Las Vegas.
I doubt we’ve heard the last of the rabbi. Or his wife.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.