Sometime in the next few months, assuming judges reject his long-shot appeal, Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto will report to an Israeli prison to serve a year behind bars.
Such a fate was nearly unimaginable five years ago, when the globetrotting, high-living rabbi splashed onto the scene in New York, rolling with a coterie that was as powerful, ambitious and devoted as that of any modern Kabbalist.
In those days, men fought to get close to the rabbi and his sprawling network of charities and yeshivas. Pinto made deals happen. Pinto had connections. Followers kissed his hands as he moved past, then begged for private audiences.
One spring night in 2010, they showed up in force for a late-night lecture at Pinto’s elegant Upper East Side headquarters — Israeli-born real-estate magnates, Jewish PR executives, accountants and lawyers. Michael Grimm, a former FBI agent then running for Congress, was there. Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was too. Anthony Weiner, then still a congressman from Manhattan, had visited the week before. LeBron James was photographed with Pinto, inexplicably, a few weeks later.
In Israel, top government officials swarmed his public events. When this newspaper was preparing to publish a report about financial troubles at his organization in 2011, Israel’s consul general in Boston reached out to the Forward, and a former official from Israel’s defense ministry rushed to New York and asked for a meeting in order to vouch for Pinto.
Rabbi Pinto, still in his 30s, was such a magnetic presence that the crowd on the Upper East Side waited an extra two hours for him to show. When he did, the flurry of excitement was fit for a pope in St. Peter’s Square.
Five years later, circumstances have changed for the Israeli Kabbalist. The rabbi himself was sentenced in May to a year in an Israeli prison after pleading guilty to bribery charges. The Israeli police general he tried to bribe, a former top follower, committed suicide soon after. Meanwhile, in the United States, Pinto’s American headquarters is in the midst of foreclosure proceedings, and lawyers for the City of New York have claimed in civil suits that Pinto’s top aide was operating an illegal hotel in a Manhattan building. An attorney representing Pinto’s organization in the foreclosure suit recently quit for lack of payment.
The saga of Rabbi Pinto, once the story of a fast-rising insider with surprising access and powerful connections, has wrapped itself into a confusing muddle through years of allegations and counter-allegations, criminal investigations, suicides and indictments of onetime allies and enemies. As the dust settles, Pinto’s edifice appears to be teetering. Still, the rabbi has made a habit of winding up on top.
Through it all, Pinto has remained defiant, even bellicose. In a July 22 email to his followers, Pinto sounded unbowed, and compared his suffering to the ultimate example of suffering in Jewish religious mythology, commemorated that week during the holiday of Tisha B’Av. “We are playing our part in a widespread battle, a holy war,” Pinto wrote. “Stories like the story we have been through, we find…[in] historical stories of the destruction of” the Temple in Jerusalem.
Pinto first drew tabloid attention in New York in 2010, when a Hasidic businessman named Solomon Obstfeld leapt to his death from a 19th-story window in Manhattan. The death was ruled a suicide by city’s medical examiner. Pinto had been feuding with Obstfeld at the time over an apartment rental gone sour, and press accounts connected the two men. The spring 2010 lecture at Pinto’s synagogue attended by Grimm and others, which took place just over a week after Obstfeld’s death, was dedicated to Obstfeld’s memory.
Up to that point, Pinto was no more than a wealthy enigma to much of Jewish New York. A year earlier, Pinto’s organization had bought the elegant former home of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society from Rabbi Marc Schneier’s Hampton Synagogue. Pinto’s organization paid $28.5 million in March 2009 for the new headquarters.
“As the economy was crashing, he could have chosen to renegotiate the price, which he never did,” Schneier told the Forward in 2011. “I will always admire him for having been the gentleman that he was.”
When the Forward asked Pinto in 2011 why he hadn’t renegotiated the 2009 deal, he told a story about a frog and a millipede.
The earliest cracks in Pinto’s operation appeared in 2011, when this newspaper reported on financial problems at Pinto’s American organization, Mosdot Shuva Israel. A month later, we reported that Ben Zion Suky, Pinto’s top aide, had a past as a porn distributor. In a third story, the Forward reported that Pinto’s charity had spent tens of thousands on a high-end hotel, fine men’s clothing and jewelry, among other luxuries.
In late 2011, The New York Times dropped its own bombshell, reporting that federal law enforcement officials in the U.S. were looking into an alleged “embezzlement and extortion plot” against Pinto and his organization. Three and a half years later, no charges have been brought in that investigation.
A subsequent story in the Times reported on allegations by Pinto’s followers that a former aide named Ofer Biton, named as one of the alleged extorters in the first Times story, had helped Michael Grimm raise campaign funds from Pinto’s network, and that Biton and Grimm had solicited donations above the legal limits for congressional races, including from Israelis who were not eligible to donate.
Biton pleaded guilty to visa fraud in 2013, yet the charges against him did not mention the fundraising allegations. Similarly, when Grimm was indicted for tax fraud in 2014, the charges were entirely unrelated to his 2010 campaign. (Grimm has since been sentenced to eight months in prison and quit his congressional seat.)
In the meantime, Pinto himself faced indictment — and that indictment came in Israel, not the United States. In September 2012 at the Tel Aviv Hilton, Pinto’s wife passed an envelope stuffed with 100,000 Swiss francs — worth roughly $100,000 — to the wife of Ephraim Bracha, a general in the Israeli police. Bracha, unbeknownst to Pinto, was working with prosecutors, and Pinto and his wife were soon interrogated.
Pinto had been worried about an Israeli police investigation into an Israeli charity called Hazon Yeshaya that he had taken over the previous year, so he had begun offering money to Bracha, a longtime acolyte, in the hopes of buying privileged information. Bracha had informed his superiors about the offers, and they instructed him to play along. Pinto accepted a plea bargain in 2014, agreeing to accept responsibility for the bribery charges and provide information in another matter. In return, Israeli prosecutors agreed not to ask for more than a year of prison time, and not to indict Pinto’s wife. In May, Pinto was sentenced in Tel Aviv District Court to three years, one of them of actual prison time, plus a fine of roughly $260,000.
“This is a rabbi and a great figure, who sinned and caused others to sin; was corrupt and corrupted others whom he involved in his crimes,” the judge, Dr. Oded Mudrick, wrote, according to translations of the Israeli court documents filed in New York State Supreme Court by an Israeli journalist being sued for libel here by Pinto’s organization.
Bracha committed suicide a month after Pinto’s sentencing, shooting himself in the chest in his car. The general had been the target of an intensive media campaign by Pinto’s followers, who portrayed him as corrupt. Israeli justice officials maintained after his death that, though tips from Pinto supporters had been and were being pursued, there had never been evidence to justify a criminal investigation against Bracha.
Pinto, meanwhile, remains free pending a hearing on a long-shot appeal of his sentence. He switched attorneys in late July, but in the meantime is not permitted to leave the country. That may be for the best, because times appear to be tough for Pinto’s American organization.
Last March, the holder of the mortgage on Pinto’s Manhattan headquarters filed suit to foreclose on the property. That suit is ongoing, but Pinto’s organization seems to have lost its lawyer: the firm JSBarkats PLLC withdrew from the case on July 8, citing “failure to communicate and non-payment of legal fees.”
JSBarkats continues to represent Suky’s firm in a lawsuit filed by the City of New York over a building on West 41st Street in Manhattan, formerly controlled by Suky, that the city contends was being operated as an illegal hotel.
That building is at the center of a handful of lawsuits connected to Suky and Pinto, including one, filed by Israeli businessman Tomer Shohat, that contends that Pinto and Suky directed an NYPD detective to arrest him so that he would not discover alleged theft of building funds by Suky. Pinto, Suky and the detective have denied the allegations.
In a separate suit, Shohat, as a representative of a group of investors that owned part of the building, has alleged that Suky inappropriately used building accounts to pay his personal expenses. Suky has denied those charges.
“We believe all the evidence that we have proves there was no mismanagement on behalf of the managing partners of the property,” said Sunny J. Barkats, founder of JSBarkats, which represents Suky’s firm in that matter. The case is ongoing.
The illegal hotel allegations, made by the City of New York in civil filings in January, claim that the building on West 41st was being deceptively advertised to guests as a short-term hotel when in fact it was only authorized for long-term rentals, and that it did not meet the safety requirements for a short-term hotel. “No fire alarm system is installed; there is no automatic sprinkler system; egress is inadequate for transient accommodations; no diagrams are posted showing evacuation routes; and there is no fire safety plan or fire safety director,” the city’s Corporation Counsel claimed in its initial complaint.
Suky and the firms he controlled denied the charges and have since sold the building, though the case is ongoing. Another similar case is ongoing against four other alleged illegal hotels in Midtown, two of which were controlled by Suky and have also been sold.
For the time being, life seems to be going on as normal at Pinto’s congregation. Suky did not respond to a voicemail requesting an interview, but another aide said that Pinto’s headquarters is still open and offered to show this reporter around — before he ceased answering this reporter’s calls or responding to voicemails.
Whether the network Pinto built can survive the rabbi’s pending imprisonment, however, has yet to be seen. Pinto, for his part, is fighting on.
“We are asking the members of our holy congregation and the entire nation of Israel, to plead and pray for me,” Pinto wrote in his July 22 email to his followers. “[Hoping], expecting and [praying] to HaShem, that whoever was involved in this will… come clean… thus will prevent great suffering upon all the living and the dead.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.