The house at 29 Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton, N.Y., is not the sort of place one might associate with an ultra-Orthodox kabbalist rabbi.
The oceanfront property on one of the upper-crust Long Island vacation town’s toniest streets is a few hundred yards from mansions owned by Martha Stewart and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. When a Dutch banker bought the place in 2001, the main building had seven bedrooms and a solarium, and there were plans to put in a pool.
It’s not clear whether there was a pool by August 2008, when Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto’s charity paid $77,000 to rent the house for three weeks.
The next year, Pinto’s charity spent $40,000 to rent the house again, this time for just a little longer than two weeks.
Pinto, who has reportedly declared his intention to seek the post of Sephardic chief rabbi in Israel next year, has alleged in media reports that he has been the target of blackmail and that funds have been embezzled from his organization. Notwithstanding these allegations, questions about his organization’s finances remain.
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 monthlong 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.
In previous investigations published in March and April, the Forward raised questions about the finances of Mosdot Shuva Israel and reported that Pinto’s top American-based aide, Ben Zion Suky, is a former porn distributor.
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.
At the same time, documents obtained during the Forward’s investigation indicate a pattern of spending by Pinto’s charity, Mosdot Shuva Israel, that seems at odds with the organizational objectives it provided to the Internal Revenue Service when applying for its exemption from federal taxes in 2004. At the time, the group said it existed to maintain a synagogue, provide spiritual guidance and promote “religious, intellectual and moral development,” among other goals.
Pinto is among the most prominent of a new breed of Israeli rabbinic gurus with influence in Israel’s business and political spheres. A scion of two prominent Moroccan rabbinic lines, his followers include Nochi Dankner, billionaire owner of the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv, and Jacky Ben-Zaken, a prominent real estate investor. Leading political figures from across the Israeli spectrum — including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, former Labor Party leader Amir Peretz and Gideon Ezra, a former minister of internal security — appeared at a recent event hosted by Pinto in Israel. At the event, which was covered by Israel’s Channel 10, Labor Knesset member Benjamin Ben-Eliezer described how he woke from a coma after Pinto wept at his bedside.
Indeed, as the Forward prepared its March report on Pinto’s organization, Israel’s consul general in Boston approached the newspaper on Pinto’s behalf, and Yossi Lahmani, executive director of the Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center, flew to the United States to lobby the Forward for the rabbi.
In the United States, Pinto has cultivated relationships with federal legislators, including Staten Island Rep. Michael Grimm and Weiner.
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. The Times reported that Biton denied the allegations through a lawyer and that Torossian declined to comment. In a statement emailed to the Forward, Torossian called the allegations “absurd” and “libelous.” When contacted by the Forward, a representative for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York declined to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. A representative for the New York office of the FBI did not respond to a request for comment.
Mosdot Shuva Israel is the American arm of Pinto’s extensive network of organizations. In a February interview with the Forward, Pinto said that other organizations in his network operate rabbinical schools and schools for girls in Israel, and feed hungry families in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, where his father is now chief rabbi. 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.
Former donors to Pinto told the Forward earlier this year that they were assured that donations to Mosdot Shuva Israel would cover operating expenses for the yeshiva and fund a food pantry. The organization does distribute food from locations in Brooklyn and Queens, but at the same time, Mosdot Shuva Israel documents and other reports obtained by the Forward raise questions about the group’s spending.
The Forward has obtained receipts showing purchases of expensive jewelry by Mosdot Shuva Israel. One invoice from Di Modolo International, a Madison Avenue jewelry store, indicates that Pinto’s organization purchased two bracelets and a ring in May 2009 for a total of $110,000. The ring alone cost $65,000.
The report in The Marker stated that Pinto had told associates that a former volunteer had purchased the jewelry for his own use.
Pinto often gives expensive gifts to supporters, including watches and Jewish ritual items such as Kiddush cups. But in his February interview with the Forward, Pinto and Suky, his aide and translator, claimed that the gifts Pinto gave to followers were usually donated to him.
The organization also spent heavily on elegant men’s attire. In March 2010, Mosdot Shuva Israel purchased $28,415 in fabrics and other clothing from Beckenstein Men’s Fabrics on West 39th Street in Manhattan. An itemized receipt obtained by the Forward lists fabrics for Pinto and also for Yoel Pinto, the rabbi’s 11-year-old son.
The Forward has also obtained documents demonstrating a number of hefty outlays for lodging by Mosdot Shuva Israel. Besides the East Hampton oceanfront vacation rental, the organization paid $75,211 to cover a monthlong stay for two people at the Alvear Palace Hotel, among the most high-end hotels in Buenos Aires. Pinto’s wife is listed as the guest on the hotel bill.
Both the Alvear bill and the East Hampton rental agreement were aired in the brief report on Israel’s Channel 2 on December 18. The channel is preparing a longer version of the report to air on December 22.
The Forward reported in March that Pinto regularly flies first class.
Pinto defended his first-class flights in the Channel 2 interview. Asked whether he travels first class, Pinto responded: “How should we travel? How is it possible to travel?”
In a number of the documents obtained by the Forward, some payments by Mosdot Shuva Israel appear to have been handled by Jacob Abikzer, a real estate magnate who runs Metropolitan Real Estate Investors, LLC, with his uncle Haim Revah. The former vice president and treasurer of Mosdot Shuva Israel, Abikzer did not respond to phone calls seeking comment on the documents.
Abikzer’s firm once owned the Lipstick Building, a landmark Manhattan office building purchased in 2007 by a number of Pinto-connected investors. The limited liability company created to purchase the building filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
The Forward reported in March that the townhouse where Pinto lives, which is owned by Mosdot Shuva Israel, faced foreclosure. Those foreclosure proceedings are ongoing. The Forward also reported that the man presented as Mosdot Shuva Israel’s top financial officer could not say how many employees worked for the organization, and that former donors claimed that fundraisers for the group used insistent and unusual tactics in their fundraising.
In November, after representatives of Mosdot Shuva Israel declined to respond to questions submitted by the Forward about the organization’s spending, Israeli media began to report allegations by one prominent Pinto follower that the rabbi had been blackmailed by unnamed media outlets.
“People who own media outlets of radio, TV, and Internet conducted in recent months a defamation campaign against Rabbi Pinto,” former Jerusalem chief of police Aryeh Amit told Arutz 7, an Israeli radio station and website. “These people know that especially in the Haredi society, when there is a bad rumor about a certain person, you cannot overcome it. They know the power they have in their hands and that is why they tried to extort Rabbi Pinto. Shuva Israel institutes of Rabbi Pinto raise a lot of donations thanks to Rabbi Pinto’s blessed activity.”
After a report on the blackmail allegations aired on Israeli television, a firecracker was thrown at Pinto’s home in Ashdod.
Pinto himself also spoke on the blackmail claim. In a Web video posted by IsraelNationalNews, Arutz 7’s English-language website, Pinto spoke forcefully about his alleged victimization. “We were willing to suffer a terrible pain for two years — very awful, cruel in a way that has had no parallel since the most cruel stories in the Bible which happened to the people of Israel,” Pinto said.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.