by Dr. Jay Michaelson
He is also a felon, convicted of bribing an Israeli police general. This week, after exhausting what is probably his last appeal—a last-ditch effort to avoid jail for health reasons—it appears he is finally headed for prison.
How does a Kabbalist, who by all accounts is indeed a devout man who practices what he preaches, become a multimillionaire?
It’s the network. In New York, Pinto’s close followers include leading Jewish real estate magnates like Ofer Yardeni and Charlie Kushner, politicians like Anthony Weiner and Eric Cantor, Jewish leaders including celebrity rabbi Marc Schneier and Malcolm Hoenlein (the head of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations), and even LeBron James.
But for a holy man, Pinto is surrounded by shady criminal elements, including outright crooks. In Israel, these include Yossi Harari, the head of the Ramat Amidar underworld gang, and mobster Shalom Domrani.
In the United States, they include Michael Grimm, the former Staten Island congressman convicted of tax evasion and perjury. Pinto was not directly implicated in Grimm’s crimes, but his close associates were; allegedly, they solicited donations for Grimm’s election campaign from Pinto’s network of followers in excess of legally allowable amounts.
But as described in a 2014 expose by New York Magazine, the empire really began falling apart in 2011, when Pinto’s former aide, Ofer Biton, began to turn against him, with the help of high-flying publicist Ronn Torossian. Torossian threatened Pinto’s organization with a negative PR blitz, and then began to carry it out. Biton extorted cash. Eventually, both Pinto and Biton were working as informants.
Meanwhile, Israeli authorities started investigating Pinto’s charities for misappropriation of funds, eventually arresting 10 employees. That’s when Pinto’s wife passed envelopes full of cash to the wife of police Brig. Gen. Ephraim Bracha, who had been a follower, in the hopes that Bracha would block the investigation. Unbeknownst to Pinto, Bracha was actually part of it.
Is the rabbi a cynical Svengali, a manipulator pulling the strings of power, or a pious, unworldly figure possessed of spiritual gifts but surrounded by men who take advantage of his naiveté?
Facing years in prison, Pinto took a plea deal last spring, and on May 12, he received the lightest sentence permissible under law: one year plus a fine. One month later, Bracha, who had been hounded by Pinto’s followers, committed suicide.
But Pinto fled to New York, pleading ill health. At the end of October, his organization proffered a weird, error-filled letter from a urologist, urging that the rabbi not fly back to Israel, even though the rabbi “insists” upon doing so. Followers assaulted reporters covering the case, and made threats to witnesses who had testified. But Pinto was sent back.
And now his last appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court has been rejected; the Court said that Israeli prisons can provide whatever medical care the 43-year-old rabbi needs.