Rabbi Yaakov Israel Ifargan, known as the 'X-Ray' rabbi
These magnates have helped fuel the rise of a rabbinic aristocracy whose members have channeled the donations they receive into multi-million-dollar empires. After gaining experience dishing out advice to Israeli tycoons, the rabbis have become shrewd businessmen themselves, managing hefty investments in stocks and real estate at home and abroad — with much of their earnings allegedly kept far from the watchful eyes of Israeli tax collectors.
Their chief critic calls them swindlers and frauds, and some fellow rabbis are critical of their practices.
"Every single shekel brings about true peace," announced the X-ray rabbi's half brother, Rabbi Hayim Amram Ifargan, from the dais at the recent gathering, in a gentle nudge to the crowd of VIPs to continue their support.
He, too, is a part of the Ifargan family franchise. His spiritual adherents call him "The MRI." In the women's section behind a laced divider sat "The Arbitrator" or "The CT," Ifargan's millionaire sister Bruria Zvuluni, a go-to spiritual counselor who claims to have mediated feuds between Israeli crime kingpins. Though she is not a rabbi, she made it to the bottom of Forbes' list.
Rabbis who make fortunes for themselves and encourage others to make money with their blessings draw the wrath of some fellow Jewish clerics.
Most rabbis in Israel are not raking in millions. They are instead salaried government employees, assigned by Israel's official rabbinate to perform religious rites for the Jewish public such as marriages and burials, or to enforce Jewish dietary laws in restaurants and hotels.
They are nowhere near the level of the high-flying spiritual gurus like the X-ray.
Such gurus set up public office hours in their homes to receive Israelis on all rungs of the social ladder, as long as they come with cash. In exchange, adherents receive amulets and little pieces of paper containing the rabbi's personalized blessing. The most successful rabbis have founded charitable institutions and small religious seminaries, which act as conduits for the incoming cash flow.
Menachem Friedman, an expert on Orthodox Judaism and professor emeritus at Bar Ilan University, says religious Jewish businessmen since the 19th century have solicited rabbis' blessings for cash to ensure their success — though today the sums have reached unprecedented amounts.
"If the market is dangerous and shaky, the millionaires who benefit from that market have less confidence. They need these rabbis to give them that security," Friedman said.
His grandson, Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira, became the richest of them all, building himself a three-story villa said to include an events hall, deluxe guest rooms for important donors and an underground tunnel allowing him safe passage to his synagogue and office across the street, according to journalist Yossi Bar-Moha, who says he obtained the house plans from the Beersheba municipality.
The Israeli police's national fraud squad opened an investigation in the late 1990s, discovering $125 million in his personal account. He reportedly reached a settlement with Israel's tax authorities to pay a fraction of what he owed them.
Then his bodyguards whisked him into a black Mercedes-Benz, and they sped off.