NETIVOT, Israel (AP) — One summer night, on the outskirts of a sleepy desert town, a who’s who of Israel’s elite gathered for an annual feast to honor a rabbi whose gaze is said to pierce the soul.
He’s Rabbi Yaacov Israel Ifargan. But he is better known as, simply, the X-ray.
Over the past few decades, he and dozens of other rabbis have carefully positioned themselves at the fulcrum of Israeli power and influence. They have attracted throngs of adherents — most notably some of the country’s top business moguls, who pay top shekel for an audience with their rabbi to solicit blessings and discuss business matters.
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.
The Israeli edition of Forbes magazine published a first-of-its-kind ranking last month of Israel’s 13 richest rabbis. In the number one spot was 36-year-old Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira from Beersheba, a blue-collar southern desert city, whose wealth is estimated at $335 million. The X-ray rabbi placed sixth, with an estimated net worth of $23 million.