SILISTRA, Bulgaria – We will have the power to survive Persian threats in this
generation, as Mordechai and Esther did in the Purim story, if we pray and love
our fellow man, Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto told close to 1,000 of his followers
on their annual pilgrimage to the grave of the kabbalist Peleh Yoetz on
“We must stop panic in the nation,” the rabbi told reporters
traveling with him to Bulgaria. “The history of Ahasuerus is returning in a
horrifying way. Like then, today a Persian ruler wants to destroy and kill the
Jewish people. But that story ended without Jewish bloodshed and the same will
Pinto added that, back then, Diaspora Jewry did not give
advice to military and government leaders, and focused on unity and faith in
God, who will save his people.
The 38-year-old rabbi is the scion of two
major Moroccan rabbinical dynasties – Pinto and Abuhatzeira – and great-grandson
of the kabbalist Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, known as the Baba Sali.
was educated in Lithuanian yeshivas and founded Shuva Yisrael – a yeshiva in
Ashdod – when he was in his early 20s.
Shuva Yisrael has since expanded
to a network of yeshivas in Israel, Los Angeles, Miami and New York, and runs a
soup kitchen in Ashdod that provides thousands of meals daily. Yossi Elituv,
editor of the haredi Mishpacha magazine and Pinto’s media liaison, estimated
that Shuva Yisrael would prepare Rosh Hashana food packages for 12,500
For the past 11 years Pinto has been bringing his followers to
the grave of Rabbi Eliezer Papo, whose works Pinto finds very inspiring. Papo,
who is called the Peleh Yoetz after his seminal work on Jewish ethics, died in
1826 at the age of 43, when a plague hit the Bulgarian port town of
From the moment the rabbi and his entourage of close aides and
hundreds of followers landed in Varna airport – some with black hats and
forelocks, but most in modern dress and many not wearing a kippa – they were
followed by Bulgarian security police, protecting the biggest Jewish event in
their country since the terror attack in July.
A convoy of a dozen buses,
packed with pilgrims who paid NIS 2,400 for the privilege of being in the
rabbi’s presence, drove for nearly three hours towards Silistra.
bus was last, which his aides said as a sign of his modesty and concern for all
of his followers. Throughout the ride, followers tried to find a way to speak to
the rabbi, who was sitting in the front seat with his 12-year-old son
Since Pinto had held court over the course of the twohour flight to
Bulgaria, most of the followers were rebuffed, and he spent the bus ride
whispering to his closest aides, as his wife watched on from the seat behind the
While Pinto has long hair and a scraggly beard, and dresses like a
yeshiva student, “chic” would be the best word to describe his wife’s
While keeping with the restrictions of halachic modesty, the
rabbi’s wife wore a fashionable, well-tailored black skirt-suit and a
royal-purple, silk, ruffled blouse buttoned to her neck. She covered her hair in
a tightly fastened, elegant black scarf, and wore diamond earrings, while
clutching a Chanel purse and sporting black patent-leather Ferragamo
Pinto’s aides raved about the rebbetzin’s intelligence and
kindness, saying she has a university degree, is a Torah scholar, speaks seven
languages and has 50-100 guests every Shabbat.
Meanwhile, the rabbi’s
wife refused to be interviewed, telling The Jerusalem Post that the visit to
Papo’s grave is an indescribable spiritual experience that brings salvation, and
sat quietly the whole ride with a serious expression, speaking only to her son
and one of the rabbi’s aides, and occasionally answering a phone text
She maintained her quiet, modest demeanor throughout the day,
not pushing ahead of other women to bend over the grave of the Peleh Yoetz or to
get into the hotel where Pinto’s followers ate together before others, and did
not give out blessings.
As the buses arrived in Silistra, police cars
blocked the street leading to Papo’s grave, which is in a residential
neighborhood in the small, grey town on the Danube. Officers stood at the
entrance ways to drab apartment squares that appeared to be leftovers from the
Soviet era, not allowing the locals to approach the proceedings – though some
watched from their balconies.
When the rabbi descended from his bus,
hundreds of men swamped him, snapping pictures on their phones, like a Best
Actor nominee on the red carpet – but this was a different kind of celebrity. As
the crowd reached the gates of Papo’s grave, about 100 women went to the side
and peered through the tarps separating the genders.
On the other side,
the men rushed to grab seats as close to the rabbi as possible.
generation gets its strength from a different biblical story,” the rabbi told
his followers. “Our generation is rooted in the story of Esther, the megila that
was written last.” The people of Israel must love one another, and live in
brotherhood, he said.
“Many people are worried about what will be with
the Jewish People, because of our enemies,” Pinto stated. “Our power is in our
great love of our fellow man.” The rabbi made an oblique reference to recent
scandals involving his former aides.
“Last year we came here and cried
with a broken heart,” Pinto said at Papo’s grave.
“Today we thank God
even for the suffering that the Shuva Yisrael congregation
As congregants crowded around to get a better view of the
rabbi, he added: “We should try not to think too much about bad things, because
when we do, more bad things come. It is very important to have faith in God. We
reached this point because of God’s help and all the good he gave
Last December, Pinto’s followers told the FBI that two former
members of his inner circle embezzled money from Shuva Yisrael and tried to
blackmail the rabbi. They accused former aid, Ofer Biton, of stealing millions
in donations to the congregation and Manhattan PR agent Ronn Torossian of
leaking false, damaging information about Pinto to reporters.
helped Congressman Michael Grimm (R-New York) raise millions of dollars in his
2010 campaign, was arrested in late August for immigration fraud. Grimm is being
investigated for possibly accepting illegal campaign donations from Pinto’s
congregants, and Al-Monitor reported in August that House Majority Leader Eric
Cantor’s (R-Virginia) seven biggest donors are associates of the
Elituv insisted that the rabbi gives advice to people from all
points on the political spectrum in Israel and abroad, and does not have a
particular connection to any of them, adding that Pinto does not support
ultra-Orthodox parties. They pointed to Biton’s arrest as an indication that the
rabbi is not involved in shady financial dealings, rather, it is the rabbi’s
enemies who are trying to frame him.
The Mishpacha editor also pointed
out that, unlike previous years, wealthy businessmen, like partner owner Ilan
Ben-Dov, didn’t join the trip, because Pinto wanted the focus of the trip to be
on the spiritual experience, and not the many famous people he
In fact, the most recognizable faces on the pilgrimage were
former Labor MK Yoram Marciano, former Netanyahu adviser Ari Harrow and mafia
figure Yossi Harari.
Later in the day, when the rabbi and about half of
those who joined him at Papo’s grave went to the Danube Hotel for a meal, a
bottleneck built up at the entrance, as five Bulgarian policeman checked
“This feels like home,” an Israeli reporter quipped. “It was never
like this before,” a Pinto follower grumbled. Several others scolded the police
officers for trying to check the rabbi’s wife, who seemed mildly
The rabbi and his wife held court in a hotel room, while his male
followers filled the entire dining room, except for a small side area saved for
Ambassador to Bulgaria Yisrael Kamisa participated in the meal,
pointing to the security and saying “the Bulgarians understand that terror has
reached their country too, and unfortunately, five Jews were killed because they
are Jewish.” He continued, “I am proud of the unity I see here, and it gives me
strength to continue to represent the Jewish people.”
Women listened from
a side room, eating chicken and couscous and preparing for the flight
Many of the women covered their hair and wore skirts covering their
knees, but Daisy, a blonde teenager from Holon, sported red jeans and a low-cut
When asked why she participated in the pilgrimage, Daisy said
her brother and sister prayed at Papo’s grave last year and “saw salvation,” in
finances, marriage, health and peace of mind.“It was a really powerful
experience, my faith in God was strengthened,” Daisy concluded.