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 Tuesday.

“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 happen today.”

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.

Pinto 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 families.

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 Silistra.

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.

Pinto’s 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 Yoel.

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 rabbi.

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 appearance.

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 wedges.

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 message.

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.

“Every 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 experienced.”

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 us.”

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.

Biton, who 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 rabbi.

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 advises.

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 bags.

“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 amused.

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 women.

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 home.

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 white top.

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.

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