BULGARIA – A broken heart, an immersion in the on-site ritual bath. And then your prayers, offered at the grave of Rabbi Eliezer Papo in Silistra, Bulgaria, are guaranteed to be accepted. Sarajevo- born Papo served as rabbi of this eastern Bulgarian town, just across the Danube from Romania. He is immortalized among Jews for his widespread moralistic book Pele Yo’etz, and among locals for giving his life to save the town from a plague in 1826.
But it was not primarily Papo’s heritage that brought thousands of day pilgrims to his grave in Silistra one week before Rosh Hashana, in the largest such event of the seven years of this renewed tradition. Five airplanes from Israel, another two from the US and endless other means of air and land transportation brought rabbis, wealthy businessmen, a haredi deputy minister and his very tall son, a blonde female multi-talent, an NBA star’s business manager and, first and foremost, Jews from all walks of life and levels of religious devotion to this annual pilgrimage, all under the spiritual leadership of one Rabbi Yeoshiau Pinto, founder and head of the Shuva Israel institutions.
Pinto seems to possess the religious charisma and wisdom to draw thousands in Israel and the Diaspora to seek his guidance and follow his teachings, as well as the lineage and schooling that provide firm rabbinical foundations, and a religious worldview that sees the good and holy in every Jew regardless of his lifestyle, before anything else.
Born in 1972, Pinto is a descendant of two famous Moroccan kabbalistic rabbinical dynasties, descendants of which are said to have the potential to possess the capabilities to work miracles (ba’alei mofet). On his father’s side, the line can be traced back to Rabbi Haim Vital, Rabbi Isaac Luria’s student who was an in-law of the Pintos. On his mother’s side, Pinto is the great-grandson of the Baba Sali (Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira), believed by many to be a miracle worker, whose Netivot grave draws hundreds of thousands annually. If anyone bears the potential to be a ba’al mofet, a disciple acclaimed, it is Pinto.
Though his family was, and still is, based in Ashdod, where his father has recently been appointed Sephardi chief rabbi, the young Pinto studied under Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, head of the prestigious Lithuanian-style Ma’alot Hatorah yeshiva in Jerusalem. Pinto was also deeply influenced by the teachings of Satmar Hassidism, and his firstborn Yoel is named after the Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, who died in 1979.
This concoction of Moroccan mysticism, Lithuanian scholasticism and some Hassidism (from a court famous for its stringency and anti-Zionism) must be part of the foundations that create Pinto’s great appeal and ability to reach out to Jews who normally would probably have no traffic with a haredi rabbi.
Fundamentally, Pinto’s approach to accepting every Jew is “like that of the Ba’al Shem Tov,” says confidant Rabbi Meir Pinto (no direct relation). Like the 18th-century founder of Hassidism, who combined scholastic depth with outreach, Yeoshiau Pinto sees in every Jew “the good, the heart with a warm, living spark. Every Jew is a unique diamond,” says Meir. “But sometimes the diamond falls to the ground and becomes dirty. You need to gently lift and clean such specimens from where they fell, till they become worthy of a king’s crown.”
Accordingly, Pinto addresses his interlocutors as “tzaddik” or “rabbi,” an expression of his belief that every Jew is special, with a unique spiritual mission to fulfill, Meir added.
“You just need to show such people your respect and love.”
THE FIRST plane to take off from Israel to Bulgaria, bearing Pinto and his closest circle in its front rows, was abuzz with reciprocal love, respect and often admiration for the rabbi, simply dressed in a dark suit and hat, largely referred to by the title reserved for rabbinic leaders of hassidic courts – admor.
Even a four-hour delay before takeoff couldn’t entirely douse the excitement of the passengers on the outset of their spiritual journey, particularly those who would not be considered “religious” in their daily life, each of whom created a bond with Pinto at a different time and for different reasons, but with an important common denominator: gratitude for a welcome into some aspects of Judaism, through a rabbi who is at once haredi, rooted in tradition, learning and observance, and at the same time open and accepting to any Jew who approaches.
The distant Bulgarian sky was as blue and cold as the eyes of the young woman who stamped the passports at the Varna airport, from where the pilgrims were bused a further two and a half hours eastward, disembarking at Papo’s grave to the mild bemusement of the locals, who even after the seventh time of witnessing such a happening were still not fully sure what to expect.
Pinto’s tenets of acceptance were manifest in the sermon he gave following the slihot he led once night set on Silistra. In his soft, nonassuming voice carried over the complex’s speakers, Pinto stressed the Jewish values of showing love and welcoming others. He also retold the story of Rabbi Akiva, who is famous for having begun to learn Torah at the advanced age of 40. Pinto spoke of the hardship Akiva, formerly a shepherd, encountered in his initial attempts to learn Torah, and how he persevered to become one of the foundations of Jewish thought.
Listening to Pinto’s sermon were also men who had doubtlessly heard that story many times before, such as head of the nationalreligious flagship yeshiva, Merkaz Harav, Rabbi Ya’acov Shapira. and United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush, joined by his son.
According to Meir Pinto, Porush sees in Pinto “a person who can unify all the sectors and populaces in Israel, while seeking his advice and resourcefulness.” The same applies to Shapira, Meir said.
Tens of thousands of believers made their way to grave of Rabbi Nahman in Uman, Ukraine, this year. What brought Pinto to bring his followers to Papo’s grave for the seventh annual pilgrimage is the special affinity he has always felt to the teachings of Papo, whom he considers his “celestial rabbi” – besides a living rabbi, everyone should have another one in heaven, and Papo is his, as Pinto has said and written on many occasions.
One of Pinto’s followers chanced upon the grave when in Bulgaria for business, and at the rabbi’s request purchased the lot, “to give temporal honor to his celestial rabbi,” as Meir Pinto said.
Here lies another element of Pinto’s success and allure. Many powerful and wealthy people, whether politicians or businessmen, here or in the US, consider him not only an inspiration and religious teacher, but also a practical guide whose wisdom and advice are priceless.
Buying a small plot in Bulgaria is an almost natural expression of devotion and gratitude, that many of Pinto’s wealthy followers would be likely happy to undertake.
There were rumors that LeBron James, one of the NBA’s most brilliant talents and highestearning stars, would grace Silistra with his presence on that day. James had recently commissioned Pinto for “spiritual guidance” during a merchandising meeting, according to celebrity news website TMZ, where it was also stated that James gave a donation “in the neighborhood of six figures” to Shuva Israel in return for Pinto’s presence at the meeting.
James didn’t arrive in the end, but his friend and business manager, Maverick Carter, did.
It should not come as a surprise that the young, non-Jewish athlete would seek Pinto’s counsel and blessing after hearing about the rabbi. After all, Pinto is a magnet within political and business circles in the US. Successful businessmen like Jay Schottenstein, chairman of the American Eagle Outfitters clothing empire and DSW, whose family is behind the Artscroll Schottenstein Talmud, real-estate magnate Haim Revah and clothing manufacturer Jack Avital are so dedicated to Pinto that they made their way to Bulgaria for the time in his proximity. Ilan Ben-Dov, who in 2009 assumed control over cellular provider Partner (Orange) Communications, and real-estate mogul Jacky Ben-Zaken led the group of Israeli tycoons who regularly consult with Pinto to Silistra.
This attention from fiscally blessed individuals has enabled Pinto to build an empire of Torah study and philanthropy, which grew out of the first Shuva Israel yeshiva, Pinot, he founded in Ashdod in his early 20s, making a point of not taking money from the state, as such a move could cause resentment among taxpayers and distance them from Judaism.
Today the Ashdod center includes four synagogues serving 1,200 worshipers, a kollel and yeshiva with more than 300 full-time students, a mikve and a vast library. A soup kitchen provides 3,000 meals a day. Similar centers exist in Ashkelon.
Shuva Israel’s nerve center is in Manhattan, between which and Ashdod Pinto divides his time. In early 2009, an elegant six-story building at 122 East 58th Street that had belonged to the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society was sold to Shuva Israel for $33 million, all raised by Pinto’s followers in one evening. Pinto’s lessons there are also broadcast and viewed online by hundreds of thousands worldwide. There are also centers in Brooklyn, Queens, Los Angeles and Miami Beach. There are plans to expand Shuva Israel to China and London as well. According to Meir Pinto, more than 13,000 families receive ample food parcels on every holiday, not only for Shuva Israel affiliates but for potentially any needy family in Israel.
Politicians and businessmen seek Pinto’s affinity and advice “because of his sharp mind, but primarily his truth and ability to reach the important parts, the essence of issues,” Meir said. “And of course the desire to receive a genuine blessing before a business transaction. In today’s markets, brimming with emotions and personal intrigues, it is only natural to seek someone like the rabbi, who is a guide and helps point people toward the correct and true measures.”
Ben-Dov, who has been close to Pinto for years and received his blessing before last year’s Partner deal, described his connection as one of “mutual love and great esteem.”
How does he explain the abundance of prominent businessmen seeking the rapport and support of rabbis, predominantly from traditions of mysticism? “Being businessmen doesn’t change you into different creatures; we are like doctors, fishermen and writers,” Ben-Dov replied. “Businessmen are people, and everyone has the people with whom his soul and spirit connect to.
Besides, everyone is a bit of a businessman.
“Rabbi Pinto is a source of light; I am acquainted with other rabbis. They are good, righteous, constantly doing on behalf of the public, teach and provide a personal example. It is pleasing to be around them and know them.”
But might the appeal of rabbis such as Pinto be that they are privy to sources beyond what the average person has access to, or believed to be so? “Contrary to what the media try to present, the main ingredient in any financial success, perhaps next to knowing the right people, is luck,” ascertains Tomer Persico, a PhD student and lecturer at Tel Aviv University on topics of religion and spirituality. “There is simply no real way to know if a business venture will turn out successful or become a disaster. But while the public is not aware of that, the businessmen themselves know this all too well, and all the more so the most successful among them. They know that their intelligence can take no real credit for the millions they made.
“This very clear knowledge makes them very frightened, obviously because they don’t want to lose all the power that they now have in miserable future investments. It’s common knowledge that the riskier the decision, and the less control we have over its outcome, the more we will tend to invent some magical way of ensuring it will go well. That’s why, for example, sports are filled with superstitions.
So it’s easy to understand why so many millionaires depend on these spiritual figures: They are scared that luck will turn against them, and the rabbis provide an easy – but ‘deep and authentic’ – way to boost their confidence.”
Another intelligent interlocutor suggested that businessmen, who will
ruthlessly cut salaries and fire as many employees as their business’s
success necessitates, seek and find a purging feeling of good and
righteousness in the proximity of people considered holy, to whose
charities they can also donate.
Assaf, a hi-tech entrepreneur who encountered Pinto through his previous
job as a journalist years ago, analogized the advicegiving to something
similar to the work of a psychologist. “The businessmen have all the
information, tools and knowledge to make their decisions,” he said, “but
something is keeping them from seeing what they need in order to make
the call. The rabbi can help the person extract from within himself the
right answer, through a careful and intuitive listening process.”
The 35-year-old man, on his way to Silistra for the third time, also
said that before he had met Pinto, he was strongly anti-religious.
Now, he said, he makes sure to don tefillin every day.
Whether individuals can possess supernatural spiritual powers is a
legitimate question not only in the Jewish tradition, which recognizes
such phenomena while severely warning of idolatry and superstitions, but
throughout most cultures around the world in which spirituality exists.
No doubt many attribute such a gift to Pinto, who is uncannily smart
and intuitive, attuned to his interlocutors and refreshingly witty when
he chooses to be.