Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein on Tuesday announced he was leaning toward indicting former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger for allegedly taking NIS 10 million in bribes.
Weinstein emphasized that his decision would be in keeping with the recommendation of State Attorney Shai Nitzan and other prosecution officials.
Metzger will be given a last shot to convince the attorney- general otherwise at a special pre-indictment hearing.
Such hearings usually do not affect decisions, but Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman did succeed in significantly reducing the scope of charges against him in a separate corruption case.
Metzger’s defense team said in response: “We received from the attorney-general the allegations against Rabbi Yona Metzger and the summons to a hearing. Rabbi Metzger denies the allegations made against him. According to the rabbi, he did not receive bribes, not through the state’s witness and not through anyone else, and did not launder money. We will address the allegations against the rabbi at the hearing he has been summoned to after we receive and review the investigative material.”
Besides bribery, the charges could include fraud, breach of public trust, fraudulent receipt of a benefit under aggravated circumstances, theft, money-laundering, tax violations and conspiracy to commit a felony while using his position as chief rabbi. Metzger served in the position from 2003 until 2013.
Of the NIS 10 million in alleged bribes, NIS 7 million went directly to Metzger, according to the Justice Ministry statement, which added that Haim Eisenstadt, the chief rabbi’s driver, conducted most of the transactions and received some of the money himself.
In response, the Chief Rabbinate issued a statement of its own, saying it was “saddened by Rabbi Metzger’s summoning to a hearing,” adding that “all employees of the Chief Rabbinate are obligated [to conduct] proper and transparent administration, and this is indeed how things are done.”
Metzger is suspected of receiving large-scale bribes from foreigners who wished to convert, or prove they were Jewish under standards acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate.
The Justice Ministry statement said that he and a rabbi from a foreign country split the money paid to the foreign rabbi regarding the issues in question.
It added that sometimes Metzger made sure that at least in initial stages, the checks were not made payable to him, such that he could better hide his involvement.
According to the statement, in 2011, Metzger and the rabbi helped convert the children of a Russian businessman who had made aliya, at a price of $360,000, of which Metzger pocketed $180,000.
In addition, the chief rabbi allegedly received double-digit percentages of donations slated for charitable groups in exchange for his support and activities on their behalf.
One donation, for $28,000, was slated for a yeshiva at Metzger’s synagogue, the ministry statement said. It is alleged to have found its way to the chief rabbi and his driver, Eisenstadt. Another, for $72,000, was earmarked for Beit Hatavshil, a group that provides food to the poor. It allegedly was split between the charity and Metzger, who received around $22,500, without the donor’s knowledge.
Another allegation involves Metzger receiving bribes under the guise of gifts, such as gifts for his son’s 2010 wedding. In one case, he allegedly received $500,000 in 10 separate payments. At a ceremony for nominating a rabbi to receive an official position, one of that rabbi’s relatives gave Metzger $70,000.
Metzger is also accused of failing to report all income he received.
The statement also says Metzger instructed Eisenstadt to lie to police when questioned, to protect the rabbi.
Metzger voluntarily suspended himself from a number of major duties in June 2013, amid the investigation. He maintained his innocence but stepped down from the Rabbinical High Court, the Chief Rabbinical Council and the Appointments Committee for Rabbinical Judges.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group, which works with converts, said it was “a sad day for the institutional rabbinate” and noted that the pending indictment comes as the Chief Rabbinate fights to keep tight control of the conversion process.
“The allegations related to conversion confirm that even a centralized system is subject to corruption,” Farber said. “It is particularly grievous that those in vulnerable positions such as converts were taken advantage of. ITIM continues to fight for transparency and honesty rather than centralization. The appropriate response here is oversight, and not consolidating the centralized authority of the rabbinate over conversion.”