Rabbi Yona Metzger.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Yonah Metzger will become the first former chief rabbi to go behind bars, after he signed a plea deal on Tuesday admitting to reduced bribery charges that carry penalties of up to three-and-a-half years in jail and a NIS 5 million fine.
His lawyers tried to spin the positive aspects of the deal, saying that around half of the original bribery charges will be dropped and that, with good behavior, Metzger may get out of jail in only two years.
Still, the plea deal, once it is approved by the Jerusalem District Court, will bring to a climax what is likely the most serious corruption conviction since the verdict against former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Metzger had previously denied all charges.
Metzger was indicted in October 2015 for taking NIS 10m. in bribes. His trial opened in March 2016, but never delved deeply into details due to ongoing plea deal negotiations.
Besides bribery, the charges also included fraud, breach of public trust, fraudulent receipt of a benefit under aggravated circumstances, theft, money-laundering, tax violations and conspiracy to commit a felony, all while abusing his position as chief rabbi. It was unclear which of the original charges were being dropped.
The indictment said that of the NIS 10m. in bribes, NIS 7m. went directly to Metzger (the numbers are according to exchange rates at the time of the crimes – at current rates, the amounts would drop to around NIS 8m. and NIS 5m. respectively.) According to the indictment, in most of the criminal actions Chaim Eisenstadt, Metzger’s driver, acted as the recipient for the bribes.
Due to Eisenstadt’s closeness with Metzger and his involvement in the scheme, Eisenstadt was accused of receiving an overall double-digit percentage of the bribes.
In the so-called “conversion affair,” Metzger allegedly received large bribes from foreigners who wished to convert to Judaism or to clarify whether they were Jewish under standards acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate. The indictment said that Metzger and Rabbi Gavriel Cohen, the former head of the Beit Din of Los Angeles, split funds paid to Cohen related to the issues in question.
In 2011, the indictment said that Metzger and Cohen helped convert the children of a Russian businessman who had made aliya for a price of $360,000, of which Metzger received $180,000.
Next, the indictment said that Metzger received 30% to 40% of donations slated for charitable organizations in exchange for his support and activities on behalf of those organizations.
One donation of $28,000 that was slated for a yeshiva in Metzger’s synagogue found its way to Metzger and Eisenstadt instead, said the indictment.
Another donation of NIS 105,000 earmarked for the Beit Hatavshil organization, which provides food for the poor, was split between the charity and Metzger, who received around NIS 31,500 of the money without the donor’s knowledge, according to the indictment.
Another allegation involved Metzger receiving bribes under the guise of gifts, including gifts for his son’s 2010 wedding. In one case, Metzger allegedly received $500,000 in bribes in 10 separate cash payments disguised as gifts.
At one ceremony in which a rabbi was to be nominated for an official position, one relative of the nominee- rabbi’s gave Metzger $70,000, according to the indictment.