As the Ehud Olmert saga closes, the trial of former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger for NIS 10 million in bribes opened on Thursday in the Jerusalem District Court.
In October, the Jerusalem District Attorney's Office filed an indictment against the rabbi for bribes after then-attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein rejected arguments by Metzger's lawyer against the charges at a special pre-indictment hearing.
Weinstein emphasized that his decision was in keeping with the recommendation of State Attorney Shai Nitzan and other prosecution officials on the case.
Usually such pre-indictment hearings do not change the attorney-general's decision, but former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman did succeed in significantly reducing the scope of the charges against him.
Previously, Metzger’s defense team said in response to the attorney general’s prior announcements that he would likely indict Metzger, adding that “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 also 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, all while using his position as chief rabbi.
The indictment said that of the NIS 10 million, NIS 7 million had gone 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 8 million and NIS 5 million respectively.)
According to the indictment, in most of the suspected criminal actions, Chaim Eisenstadt, Metzger's driver, acted as his representative for his receiving bribes.
Due to Metzger and Eisenstadt's closeness and his involvement in Metzger's alleged scheme, Eisenstadt would be accused of having received double digits of the overall percentage of the bribes.
In the "Conversion Affair," Metzger allegedly received large bribery funds from foreigners who wished to convert 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 regarding the issues in question.
It added that sometimes Metzger received the funds, but made sure that at least in initial stages that checks were not made payable to him, such that he could better hide his involvement.
In 2011, the indictment said that Metzger and Cohen helped convert the children of a Russian businessman who had made aliya, at a price of $360,000, of which Metzger received $180,000.
Next, the indictment said that Metzger received 30-40 percent of donations slated for charitable organizations in exchange for his support and activities on behalf of those organizations.
One donation for $28,000 which was slated for a yeshiva in Metzger's synagogue with connections to Aish Hatorah, found its way to Metzger and Eisenstadt instead, said the indictment.
Another donation of NIS 105,000 earmarked for the organization "Beit Hatavshil," which helps provide food for the poor, was split between the charity and Metzger, who received around NIS 31,500 of the donation, without the donor's knowledge, according to the indictment.
Another specific allegation involved Metzger receiving bribes under the guise of gifts, such as gifts for his son's 2010 wedding.
In one case, Metzger allegedly received $500,000 in bribes under the guise of gifts in 10 separate cash payments.
At another ceremony for nominating a rabbi to receive an official position, one of that rabbi's relatives gave Metzger $70,000, said the indictment.
Metzger is also accused of failing to report some of the income he received to tax authorities, including failing to report the income to his accountant who filed his tax returns.
There are also money-laundering charges that Metzger used various middlemen to launder his funds, including using fictitious names to further throw the authorities off his trail.
The indictment also said that Metzger had instructed Eisenstadt to lie to police when questioned in order to protect Metzger.
To recover some of the funds, the state filed a request to seize various assets under Metzger and his family members’ names which are connected to the unlawfully obtained funds in the indictment.
Metzger voluntarily suspended himself from a number of major duties in June 2013 amid the investigation while he was still in office.
He maintained his innocence but stepped down from serving on the Rabbinical High Court, the Chief Rabbinical Council and the Appointments Committee for Rabbinical Judges.
At what was due to be the trial's opening, Metzger notified the court that he has just now switched lawyers. His new lawyer Tal Gabai asked the court for an extension of several months to become familiar with the estimated 50 binders of case material before Metzger makes his formal plea. State lawyer Dani Viteman rejected an extension to September as too long and Judge Moshe Yuad Cohen ruled that the new arraignment date would be set for July 4. Under the new schedule, witnesses will be heard starting September 12, though the case will recess in November and December while the judge is on sabbatical. Jeremy Sharon contributed to this story.