(photo credit: AP)
The voluntary activities at Yad Sarah’s Jerusalem headquarters proceeded as usual on Thursday, but volunteers, paid employees and visitors to its medical-equipment lending service were in shock. The founder of the 35-year-old organization, former Jerusalem mayor Rabbi Uri Lupolianski, was in a Ramle lockup on suspicion of taking more than NIS 3 million in bribes and alleged money laundering to benefit Yad Sarah.
The haredi former high school teacher and father of 12 had been detained for five days while the National Fraud Unit in Lod questioned him as part of investigations into the Holyland Park apartment complex in Jerusalem’s Malha neighborhood. The police suspect that between 1999 and 2008, during the mayoral terms of former prime minister Ehud Olmert and his successor Lupolianski, the Holyland development company then owned by businessman Hillel Charni bribed senior officials involved in planning and building.
Since entering politics, Lupolianski has served as president of Yad Sarah, whose 101 branches manned by 6,000 volunteers around the country annually assist some 400,000 sick, lonely and elderly with a wide variety of free and subsidized services.
Police called Lupolianski on Tuesday night, instructing him to appear at the Lod station the next morning. He reportedly did not take anything with him, believing that he would be questioned and then allowed to go home. But instead, he was remanded for five days by the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court.
Following his remand, his family called in a lawyer prominent in white-collar cases, Yair Golan – who ironically owns and lives in an apartment in the Holyland Park complex.
People at Yad Sarah headquarters, including those who had worked there for many years and knew him well, said they couldn’t believe the former mayor had taken bribes to benefit their charitable organization, and certainly not for his own benefit. He has lived for decades in a 90-square-meter third-floor walkup apartment in the capital’s Sanhedria Murhevet neighborhood, where he and his wife Michal have raised their children and continue to use some of the space for lending out medical equipment to the public.
But some added that in the “very small likelihood” that Lupolianski had in fact accepted bribes from businessmen to help Yad Sarah, such an act violated Israeli – and Jewish – law and was morally wrong.
Some among its 200 paid staffers said that Lupolianski had never been involved in processing contributions and that thousands of them arrived each year to cover the vast majority of the organization’s NIS 70 million budget. All donors were given receipts, and management was said never to ask why contributors decided to give Yad Sarah money, they added.
Since leaving City Hall about 18 months ago after Nir Barkat won mayoral elections, Lupolianski is said to have driven in his old car to the Yad Sarah building in the capital’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood and worked at the headquarters three or four days a week. Lupolianski was never paid for his services in all the 35 years, the staffers said. He was not the sole decision-maker, as Shlomo Loberbaum has been director-general for the last two years. Yehudit Intract, Loberbaum’s predecessor, who left Yad Sarah for another voluntary organization, is likely to be called in by police for information on the case, as is another woman who was previously in charge of handling donations.
Although many people – volunteers, donors and the general public – have called the organization during the past 24 hours to offer it their moral support, the staff is concerned that even though Yad Sarah had nothing to do with approval for building construction, some might consider withholding vital donations. The government funds only 4 percent of the budget, with 30% coming from service fees and the rest from voluntary donations.
An official press release issued by Yad Sarah spokesman David Rothner
on Thursday quoted Loberbaum as saying that the organization “believes
in Uri Lupolianski’s innocence and looks forward to his return to the
organization to continue to carry out his voluntary activities.”
In a message sent to all of Yad Sarah’s staffers and branches around
the country, Loberbaum added: “We will continue to work in full
devotion to the ideals of Yad Sarah – service with a full heart, to the
poor and rich, without bureaucracy or questions and without a hint of
arrogance. We hope that this cloud over us will quickly dissipate.”