They call him ‘The X-ray’

Thousands of people say they were cured or blessed by Yaakov Yisrael Ifergan but he is not without his detractors as some wonder if it is all just a show.

Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Ifergan 521 (photo credit: Meir Even Haim)
Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Ifergan 521
(photo credit: Meir Even Haim)
On the outdoor stage, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Ifergan – known as “The X-ray” because of his supposed powers to see what’s hidden from ordinary people – was tossing box after bunch of candles into the blazing furnace. A thousand or so people, mainly Mizrahim from the South, were watching, while another couple of thousand roamed the grounds, throwing candles themselves into smaller furnaces here and there, sitting at little family picnics, or buying arak or candles blessed by Ifergan, along with seemingly every other kind of item – from Shema-embossed bracelets to bottles of Heineken – at the impromptu shuk. Beggars were all over the place.
It was Thursday night of last week just outside the Netivot cemetery, and Ifergan was holding his annual hilula, or celebration, to mark the 16th anniversary of the death of his father, Rabbi Shalom Ifergan.
Known affectionately as Baba Shalom, Ifergan’s father is buried in a two-story stone tomb where men and women pray separately inside for a way out of debt or other troubles, for a spouse, for a baby, for a cure.
Leaning against the railing at a distance from the stage was Meir Elbaz, 44, a truck driver from Moshav Nevatim, “I had a personal experience of the rabbi’s powers,” he said quietly. Without going into the specifics, he said: “Before I went into the hospital, a friend of my wife’s asked for a photo of us to give to the rabbi. A year later, after I got out of the hospital, and I’d recovered, the photo came back to us. I went to see the rabbi, and I told him my wife was pregnant, and he said to forget about everything, to look ahead, that our life was starting anew.”
There are thousands of people who say Ifergan cured them or blessed them with children after the doctors had given up, or gave them advice on some problem that he couldn’t have known about beforehand, and the result was that their lives turned around. They call him The X-ray because he can see people’s problems without being told, and he can see their future.
He’s a faith healer like countless others from probably every religion. What makes Ifergan special among faith healers in Israel is that he has by far the largest following, says Dr. Anat Feldman, an Achva Academic College researcher and critic of the “culture of tzaddikim” (holy men).
What makes The X-ray special among faith healers throughout the Western world is that political and economic leaders in his country make a point of attending his functions and getting their pictures taken with him.
At the Sunday night post-hilula feast Ifergan hosted in Netivot, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Ifergan’s most loyal reference from the secular world, industrialist Nochi Dankner, were among the 1,000 or so attendees.
“I call The X-ray and the other faith healers ‘holy entrepreneurs,’” says Feldman, noting that Ifergan “invented himself” as a spiritual leader, having no known rabbinical training, and raising his late father, Baba Shalom, who likewise was not an ordained rabbi, to the status of a holy man whose powers he inherited.
At last week’s hilula, the guest of honor was Noam Schalit, who appealed to the crowd to raise their voices for his son Gilad’s release, quoting the Talmud, the Rambam and the Shulhan Aruch about the Jewish imperative to redeem captives.
Ifergan, 45, is a black-bearded, stocky, impassive man who speaks quietly until the climax of his sermon, when his voice becomes fervent and rhythmic and he goes into a call-andresponse with the audience.
“This is our prayer, a prayer from the pain in our hearts, please, open the gates of heaven and hear our prayer for our blessed, sweet, adored, dear soldier who is not far away, but who is in darkness,” he said, standing next to Schalit. Ifergan noted that the two Hebrew letters for the word “please” are the initials of Noam and Aviva, Gilad’s parents, and that the letters of Schalit are the initials of the Hebrew words, “may he enjoy good days.”
“It has been long enough,” Ifergan said, his voice rising. “We ask, Holy Blessed One, that you redeem our dear soldier, Gilad Schalit…” “Amen!” “… son of Noam and Aviva…” “Amen!” “… and that he return to us, to his family, to his home, to the people of Israel…” “Amen!” “… speedily, in our time…” “Amen!” “Amen and amen!” The band struck up, the emcee/singer returned to his seamless medley of rousing religious tunes, and The X-ray was soon tossing candles into the fire again.
“Every candle that the honored rabbi throws into the fire brings the tzaddikim to us, to hear our prayers,” said the energetic singing emcee.
IFERGAN MODELED his ministry after that of his fierce rival and neighbor in town, “Baba Baruch” Abuhatzeira, son of the late Baba Sali, the revered Moroccan-born tzaddik who is buried in Netivot.
But in recent years The X-ray has outstripped Baba Baruch in popularity, and certainly in prominence among the powerful.
Baba Baruch built a huge mausoleum for his father, attracted thousands to annual hilulas in his honor, and claimed to have inherited his mystical powers. The X-ray did the same. The difference is that the Baba Sali was a genuine legend while alive; Baba Shalom’s legend has only arisen in recent years, with the strenuous help of his son.
No matter. Ifergan’s charities and religious institutions attract the most powerful to the most bereft, they turn over millions of dollars a year, he lives in a huge house and gets driven around in a chauffeured limousine.
The hilulas draw people desperately seeking help, but also people attracted by the atmosphere of a spiritual fair.
“This is my first time at one of these. I came for the atmosphere. It makes me feel good,” said a young, fashionably dressed woman at Thursday’s event.
With the big fire, flying candles, band and emcee, there was a real showtime atmosphere. Rabbis and other guests taking the stage were introduced like celebs to the applauding crowd: “Rabbi David Tzarfati-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ii!...
Noam Schali-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-it!” A man and wife in their 40s from Jerusalem, sitting on plastic chairs facing the stage, said they “try to go to as many hilulas of the different tzaddikim that we can.” They said they were praying for the return of their six children, taken away from them by the authorities, whom they consider to be motivated by evil purposes.
They depend on religion for a solution.
“Once I prayed so hard, I reached such spiritual heights, that my husband saw angels in our house,” said the wife, as her husband nodded.
They’ve sought out other tzaddikim for help as well. “Satan was in our house, and we called a rabbi and he came and got rid of the evil spirit. Now there are only holy spirits in our house,” said the woman.
They hadn’t managed to meet the The Xray, but they were hoping.
THE KNOCK against him from Feldman, TV host Amnon Levi and the makers of a recent Channel 10 documentary, among other critics, is that The X-ray is not only a fake who takes money from desperate, mainly poor people, but he made up his whole holy lineage, beginning with his father.
“Baba Shalom was not an ordained rabbi. He lived most of his life in Netivot on welfare,” says Feldman. “The X-ray himself didn’t even complete high-school yeshiva.”
The Channel 10 documentary in March reported that Ifergan’s people distribute forms for devotees to sign on hora’ot keva, or monthly bank payments, to his charities, and the form allows donors to check off the box for the type of blessing they want from the rabbi: “success,” “recovery,” “marriage,” “livelihood” or “other.”
It also showed the extreme similarity between Ifergan’s strategy and Baba Baruch’s, down to the poster on sale that shows Baba Shalom in a white robe blessing The X-ray while touching his forehead – just like the poster on sale that shows Baba Sali dressed in a white robe and blessing Baba Baruch while touching his forehead.
The documentary reported that a few nephews and cousins of Ifergan’s have likewise begun marketing themselves as faith healers who’ve inherited Baba Shalom’s powers. One calls himself “The MRI,” another calls himself “The Ultrasound,” and they, too, have lots of followers.
I asked Elbaz and another attendee at the hilula who’d had audiences with him if they’d ever been approached for money.
“No, it was free. They said whatever I wanted to donate to charity, I could,” said Elbaz.
“It was free,” said Tayeb, 52, recounting that when she was two, she suffered from polio and the doctors said it was incurable, she’d never walk again, and then her mother carried her to Baba Shalom, who blessed her for recovery.
“Here I am,” she said, “I’m a healthy mother of six and grandmother of three!” Asked to compare Baba Shalom and The X-ray, she said, “Baba Shalom wasn’t known to so many people.
Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Ifergan has created an empire!” Feldman says she twice accompanied a friend who was seeking recovery to Ifergan’s office. “He’s got a large clear glass vase on his desk that’s filled with currency.
He doesn’t have to ask – whoever’s sitting there with the rabbi watching him knows he’s got to put money in the vase. That’s what my friend did – and she never recovered.”
Regarding the rabbinical ordination of Ifergan and Baba Shalom, spokesman Zvi Alloush said The X-ray “has been ordained as a rabbi, I think by Yona Metzger, but I’m not sure. At any rate, I’m sure the people who believe in him don’t give a damn if he’s got a rabbi’s certificate or not.”
As for Baba Shalom, Alloush said, “I doubt that he had an official rabbi’s certificate, but in this world the term ‘rabbi’ refers to a person of great Jewish wisdom and goodness, not necessarily someone who has the certificate.”
About the issue of money, Alloush acknowledged that forms for monthly bank payments to Ifergan’s charities were commonly distributed among supporters.
(I didn’t see this at last week’s hilula.) “The most common amount is NIS 26, because in gematria [Jewish numerology], this is the name of God.
The second most common amount is NIS 52.”
He insisted, though, that the needy were not the main financiers of the charities, but were the recipients.
“We get very, very large donations from wealthy people, such as those who came to the feast last night,” said Alloush. “The poor come to us every Friday to get free food, clothing, things they need that are provided by our wealthy donors.”
He claimed that the attacks on Ifergan’s credibility came “from the followers of Baba Baruch, who hate us so much that they will tell any lie to smear the rabbi’s good name.”
I asked Feldman how she explains the claims of people who say Ifergan helped them in ways that cannot be explained in the natural world.
“There’s no explanation,” she says, suggesting that in cases of psychosomatic illness, the belief that one is cured can do the trick. “People sometimes need encouragement from someone, so they go to a friend or a family member – or, in many cases, they go to some baba and give him money. I’ve been to many, many of The X-ray’s hilulas over the last decade, and I’ve never seen anyone get up out of a wheelchair and start walking.”
Alloush said: “I can’t explain it to you, I can’t convince you of it with words. The only way is to come and sit and talk with the rabbi and see for yourself.”
The rabbi, however, does not grant interviews to journalists, Alloush noted.
At the shuk, a woman was asking vendors, “I came here to buy a bottle of arak and a poster of Baba Shalom – where can I find them?” A vendor was hawking “any holy bracelet, any holy ring, NIS 10.”
Near the stage, a man was selling “a package of three candles from the hilula, NIS 10.”
A beggar sitting on the ground was calling out to passers-by, “Honored rabbi, tzaddik, please, a donation before the holy Shabbat.”
As The X-ray threw candles by the thousands into the furnace, the emcee urged the audience to applaud: “Keep applauding, don’t stop. This isn’t an entertainment attraction, this is a prayer meeting.” The applause kept up, and The X-ray began tossing in candles like a machine.
“The gates of heaven are open, the tzaddikim hear your prayers!” the emcee cried. “Ask for what your heart desires. Keep applauding, don’t stop. Bring out all the pain that’s inside you.”