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In Israel, Rabbis Rank Among The Rich And Famous

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Over the past year, Israelis have taken to the streets to protest the country's high cost of living. They've also directed their anger at a small group of business moguls who have used their close ties to government officials to gain control of large chunks of the Israeli economy.

Now, the Israeli edition of Forbes magazine has shed light on a surprising category of Israelis who have quietly also climbed to the top rung of society: multimillionaire rabbis.

Rabbi Yaacov Israel Ifargan is one of them. Earlier this month, 1,000 major supporters from across the country flocked to Netivot, a blue-collar town in Israel's southern desert, for an annual gala event honoring their spiritual guru.

The emcee gave Ifargan a rock star's welcome. Later, one by one, guests came up to the dais to sing the rabbi's praises, each speaker more important than the last.

The chief rabbi of the Israeli army said a few words. So did government ministers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his blessings in a video address.

There were advertising executives in the crowd, top businessmen, even a supermodel. Ifargan is no less of a star.

"The rabbi has abilities that people don't understand, something that we cannot grasp, doesn't make sense to everyday person," said Ifargan's aide, Amos Elad. "You know, he can see someone and he can see right through him. That's why they call him, the nickname is, the 'X-ray' rabbi."

Donations In Exchange For Insight

Over the past two decades, the X-ray rabbi has cultivated a celebrity following among Israel's wealthiest business people. They seek the rabbi's advice about their health and their personal lives, and, some say, their stock options. Politicians and army generals also turn to the rabbi.

None of them are particularly religious. So why do they do it?

"Israel is in a chronic state of emergency," says anthropologist Yoram Bilu. "There are so many questions which cannot be answered. Should we attack Iran or should we not? You know, no one knows the answer, no one knows the future. It's entirely fluid. You know, going to an oracle, I think, it's not a far-fetched solution. Throw a dice."

In times of uncertainty, Ifargan offers certainty. In exchange, his followers offer him generous sums of money. Forbes in Israel ranks him the country's sixth-richest rabbi with an estimated worth of $23 million. He's one of a few hundred self-styled Jewish mystics in Israel.

The tradition began in Morocco. The Baba Sali, a revered Moroccan kabbala master, moved to Israel in the 1960s. When he died, his descendants built their own rabbinic franchises — and began turning a profit.

The Baba Sali's grandson, Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira, became the wealthiest of them all. He had many followers in Israel, but also one dogged pursuer: investigative journalist Yossi Bar-Moha. In the late 1990s, Bar-Moha began publishing exposes claiming the rabbi was forcing his followers to pay enormous sums for his blessings.

Bar-Moha proudly flips through notes from a police investigation into Abuhatzeira. At one point, the journalist confronted the rabbi himself.

"I told him, in your bank account you have 600 million shekels. Where are you going to take it, to the grave?" Bar-Moha says.

Following The Money Trail

Last year, Abuhatzeira was stabbed to death by one of his followers, who was upset the rabbi's blessings hadn't helped him. The dead rabbi's son, Pinchas, inherited his father's wealth. Forbes crowns Pinchas Abuhatzeira Israel's richest rabbi, with an estimated wealth of $335 million.

Israeli tax authorities are now investigating some of Israel's high-flying rabbis for tax fraud.

Rabbis say they use their funds to help the needy. At the recent gala for the X-ray rabbi, his aide said Ifargan's franchise is above board.

Just before the evening came to an end, Ifargan issued a few words to his followers. He said many people worry about national security and worry about the economy. But one thing is clear: The power of belief will make you secure.

Then, shortly after midnight, his bodyguards ducked him into a black Mercedes-Benz, and he was gone.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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