AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Over the past year, Israelis have taken to the street to protest the high cost of living. They've also directed their anger at a small group of business moguls, people who've used close ties to government officials to gain control of large chunks of the country's economy.
Now, Israel's version of Forbes magazine has shed light on a surprising category of wealthy Israelis. Multimillionaire rabbis. Daniel Estrin has this story on how they amass their fortunes.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The gala event happens only once a year. One thousand very important supporters from across the country flock to Netivot, a blue collar town in Israel's southern desert. They gather to honor their spiritual guru. The emcee gives a rock star's welcome to Rabbi Yaacov Israel Ifargan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken) Yaacov Israel Ifargan.
ESTRIN: People get up and dance, then, one by one, guests come up to the dais to sing the rabbi's praises. Each speaker is more important than the last. The chief rabbi of the Israeli Army says a few words. So do government ministers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sends his blessing in a video address.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: There are advertising executives in the crowd, top businessmen, even a super model. The rabbi is no less of a star. His aide, Amos Elad, explains why.
AMOS ELAD: The rabbi has abilities that people don't understand. It's something that we cannot grasp. It doesn't make sense to everyday person. 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.
ESTRIN: 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?
YORAM BILU: Look, Israel is in a chronic state of emergency.
ESTRIN: This is anthropologist Yoram Bilu.
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 the dice.
ESTRIN: In times of uncertainty, Rabbi Ifargan offers certainty. In exchange, his followers offer him generous sums of money. Forbes magazine 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, the revered Moroccan kabbalah master, moved to Israel in the '60s. When he died, his descendents 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, he began publishing exposes claiming the rabbi was forcing his followers to pay enormous sums for his blessings. Bar-Moha proudly flipped through notes from a police investigation into the rabbi. At one point, the journalist confronted the rabbi himself.
YOSSI BAR-MOHA: (Through translator) I told him, in your bank account, you have 600 million shekels. Where are you going to take it? To the grave?
ESTRIN: Last year, the rabbi was stabbed to death by one of his followers. The dead rabbi's son inherited his dad's wealth. Forbes magazine crowns the son Israel's richest rabbi. His estimated wealth is $335 million.
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ESTRIN: Israeli tax authorities are now probing some of Israel's high flying rabbis for tax fraud. The FBI has also been investigating an Israeli millionaire rabbi on charges that his followers made illegal campaign contributions to a Republican House representative.
Rabbis say they use their funds to help the needy. At the recent gala for the X-ray rabbi, his aide said his franchise is completely above board.
RABBI YAACOV ISRAEL IFARGAN: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: Just before the evening came to an end, Rabbi 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.
For NPR News, I'm Daniel Estrin.
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