“What have we done to anger HaShem?” asked Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto. He was speaking in Hebrew in a near whisper (he doesn’t speak English), referring to himself, as he always does, in the first-person plural, tears dropping onto his shaggy dark beard. He was in his office in a cavernous building on East 58th Street, which houses his synagogue and yeshiva. “We are like Job.”
Like the devout Old Testament figure whom HaShem tested with an outlandish series of troubles, Rabbi Pinto has lately had more than his share of calamities. And, also like Job, the rabbi had spent his previous life trying to be as close to God as possible. But unlike Job, the special relationship he’d cultivated made him a powerhouse in Israel and New York. He’s a mystical McKinsey, a Kabbalist consultant. Among his congregation, it’s believed that his advice, if carefully followed, can set a person on the path to prosperity. One core constituency is the real-estate community in New York City, especially Sephardic Jews like himself, who in the last couple of decades have been winning the New York City game of thrones. “His blessing is very, very strong,” said one developer, an Israeli transplant like many of his other wealthy congregants. “Age-wise, the rabbi is 40,” said another. “Life-wise, he is 400 years old. He can see things you and I cannot see.”
And in a world hungry for the spiritual of whatever variety, Rabbi Pinto’s flock was a quilt of many colors—he’d even counseled LeBron James when the basketball star was considering new business deals.
But then HaShem seemed to change his mind about the rabbi. Here in America, the most visible trouble involved Michael Grimm, the military man turned Staten Island congressman who’s now been indicted for tax evasion and fraud. Grimm and Rabbi Pinto could not have been an odder couple, one a neatly coiffed bundle of aggro in a power suit, the other a friendly, beaming empath in the classic ultra-Orthodox uniform: black fedora, dark suit, white shirt, and ZZ Top beard. But Pinto had what Grimm needed: money people. And so when Grimm was embroiled in a multi-tendriled federal investigation partly involving campaign fund-raising, the rabbi, though he’d done nothing criminal, was entangled in it, too. To add to his woes, his right-hand man turned against him, and he suspected some of his congregants of dark motives. The rabbi was himself investigated for bribery in Israel, the very source of his holiness. To extricate himself from the whole sordid business, the rabbi had to cooperate with the FBI, an indignity for a man of God. Through it all, the rabbi knew: God was calling the shots.
Pinto was born on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in Ashdod, Israel, and, as he sees it, was fated to be a rabbi. “It was the business of the family,” he has said. The men on both sides of his family had been renowned rabbis for centuries, including the Baba Sali, the Kabbalist whose prayers were said to effect miracles. The rabbi became aware of his own supernatural abilities when he was just 11 years old. “The rabbi was a kid in school,” related a follower who’d been told the story. “And there was a teacher who was not good. The rabbi prayed, ‘God, please punish this person.’ An hour later the teacher was riding a bicycle when he had an accident. Until today he’s in a wheelchair.”
By the time he was 13, Pinto was delivering Torah lectures that drew hundreds. Elders sought his counsel. At age 20, on the day he was married to the daughter of the chief rabbi of Argentina, a union of two distinguished bloodlines, his father, an esteemed rabbi himself, took Pinto to the cemetery where his grandfather, another rabbi, was buried. “You are an old soul,” he told his son. “We have been waiting for you for 200 years. You will continue this dynasty.”
Pinto could have pursued his dynastic destiny in Israel. But from an early age he had even grander ambitions. “He wanted to help everyone in the world,” a follower explained.
And there’s more of the world—especially the Jewish world—in New York City than anywhere else. Pinto first arrived in the city a dozen years ago, and word of his arrival spread quickly. Followers shared tales of the rabbi’s little miracles. One said that he’d predicted that an impotent man would have a baby, and he did. Yossi Zaga, a wealthy clothing manufacturer and a bachelor on the hunt for a wife, reported that the rabbi promised he’d marry within a year, and he did.