A night out with the guru to Israel's elite
Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto is said to have brought a former Israeli minister out of a coma, and regularly provides Tzipi Livni with spiritual guidance
At first glance, it appears a typical gathering - friends and family enjoying an evening together.
Men and women face each other across a long table laden with dried fruit, nuts and sweet delicacies, slowly sipping soft drinks.
But as the conversation develops it becomes clear that the group is focusing intensely on one man: Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, a guru to the stars whose advice is sought by businessmen and Israeli ministers on subjects ranging from the stock market to politics.
Today, his guest is a billionaire US businessman who came to Ashdod with his entourage to pay his respects.
The pair hold hands tightly, as though a spiritual charge passes between them. The rabbi, swaying back and forth, says that meeting the businessman has been one of the most important events in his life.
In Israel, the list of those seeking Rabbi Pinto's advice reads like a high-society gossip column: Multi-millionaires Lev Leviev and Nochi Danker, opposition leader Tzipi Livni and former Industry Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, who the rabbi supposedly brought out of a coma earlier this year. It is even rumoured that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consults him.
"He manages to connect so many people," says Israeli journalist Shalom Yerushalmi, who also calls the rabbi for advice. "Whether someone is rich or poor, religious or secular, the rabbi manages to bring them together. That is his contribution to Israeli society."
Rabbi Pinto's wife, Rivka, who frequently travels with him when he visits followers around the globe, explains it slightly differently: "He makes everyone feel worthy," she says. "Everyone is touched by his charisma."
At 38, Rabbi Pinto is the descendant of two revered Moroccan Jewish dynasties. His father, Haim Pinto, is chief Sephardic rabbi of Ashdod and belongs to a long line of rabbis and saints. His mother is the granddaughter of the Baba Sali, a Sephardic mystic who was said to have magical powers. He is also the nephew of the renowned Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzira, whose murder this month was predicted by Rabbi Pinto, according to one of his assistants.
"Rabbi Pinto is very, very wise but there is also something metaphysical about him," says Ashdod Mayor Yechiel Lasry, who regularly consults the rabbi on personal and professional matters.
A source very close to the rabbi claims that while Rabbi Pinto was born to be a saint, it is his shrewd business sense coupled with his loyalty and courageousness that have made him so admired. "He is not afraid to recognise modernity," the source says. "He was the one who advised Interior Minister Eli Yishai not to deport the children of foreign workers and he spoke out against rabbis who called for Israelis not to rent flats to Arabs. The rabbi realises that Israel's actions affect Jewish communities all over the world."
Despite his respected status, the rabbi is not without controversy. This week Israeli papers ran a story alleging that the rabbi and his wife had been involved in illegal real estate dealings.
A source close to the rabbi responded: "There has been a legal dispute between rebbitzon Rivka and her father for more than a year. The rabbi believes that justice will eventually prevail and those who have broken the law will be brought to justice."
As the meeting with the businessman winds down, there is time to get a question in: does the rabbi's advice stem from wisdom or some other out-of-this world power? The rabbi answers like a sage: "If I told you I was a wise man then I would be very stupid."