How racism defeated the ‘X-ray rabbi’

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 6, 2009
Kabbalist Rabbi Ifergan

Kabbalist Rabbi Ifergan

He faced down Israel’s most famous family of mystics, became the undisputed leader of Israeli kabbalah, transformed himself into a household name and became the close confidant of tycoons and celebrities.

But now it seems that Rabbi Yaakov Ifergan has finally come up against one immovable barrier — the strictly Orthodox Ashkenazi establishment which is forcing the Sephardi star out of his home town of Netivot.

In recent years, the 43-year-old rabbi has emerged as the country’s most popular mekubal, or kabbalist. He is known as Ha-rentgen — “the X-ray”, for his fabled ability to assess a person’s medical condition and personal problems just by looking at them.

But it is not just his supernatural powers that attract thousands. Rabbi Ifergan has a quiet, yet powerful charisma and an outgoing and engaging personality.

Unlike other mekubalim, he does not wear robes and turbans, just a normal suit and hat, and he does not talk in riddles or mutter inaudible blessings. His advice is clear and persuasive, based — claim his followers — on personal details that he could never have known without heavenly powers.

Over 15 years, he has built a small empire around the grave of his father, Rabbi Shalom, who was a little-known amulet writer in the southern town of Netivot. He has developed a weekly ritual which thousands attend from all around Israel, where he throws thousands of candles on a huge fire by the grave-site. Over 100,000 arrive at the annual hilulah, or memorial, for Rabbi Shalom, among them secular ministers, billionaires, pop stars, journalists and advertising executives.

Not everyone is enamoured with Rabbi Ifergan’s success. The dusty development town has been kabbalah capital of Israel since the 1970s. Doyen of them all was Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, the Baba Sali, who died in 1984.
Since then, the Abuhatzeira family has tried to preserve its position as Israel’s primary kabbalah dynasty but Baba Sali’s son, Rabbi Baruch, a former politician who served a prison sentence for bribe-taking, has not managed to attract anything resembling the adoration the believers had for his father.

Rabbi Ifergan was identified as the usurper, enticing away the followers and, more importantly, the donors. Eight years ago, five women came to Netivot Police accusing the Rentgen of sexual harassment.

Their allegations were soon found to be baseless and they were linked to two of Rabbi Abuhatzeira’s advisers.

The Ifergan franchise has continued to grow.

Last year, frustrated by local officials who were hampering his ambitious building projects, Rabbi Ifergan launched his own party which ran in the municipal elections. Mayor Yehiel Zohar angrily accused the rabbi of intimidation tactics and political blackmail but was forced to back down and make peace.

Meanwhile, the local Charedi parties saw the independent party as a direct challenge to them and now they have taken their revenge. This week, the rabbi’s twin six-year-old sons were denied acceptance to the local Charedi school.

In the Charedi world, school admissions are a potent weapon that has been used before to keep Sephardi rabbis and politicians in line. They know that if they fall foul of the leaders of the Ashkenazi camp (who control the schools, which operate a strict quota system limiting the number of Sephardi students), their children and grandchildren may be the ones forced to pay the price.

Rabbi Ifergan, though, is not intending to back down and has let it be known that he is planning to leave the town where he was born.

“The rabbi is naturally sad to have to leave Netivot,” said one of Ifergan’s closest followers.
“After all, he has put all his life into the place, but the reality is that he is a national and even international figure now.

“Those who think they are forcing him out will regret it when Netivot becomes a backwater again.”

    Last updated: 4:23pm, August 6 2009