In recent years a number of Israeli rabbis have gained prominence for their work returning Jews to religious observance.
These “kiruv” rabbis revolutionized the use of social media for religious education, and made a point of speaking to irreligious audiences, looking to bring them back to the faith.
Now, however, two of the leading kiruv rabbis are embroiled in an ugly public spat that’s included allegations of Holocaust denial, embezzlement, and threats of physical violence.
At the center of the fracas are two of the kiruv world’s most prominent figures: Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak and Rabbi Yossi Mizrachi.
Both rabbis were born and raised in secular Israeli families, but returned to religious observance as young adults and are now associated with the haredi stream of Orthodox Judaism.
Yitzhak, who resides in Bnei Brak, founded the “Shofar” organization in the mid-1990s. Mizrachi, who moved to New York after his army service, now lives in Monsey and runs the Divine Information website, which disseminates recordings of his lectures.
While Mizrachi and Yitzhak appeal to much the same audience, the two rabbis are now at each others’ throats with a long-simmering rivalry that’s turned into a vindictive vendetta playing out in public.
The feud reached new heights last week when Rabbi Mizrachi arrived in Israel for a speaking tour. Neighborhoods where Mizrachi was scheduled to speak were inundated with advertisements condemning him as “impure” and calling for him to “get out.”
While the campaign against him was anonymous, Rabbi Mizrachi is certain that Rabbi Yitzhak is behind it, arguing that Yitzhak is jealous of his success.
“I believe [it was] Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak. As great as [my] success is, the greater the incitement [against me]; every year [I bring back] thousands of people to religion. I distribute CDs and books in Israel and around the world that bring back thousands of people to the faith… he only speaks in Hebrew and [distributes] in Israel. I do this in Israel and 100 other countries.”
The dispute between the two is often couched in terms of competition – in this case a competition to spread the same message of faith and religious observance.
Neither Mizrachi or Yitzhak are strangers to controversy. In November of last year, Yitzhak was embroiled in another public spat with a fellow kiruv figure, Rabbi Zamir Cohen. The two traded criticisms, culminating in a physical attack on Cohen by supporters of Yitzhak.
Rabbi Mizrachi, on the other hand, was widely criticized for comments he had made during a lecture on assimilation several years ago. Claiming that European Jewry had largely assimilated prior to the Holocaust, Mizrachi suggested that most of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust were in fact non-Jews.
Videos of Mizrachi’s comments were publicized in 2015, leading to widespread condemnation.
Rabbi Mizrachi issued an apology early in 2016, but not before many of his speaking invitations were cancelled. Despite his apology, Mizrachi claims that his comments were distorted and taken out of context, blaming Rabbi Yitzhak for inspiring those working to defame him.
In the wake of the advertising campaign directed against him last week, Rabbi Mizrachi spoke with BeHadrei Haredim, accusing Yitzhak of conspiring against him, libeling him and distorting his words.
“Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak is distorting me,” Mizrachi told BeHadrei Haredim, “and he won’t rest until he sees me dead.” Mizrachi again alleged that Yitzhak was motivated by jealousy, claiming that “he hates me because I’m more successful than he is. Even Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said that he [Amnon Yitzhak] only cares about himself.”
Regarding his controversial statements on the Holocaust, Mizrachi blamed Yitzhak, claiming that he had provided ammunition to those looking to smear both himself and Orthodox Judaism.
“Four years ago I spoke at a lecture about assimilation in America. I said that before the Holocaust… many Jews married non-Jewish women, so that we can never know how many out of the six million who were murdered [as Jews] in the Holocaust were [actually] Jewish.
In the same lecture I said that maybe 5 million or 3 million or 1 million weren’t Jewish since they might have [come from] marriages with non-Jewish women. In the media they took the recording from that lecture and edited it and cut out parts, and the media went out with the headline ‘Famous rabbi claims that only one million were murdered in the Holocaust.'”
“This lie was publicized by a group of former haredim who are waging a war against me on Facebook and other social media sites… after Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak ridiculed me. For two years now he has been libeling me and lying nonstop, going so far as to call me a ‘Holocaust denier.’ That group of ex-haredim jumped on this as a great opportunity and publicized it. And by the way, this group also mocks the Talmudic sages, the Rambam, the Talmud, and all the great rabbis.”
For his part, Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak has rejected Mizrachi’s claims and accused him of corruption and threats of physical violence.
“Mizrachi’s slander and lies have no limits,” Yitzhak told BeHadrei Haredim. “Mizrachi says debased and immodest things in front of single girls and married women in his lectures, and is one of the most empty and lowly [people].”
“Rabbi Yossi Mizrachi threatened me and sent a thug to threaten me and Ilan Dezi, all because Dezi had planned to donate 450,000 shekels to Rabbi Yossi Mizrachi’s yeshiva, but then changed his mind when he found out that Rabbi Mizrachi planned to pocket the donation.”