Would You Buy a Used Car From This Rabbi?

Ben Tzion Pil has alienated colleagues, intrigued prosecutors, and sold one heck of a lot of cars

Two days before Thanksgiving last year, a clear fall afternoon suddenly turned dark, as dense black clouds spewed into the sky. China Basin's Pier 48 was on fire. Thirty-two engines and a fireboat were needed to bring the stubborn blaze under control. Before the day was over, two warehouses and a shed would be damaged or destroyed, along with some of the 200 to 300 automobiles that they contained.

The cars had been donated to the Jewish Educational Center, a husband-wife charity based in the Richmond. They were to be auctioned off a few days later in one of the center's weekly sales. Their destruction came at a bad time for the center, which, precisely because of that car-solicitation program, has blossomed from an obscure operator of a small Hebrew day school into one of the region's charity powerhouses.

In less than three hours, the Pier 48 blaze was reduced to smoldering char -- but not before its flames had caused a bright, unwanted light to be cast on a struggle simmering under the surface of the Bay Area's Jewish community. And questions, like the stench of the burnt pilings, still linger.

As the Jewish Educational Center's fortunes have risen in recent years, so have those of its founders: Rabbi Ben Tzion Pil and his wife, Mattie. With the center's millions, the Pils want to seize leadership among the Soviet Jewish emigre community. But, being renegade members of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect, their ambition has put them in direct competition with one of Pil's own mentors, S.F.'s best-known Lubavitcher, the self-proclaimed "rock 'n' roll rabbi," Yosef Langer.

It all comes amid the largest landing of Jewish immigrants to the United States in over a century, with a huge share of refugees coming to the Bay Area during the past 10 years or so. That population is having a profound impact on the region's native Jewish community. Largely unable to speak the language, and in cultural shell-shock from three generations of Soviet repression and Communist Party rule, the new arrivals face disheartening prospects.

S.F.'s leading Jewish groups have responded with resources that have been likened to a latter-day Exodus. But this vulnerable group has also drawn the likes of the 38-year-old Pil, operating at the edge of established channels.

The Russian-born Hasidic rabbi had just graduated from yeshiva when he moved here from Lubavitcher headquarters in Brooklyn 13 years ago. He had seen the neediness of the Bay Area's Soviet emigres, and he saw opportunity. But not right away.

For a decade after they moved here, Pil and his wife struggled as minor players in the tightknit universe of those working with Soviet Jews. Pil had forsaken a potentially comfortable life as an engineer when he decided to become a rabbi at age 18, and now he was facing penury. He says he actually went hungry for a while. (Meanwhile his family was growing; he has seven children now, the oldest being 13.)

Problem was, none of Pil's efforts to establish a Russian-language congregation for the mystical Lubavitch sect of Hasidism seemed to take. He spent much of his time traveling the country in pursuit of donations. An early partnership with Langer, S.F.'s leading Lubavitch representative, soon foundered. Spurned by the more secular charities and given only halfhearted backing from the Lubavitchers, Pil continued to cast about for a steady source of money. Only loans from friends and family kept him afloat.

Then, in 1993, he came up with the "brainstorm," as he puts it, that granted him a secular prominence that has vastly overshadowed whatever he may have achieved in the spiritual realm. Pil single-handedly turned the low-key practice of soliciting cars for charity into a multimillion-dollar business. His Jewish Educational Center, which languished in obscurity for years, suddenly became a familiar name, especially during peak end-of-the-year donation periods when Pil's advertising blitz would saturate Bay Area billboards, radio, and TV.

Backlash has come with the celebrity. The river of cash Pil tapped took traditional Jewish groups unawares -- as did his grandiose plans for a Hebrew day school for the children of Russian immigrants, a Russian-language synagogue, and social programs for Soviet emigres. With money so tight, and the demands so great, charities are subject to strict scrutiny; privately, a number of observers wonder if Pil's operations could pass muster.

But Pil says the more established leaders are merely envious of the money and the attention he's garnered. He argues that they are threatened by his potential leverage over the Soviet Jewish emigre community, which now numbers roughly 30,000 (out of a total of 80,000 Bay Area Jews). He has even launched a public feud with his former mentor, Langer.

Success has made him a target, Pil hinted conspiratorially over the course of a number of recent conversations: Perhaps competitors tried to sabotage him by planting unfavorable stories in the press (including a scathing Wall Street Journal critique last April); perhaps it was they who had sicced regulators on him (the state Attorney General's Office and the Internal Revenue Service have expressed on-again, off-again interest in his financial doings); perhaps his enemies had a hand in the suspicious car fire.

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