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.

He let the suggestion dangle.

Pil's anxiety is understandable. He rode a roller coaster in 1996. His charity empire swelled to new heights, pulling in more than $5 million last year in S.F. alone, he claims, along with operations in New York and New Jersey. He put down payments on two sizable buildings in the Richmond valued at $4 million — the former Lycee Francais, for his Schneerson Day School, and a one-time fabric store, now the site of a Russian-language synagogue.

But the S.F. Fire Department has referred the warehouse fire investigation to the DA's Office. Although ruled an accident, the SFFD suspects it might have been sparked when a mechanic was repairing a car, which would likely violate Pil's Port Authority lease. [page]

As for the financial questions, Pil says the operations were growing so quickly that he couldn't keep up with the filing requirements of the state Attorney General's Office. (Once contacted, he says he settled that matter with a $54 fee and an $81 fine.)

He says his organization's seemingly high administrative expenses — taking upward of 79 percent of all outlays by one reckoning — are caused by heavy advertising costs, high repair bills for the donated cars, and his practice of employing unskilled emigres as apprentice mechanics. He also says that he and his wife are taking home a combined $65,000 a year after taxes, and that that is still much less than what executives are paid at other charities.

Repeatedly, over weeks of interviews and phone calls, mention of “Rabbi Pil” would elicit earsplitting silences. Respected leaders such as Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, the head of the 300-student Hebrew Academy and himself not loath to taking outspoken positions, twice chose not to comment. Likewise Wayne Feinstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Federation, S.F.'s leading fund-raising agency for Jewish charities, stayed mum.

Langer, for his part, lost his characteristic twinkle on being asked about Pil. He declined to reply directly, other than to allude to the fact that Pil no longer celebrates the Sabbath with him. It is not seemly to take part in “Loshan horah,” he said. (The loose translation is “evil tongue,” he explained, or “speaking ill of someone.” )

“The problem is that he's too much of a lone wolf,” says Tracy Salkowitz, currently director of the Northern Pacific Region of the American Jewish Congress but formerly with Jewish Family and Children's Services, the city's leading resettlement program. “He's not a bad man; he wants to help Russian Jews,” she continues. “He doesn't care if he steps on toes or breaks rules. He's a man with a mission who doesn't have all the tools he needs to dot all his i's and cross all his t's.”

Bob Sherman of the Bureau of Jewish Education was a bit more blunt: “The original mission of serving the emigre community seems to have been overshadowed by their car business.”

Even if Pil has come close to crossing ethical lines, there's no denying that he is a source of aid for an immigrant subculture that is doubly downtrodden — first in its home country, and now, as its members start all over again, here in the United States. Though younger than many of the emigres arriving now, Pil is old enough to have been forced underground in his Hebrew studies in Russia and to have known of Jews banished to Siberia for studying Hebrew texts.

Yet when he arrived in New York at the age of 16, he felt no particular religious calling. Yes, he rode around in the Lubavitcher “mitzvah tanks,” Winnebagos stuffed with Jewish religious tracts and trinkets that were handed out to potential converts. But he was planning to become an engineer. He wanted to design cars that would run on cushions of air.

At 18, however, while he was living in one of Brooklyn's Russian neighborhoods, he noticed one day “Jewish people drunk in the street, teen-agers selling drugs.” At first he wondered “why nobody takes care of this.” He decided to join the Lubavitchers and attend the yeshiva to become a rabbi.

The Lubavitch sect blends ancient mystic beliefs with a modern, pragmatic, even worldly instinct for self-promotion, based on the conviction that “[t]he world really wants to see the colors of the Jew,” as Langer put it. Lubavitchers also aggressively recruit young Jews. Over the last four decades, the Lubavitchers' numbers blossomed under the charismatic leadership of the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as their “rebbe,” a term Hasidics prefer to “rabbi.” By the time Schneerson died in 1994, at the age of 92, they had become a well-organized, potent force both here and in Israel. The official tally is 250,000 members in more than 30 countries, though skeptics say that may be a vast overstatement.

The modern-day Lubavitchers practice a gaudy, boisterous, and yet extremely rulebound form of Judaism. The sect was founded in the small Lithuanian town of Lubavitch (the “city of love”) roughly 200 years ago, and its leadership was passed on from one rabbi to the next over seven generations. Schneerson died before he could designate an heir.

That was his only, and possibly fatal, stumble in his carefully orchestrated drive to promote his sect. His fame grew to the point where billboards proclaiming his Messiah-hood sprouted in Brooklyn; celebrities and wealthy patrons were welcomed into the fold. Schneerson granted audiences to the likes of Bob Dylan and Ron Perlman, steward of the Revlon empire. (The rebbe also accidentally sparked the Crown Heights riots of 1991 when a car in his entourage ran over two black youngsters, killing one.)

Vendors still sell memorabilia on the sidewalk outside the house he occupied. But the key to the Lubavitchers' enduring strength is a carefully managed network of individual missions, chabads, planted now in hundreds of locations in the United States. Outside of New York, California is one of the places they've been most successful.

When Pil finished his studies in the yeshiva in Brooklyn, he “looked for the hardest place in America,” he said, and concluded that the anemia of S.F.'s Jewish community made it the place to test his mettle. It's also arguable he was looking for a base large enough to sustain his empire-building ambitions. Although Los Angeles counts more Jews — and faster growth of the Lubavitch sect — S.F. is home to the third largest resettlement effort for Soviet emigre Jews, after New York and Chicago.

Whatever his motives, Pil came here with a missionary zeal to make his brand of Judaism bloom in the “desert.”

It was a cold and blustery Monday night in the middle of Hanukkah. The Schneerson Day School, at Balboa and 34th Avenue, the four-story former home of the Lycee Francais' junior and senior highs, was brightly lit. Knots of middle-aged and older people drifted in and out of the lobby. [page]

Upstairs, the landing emptied into a hall where another group huddled, men only, in windbreakers and work clothes. Rabbi Pil? One gestured toward the door of the men's room. Shortly thereafter Pil emerged from it at high speed. Of medium build and height, he was dressed in the full Hasidic tzitzis: frock coat, dark suit pants, side curls, dark, wide-brimmed felt hat. His pale skin and slightly watery, bespectacled eyes added to the scholarly, Old World effect. His elders in the hall shuffled out of his path as he hurried to his office with scarcely a greeting. (He eluded a proffered hand without explaining the Hasidic proscription against physical contact between men and women who are unrelated by blood or marriage.)

His office was chilly and small, the furniture cheap and functional: The yellow paint on the walls smelled fresh, and the blue carpeting seemed new. (The Jewish Educational Center had moved in just a few months earlier.) All pretty bare bones, but every work spot had a PC, and the phones looked up-to-date.

And the force impelling these plain offices?
Back when Pil and Mattie arrived in S.F., they had been shocked by the disparity between the bustling Russian neighborhoods of Crown Heights and what they found in the Richmond, he explained. They couldn't even secure a reliable supply of kosher food. The scarcity wasn't just material. “In the whole of Northern California,” Pil said, “there were a couple thousand Russian Jews — and no rabbis speaking the Russian language.” Pil added that existing synagogues' tradition of informally tithing members meant that many could not afford to join. “If you don't pay, they treat you as a second-class citizen. These are intelligent people, so they don't like to go.”

Even more of an obstacle, though, was history. “For three generations,” said Pil, “[the Soviet authorities] have a war against religion, and they're very successful.” Only the “crazy” or “very old” believed in God, he explained. “A normal person cannot.” He said he now strives to convince his fellow emigres that “to be a religious Jew is to actually enjoy your life and the beauty of religious people and Judaism. It is a very knowledgeable, very educated thing.”

The Bay Area desert wasn't quite as empty as Pil would have you believe, however. Langer had formed the city's first chabad in 1980, after several years studying under another rabbi. He has worked with the Lubavitcher hierarchy to encourage chabads in Marin, as well. A chabad is also in Sacramento. But Pil has a valid point in asserting that more could have been done for the Russian emigre community. Even Langer, who sponsors open-house Shabbat celebrations every week at his home in the Richmond, doesn't speak Russian.

And the resistance to Pil was hardly neutral. Some observers, speaking anonymously, acknowledged that native Jews were initially reluctant to embrace their Soviet brethren as “talking funny,” in the words of one, and being too different. And the numbers were daunting: More than 2,000 emigres every year in a Jewish community that at the start of the influx numbered roughly 50,000.

That said, by 1983, when Pil arrived, the formal resettlement programs had been under way for five years. Communication between native and nonnative Jews had improved. Today, those same observers say the initial hesitation has vanished. But Pil insists he still sees plenty of anti-Russian bias every day.

“Take any agency getting any money from the [Jewish Community] Federation. If they have Russian Jews, they don't get money. We apply to them so many times. They find different excuses, but they don't give one penny. The Federation supports other camps and schools, but not ours, even though we have more kids. And a lot of times they say to Russian kids, 'If you go to other camps, we give you scholarships.'

“In all cities, they have synagogues for Russian Jews — New York, Chicago, but none here. Now we have one. It opened two months ago. Logically, the Federation is fund-raising for Russian Jews to help them out; why don't they give a penny?”

The Federation declined to say whether Pil had applied for any grants, though a spokesperson acknowledged that it does not currently support any of his programs. The JCF routinely does not comment on applicants, potential or actual. It also refused to respond to Pil's assertions.

But others say Pil's rejection was due more to the seeming oddities of his business practices than any direct prejudice. And, indeed, contrary to his assertion, Russian emigres and students are being funded through numerous other programs under JCF auspices. Pil also concedes that he could be a victim of his own fund-raising success, with potential contributors assuming he needs no help.

Pil finally did acknowledge that established Jewish charities support emigre programs. But then he shifted his complaint. They're too secular, he said. “They don't do anything to bring them closer to Judaism. They do have some parties, but in their newspaper, they don't write about religion.”

Pil spelled out the ultimate reason why he's being snubbed. “Because here is such a large amount of Russian Jews, 25,000 people, but they don't have a leader. Now what's happening? We became leaders. Soon they're going to be a political movement. What some in the Federation wouldn't like it should be. They wouldn't like to see us be a political movement.”

Even for as zealous a soul as Pil, however, shaping the Soviet emigres into a coherent political force will be a tough challenge, according to some who have already tried. “They are used to Russian survival tactics. They don't trust anyone. They cheat each other,” explained Stan Levchenko, a Russian-born journalist who has lived in the United States for 20 years and is the national correspondent for Panorama, the largest independent Russian-language weekly in the U.S. [page]

They are too consumed by internal bickering, he argued in a recent interview. “They are boiling in their own bullion,” he said. “They live in ghettos.” With the Russian-language press as their only source of information, he explained, real news is often eclipsed by rumors and gossip.

At a more practical level, nine out of 10 speak English so badly that they can't even look for the simplest job when they first arrive. And they're not certain how they fit into American culture. “In Russia, I was a Jew, but in the United States, I'm a Russian,” said Ed Markoff, a photojournalist who emigrated here six years ago from Odessa. He took part in the interview with his friend Levchenko.

Demographically, they are also more elderly than many immigrant groups. Seventy percent of them are over 30, 40 percent older than 50. Twenty percent are over 65. Many are educated professionals with mismatched skills, like the 59-year-old Moscow coronary surgeon who now works as a $6.50-an-hour home care aide, or the physics professor who sweeps floors.

When they do organize, it's to perpetuate old feuds. Jewish veterans of the Soviet army in World War II, for example, count two groups. Why two? “They hate each other,” Levchenko said, claiming that leaders foster personal animosities to discipline or motivate their groups.

Levchenko said that Pil plays to the same taste for divisiveness — with flair. “Pil is the most famous Russian Jew,” he added with a laugh. “He does a lot of Russian media advertising.”

This past Hanukkah, Pil took out ads boasting he had erected the largest menorah in the city, Levchenko noted. Who cares? Well, it was a flagrant challenge to Langer and his Bill Graham Menorah (named after the late rock promoter) in Union Square. Langer's been lighting it, with a great deal of hype, for the past 21 years.

Langer, remember, was once Pil's reluctant mentor. So Pil's menorah challenge shows how enigmatic his relationship with the Lubavitcher hierarchy has become.

Pil's chabad was never officially sanctioned by either world headquarters or the Lubavitchers' California director, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, who's based in L.A. Cunin couldn't be reached for comment, but he said last year that Pil had “broke[n] the camel's back” when Pil unilaterally claimed Schneerson's name for his day school.

Caught in the middle is Langer, a charismatic and publicity-savvy East Bay native. Langer, age 50, came to his Judaism relatively late. He spent his youth in the '60s in hippieish pursuits, including immersion in the drug culture (“I inhaled, unfortunately,” he says now). A series of encounters and studies brought him to the Lubavitcher sect, and he now shares its outlook, which blends the mystical and the mundane. He exudes a cheerful openness, in contrast to Pil's formality. He spoke recently in his downtown offices in a dingy building on the southern edge of Chinatown.

Langer had just returned from a meeting of a funding agency that he hopes will give him $100,000. “I'm always behind the eight ball,” he said. Like Pil, Langer also works to make Judaism more visible; hence his “mitzvah bike,” a Star-of-David-bedecked Harley, and the Union Square menorah-lighting ceremony, attended this year by Mayor Willie Brown. (Langer and Brown exchanged jokes about their mutual taste in Borsalino hats.)

For all his careful inclusionary talk, Langer still dresses the part of a Conservative Orthodox Hasidim. He, too, won't touch any woman except his wife, daughter, or sister. But he explained the rule with a chuckle, hastening to add that Hasidic men and women “enjoy each other” and to debunk a prevailing myth of their prudery. “We don't do it through the sheets.”

Even for the worldly Langer, though, it all comes back to God, who is everywhere. The need to connect with God is tantamount. As a doctrinaire Lubavitcher, the connection can only be made through the unbroken lineage of chosen Lubavitch rebbes who have come before. That explains Schneerson's power and that of his six predecessors over the centuries. For a Lubavitcher, defying the rebbe, or taking an independent path, as Pil is considered to have done by some of his elders in the sect, is the same as leaving the sect altogether.

“The rebbe has been the inspirational point of Hasidism, a tangible human being who is practicing what he's preaching,” said Langer. “If you're your own bottom line, you're out there.”

Langer and Pil have known each other since Pil first came here, three years after Langer established his chabad in S.F. Now, Langer would just as soon not discuss Pil. His smile fades, his gray-streaked red beard seems to sag. Suffice it to say that they once celebrated the Sabbath side by side in shul. Now Pil no longer comes, and they don't really talk much.

Pil has chosen a grand backdrop against which to operate. “This is a very historic resettlement of major proportions,” said Jewish Community Federation executive Richard Sipser in a recent interview in his offices in SOMA. As director of planning, allocations, and agency relations, he parcels out the JCF's yearly collections, which amounted to more than $19 million in California last year.

“Desert” or no, the Bay Area Jewish community is an acknowledged leader in the global drive to rescue Jews from the Soviet Union. At the same time, it is unique among urban U.S. Jewish populations for its high degree of assimilation, intermarriage with non-Jews (over 60 percent), and low profile. The strongly secular flavor of Bay Area Jewry may explain why Pil, with his heavy emphasis on the Orthodox religious practice of the Hasidim, holds it in such disdain.

Nevertheless, without any help from Pil's donated cars, Bay Area Jewish groups have raised tens of millions of dollars, which have been matched by a very small proportion of federal funds, to create a nationally respected resettlement network over the past two decades. It operates under close federal scrutiny. Money is strictly accounted for, and extended follow-ups with the newly arrived emigres are required to be documented. As a result, it is astonishingly effective. About 85 percent of the emigre families who pass through the system are self-sufficient after two years. [page]

The sheer volume of 2,000 arrivals a year, of course, poses a constant challenge — though to Pil, it's an opportunity.

If his organization doesn't collapse under its own weight, he is poised for even more significant growth. His dream of a full-fledged Hebrew day school is on its way to being realized with the down payment on the building at Balboa and 34th Avenue. So is his Russian-language synagogue, the second concrete manifestation of Pil's spiritual empire. Whether he expands his presence beyond these remains to be seen.

At the same time, the DA's Office is determining whether any actions that caused the warehouse fire really were violations of Pil's lease. And federal and state charities regulators, now that he's such a public figure, have Pil fully in their sights.

All of which means that Pil's story, too, remains unfinished.

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