The Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court extended the remand Sunday night of Shaul Youdkevitch, director of the Israel Kabbalah Center. Police suspect that Youdkevitch, along with others at the center, exploited a cancer patient and her husband by fraudulently extracting tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for assurances that the center would assist her recovery. The woman died this past August.
Police began investigating in July after the couple, Boris and Leah Zonis, filed a complaint against the Israel Kabbalah Center. At that point, Leah was hospitalized and dying of cancer, which had spread throughout her body, “but she decided that despite everything, she must complain against them because she realized that they had taken advantage of her,” her husband told Haaretz on Sunday.
The couple became acquainted with the Tel Aviv branch of the Kabbalah center near Dizengoff Square in 1995. “My wife was stricken with cancer then and wanted to find spiritual aid to deal with her illness. That’s how she got to know the people at the center and she used to go there for activities and lectures,” Zonis said.
When his wife’s condition deteriorated in 1999, she turned to the center’s director at the time, Moshe Rosenberg, who now lives in the United States. “She asked them to help her get better, and Rosenberg said that whoever donates a serious sum of money to the center can achieve a full recovery,” Zonis recalled. “I immediately offered to donate around NIS 5,000, but we were told that we have to donate ‘a sum that will be painful for us’ and not an easy expenditure and we were asked to donate $30,000.”
The couple borrowed money from relatives and friends and tapped their long-term savings to pay the center by credit card, in two installments. In return, the couple was promised, members of the center would pray for them. Leah Zonis was told she could buy a bottle of holy water, which would aid her recovery if she drank it.
But her illness grew worse. In 2002, when the cancer continued metastasizing, she appealed to Youdkevitch – now the key figure at the center – to help her: “He told us that the previous donation we made was apparently not enough and that we have to donate more,” Boris Zonis explained. “We had no money by then so we turned to Leah’s mother, a woman who had worked hard all her life, and it was she who agreed to give us her savings – some $25,000. They specifically told us that this time when we give the money, Leah will get complete health, and again they promised to read from the ‘Zohar’ book specially for her.”
“The woman’s condition continued to deteriorate,” the couple’s lawyer, Haim Cohen, charged Sunday, “and instead of telling the truth, that these were empty promises, they took more money and cheated with a medication that is just a bottle of water.”
Not long before his wife died, Zonis asked Youdkevitch for financial help. He says he was directed to an unknown donor who was asked to help him and gave him $5,000. Despite that, Leah realized shortly before her death that she had been the victim of fraud and asked her husband to go to the police.
“She was a sick person, on the verge of despair. And in that state a patient grabs at any straw to be saved. They were our straw until we realized that we had been exploited,” according to Zonis.
Tel Aviv fraud squad investigators, led by Senior Staff Sergeant Major Maurice Tal, have conducted an undercover probe since July and Sunday morning arrested Youdkevitch at the center.
The suspect refuted the complaint as “bogus.” His lawyer, Uri Wegman, declined to comment.
Youdkevitch has admitted receiving the money from the couple, but claims a healthy recovery was never promised in return. He also claimed that the bottled water in question has therapeutic qualities.
Police seek also to question Rosenberg and Youdkevitch’s wife, Osnat, who manages the center.