Israel – Maariv published an expose of Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf, a pivotal Gerrer askan who stands at the head of the Igud HaTatim, the Bais Yaakov Kindergarten network, and the Committee to Observe Shabbos.
Not only does Goldknopf, 60 and the father of 10, concentrate immense political power in his hand, but he does so in an aggressive manner that intimidates potential opponents and rivals from chassidic rebbes to businessman. As if that wasn’t enough, he also has key control of the chassidic Hamodia daily, the main information channel for a large part of the chareidi community.
Goldknopf almost singlehandedly crushed the Shefa Shuk mehadrin supermarket chain belonging to the secular Ribua Kachol conglomerate owned by David Weissman. The financial sanctions he implemented speedily brought El Al to agree not to travel on Shabbos.
As the economic power of the chareidi community has grown, the more power has accrued to the head of the Committee for Shabbos.
“The chareidi public has gray areas which are run by various power bases. Whoever dares to harm them is endangering his status and in certain cases, even his life. Goldknopf and the group that surrounds him are one such power base,” explains a person who has followed Goldknopf’s waxing power in recent years.
Another person who is acquainted with Goldknopf describes him this way: “He a strong man, intelligent, completely discreet, and runs his affairs zealously. He knows the intimate workings of all the different chareidi publics and sits on critical intersections which connect contributions to rabbinical courts.”
Goldknopf sits in his office on Belilius street until the late evening, running his numerous affairs which include real estate and phone companies. His greatest power lays, however, in the public organizations he runs. He is the general director of Petachya, a special education organization; a general director of Igud Hatatim; and a committee member of the Hisachdus Hatatim. These organizations get numerous funds from the government, and Goldknopf is the one who decides how to divvy them.
Slicing the Earnings of Impoverished Kindergarten Teachers
The organization which gives him the greatest power base is the Bais Yaakov kindergarten network which thousands of chareidi children attend. A State Comptroller study carried out in 2008 on the kindergarten network reported that 20% of the kindergarten teachers received only 82-85% of their proper salary, while 38% received only 86-90% of their required salary. Some kindergarten teachers only earned 75% of their legal wages.
How did he pull this off? In the summer months, the network didn’t pay some of the kindergarten teachers and aides in July and none of them received wages in August. Numerous teachers were sent to request unemployment from the government. “The state paid the network twice,” the report says.
“These are women who are working to provide for 7-8 children,” says a furious relative of a kindergarten teacher employed in Goldknopf’s network. “While municipal kindergarten teachers made 4,500 NIS a month, Goldknopf’s made 3,200. He divides the money according to his personal interests – some employees get more, some get less. His attitude is, “I’ll do what’s best for me and to hell with everyone else.”
A Gerrer chosid confirmed, “He employs women who are close to leading members of our community, and doesn’t slice off their wages as he does for others.”
At least 13 members of Goldknopf’s own family have found his organizations an unfailing source of jobs. His 85-year old mother is employed in the Bais Yaakov network in an administrative position, his wife is employed in Petachya, his 4 daughters serve as kindergarten teachers and administrators, his two sisters are also working in Bais Yaakov, as is his daughter-in-law, sister-in-law and nephew’s wife. Another daughter-in-law works in Petachya. “Thirteen family members working in an organization is not proper administration,” the State Comptroller’s Report notes wryly.
Since becoming the head of these organizations in the 1980’s, Goldknopf has attained a pyramid of power among Gerrer chassidim. A close friend says, “He travels abroad a lot, disappears from the office for several days and always travels in first class.”
His Selective Battles Against Shabbos Desecration
The battle of the chareidim against chillul Shabbos took a new turn 4 years ago, when various rabbonim decided that a committee had to be set up to coordinate between the public’s leading rabbonim. The various streams sent their representatives, but from the beginning, the organization was usurped by Goldknopf who turned it into another power base.
“We discovered very quickly that they had taken over the committee and used it as a ‘kardum lachfor boh’,” says a former member of the committee. “They inserted all kinds of people with personal interests and took it to completely different directions, with Goldknopf pulling the strings. This position gives power and money to one who knows how to manipulate. The ways it’s run today, it destroys businesses and doesn’t even promote Shabbos observance.”
A person who worked with him in the past, avers, “Everything is kosher in his eyes and whatever he asks of you, better be done. He doesn’t threaten with words, but he has his people and it’s enough he looks at you.. He’s dangerous. I know a person who couldn’t step foot in his own shul because of him.”
Goldknopf’s first publicized boycott took place in December 2006, and within a month both sides reached a compromise which was hidden from the public. “The fight over El Al flights on Shabbos stunk. Not only didn’t he reveal the compromise he reached with them, but the fact is that the company continues to fly on Shabbos,” says someone close to the committee. Chillul Shabbos continues to be massively carried out by El Al’s subsidiary Sun-dor. Recently, El Al required its workers to carry phony Sun-dor employment papers when they travel on Shabbos, in addition to their regular El Al employment documents which they carry during the week.
“The Committee for Shabbos controls today the two largest media in the chareidi public — Hamodia and Yated Neeman. Whatever they don’t write, the chareidi public doesn’t know. They’re a real mafia,” says the above source.
Despite Goldknopf’s immense power, voices have been raised in the past year against the selective way he chooses who to boycott for chillul Shabbos. Rabbonim have privately expressed their disagreement to his bombastic campaigns that feature prolific street posters, raucous articles in the newspapers and swift consumer boycotts against certain targets, but fear to openly oppose him.
Goldknopf ran an uncompromising struggle against the Shefa Shuk mehadrin supermarkets owned by Dudi Weissman, whose Tel Aviv AM:PM network are open on Shabbos. The success of the struggle can be seen by the fact that half of its 47 flourishing supermarkets were forced to close down.
For inexplicable reasons, however, many other businessmen are not in Goldknopf’s sights. One obvious sample is Nochi Dankner and his chareidi businessman partner Shulam Fischer, who own a supermarket mehadrin network under the Supersol Group, many of whose businesses are mechalel Shabbos. Neither of them have yet felt Goldknopf’s imperious assault. Among the Shabbos desecrating companies run by these two are the Cellcom cellphone company, Natur transportation company, Golf and Kav, Chadera paper and Chugla-Kimberly disposable diapers.
Fischer is a partner of Matthew Bronfman from the Iris Hagilboa Group, who owns Israel IKEA. The Group purchased last December 9.5% of the shares of British Israel, owned by the British religious billionaire Louis Noe, who owns 18% of all the shopping malls around the country. Some are open on Shabbos, such as Chonim-Konim in Rishon Letzion, Dodge shopping mall in Upper Natzeret, Queen of Sheba shopping mall in Eilat, and Bilu Center at the BILU intersection.
Goldknopf’s Targets Respond to the Hypocrisy
Could the reason be because Fischer and Dankner are close to the chareidi public? Dankner is a close donor to Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Iferghan (the “Xray”) of Netivot, and he also “adopted” Hatzolah Israel to which he contributes millions of shekels.
“Fischer donates lavishly to Gerrer and Belz chassidic organizations, and this is just a fraction of what he gives,” says a man close to Fischer’s charity enterprises. “He gives hundreds of thousands of shekels every month by bank order. Whenever they need a building, mikvah or shul, they go to him. Every holiday, he gives coupons worth 1.5-2 million shekels out to friends and family. He’s very connected to the Gerrer chassidim.”
The fact that Goldknopf is blind to Dankner and Fischer’s Shabbos desecrating businesses rankled on their rivals in the chareidi sector, and a month ago, the streets filled with posters featuring Fischer and Dankner’s pictures and warning the public, “Look who is responsible for the greatest chillul Shabbos in the Holy Land.” Under their pictures was a list of their holdings in companies that desecrate Shabbos. The poster was signed “National Committee to Uphold Shabbos.”
“Some people are fed up with the hypocrisy. The story with Shefa Shuk was sordid. Why did they go against Shefa Shuk but not the others? This was a far-reaching phenomenon but they chose to boycott only one and turned a blind eye to the other,” said one man formerly involved in the struggle to observe Shabbos.
Goldknopf refused to address any of the claims made against him and instead issued this response, “I see no reason to respond to things unrelated to me. I don’t know where you extracted all this from. The Rabbinical Committee for Shabbos has done and will continue to do its work faithfully, and there is no need to attribute anything improper to it.”