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Prodigal Son

A look at Guma Aguiar, who with his uncle bankrolled a New York rabbi trying to control the standards for conversion to Judaism

Allison Hoffman
January 15, 2010
Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; Aguiar photo by Sivan Farag; Jerusalem photo by iStockphoto
Guma Aguiar, Jerusalem macher.Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; Aguiar photo by Sivan Farag; Jerusalem photo by iStockphoto
Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; Aguiar photo by Sivan Farag; Jerusalem photo by iStockphoto
Guma Aguiar, Jerusalem macher.Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; Aguiar photo by Sivan Farag; Jerusalem photo by iStockphoto

Guma Aguiar, the 32-year-old multimillionaire who helped precipitate the downfall of the ultra-Orthodox rabbi Leib Tropper, was committed by court order to a mental hospital near Tel Aviv yesterday, according to Israeli news reports. Aguiar and his billionaire uncle, Thomas Kaplan, have bankrolled Tropper’s efforts to gain control of the stringently regulated process of conversion to Judaism—an initiative that came to a halt last month, when tapes surfaced of the rabbi attempting to sexually coerce a prospective convert, Shannon Orand. According to a statement released by Aguiar’s family, which initiated the court proceedings, the move came after Aguiar granted an interview to the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’ir, due to be published today, in which he claimed he had gone into Gaza and either visited or rescued the captured soldier Gilad Shalit. “He’s at one of my properties,” Aguiar, who owns apartments throughout Jerusalem, told the weekly, according to a report in Haaretz. “I wanted to prove that I can go into Gaza and walk out alive, which would mean that Shalit could come out alive as well.”

Aguiar’s interview is just the latest—albeit the most public—example of increasingly erratic outbursts from the native Floridian and former evangelical Christian, who made aliyah to Israel in November 2007 with his wife and three young children. Last April, Aguiar has acknowledged in television interviews, he physically confronted Tropper in a Jerusalem hotel room; the rabbi claimed in an Israeli court that Aguiar, an athletic 6-foot-2-inch man, threatened to throw him off a ninth-floor balcony. In June, Aguiar was arrested in Florida on drug possession charges, after a cop pulled him over and found marijuana in his Bentley. Aguiar pleaded no contest and paid a $536 fine, but only after accusing the sheriff’s deputies of anti-Semitism and brutality. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Aguiar tried to head-butt an officer and told a guard, “I could buy you, Mr. Deputy.”

Yesterday, Aguiar’s family, in the statement released to the press, blamed Aguiar’s mental breakdown on a single factor: the stress caused by the web of civil lawsuits between him and Kaplan, from whom he is now estranged, over the $2.55 billion payout from the 2007 sale of their joint natural-gas exploration venture, Leor Energy. “Mr. Aguiar fell victim to a campaign of invasive surveillance and false accusations that amounted to psychological terrorism,” Aguiar’s family said in the statement. Aguiar’s U.S. attorneys did not return a phone call from Tablet seeking comment. Kaplan’s attorneys declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Earlier this week, in a phone interview with Tablet before his commitment to the Abarbanel mental hospital in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, Aguiar charged that his uncle—who is currently president of the board of the 92nd Street Y, one of New York’s pre-eminent Jewish cultural institutions—was, among other things, paying off the U.S. military and tracking Aguiar and his family with GPS devices. “I’ve been under surveillance for a long time,” Aguiar insisted. Aguiar also made repeated references to death, claiming that both Kaplan and Tropper are on suicide watch because of the recent sex-tape scandal. He also claimed he had filed for custody of Kaplan’s two young children in both the United States and Israel. Then he bragged about the powerful people he knows who would stop him from doing “anything stupid.” “You know who would call me?” Aguiar asked. “People like Bibi, people like Tzachi Hanegbi”—Israel’s former minister of justice, currently chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee—“maybe Tzipi Livni, maybe Shimon Peres, maybe Alan Dershowitz.” The Harvard law professor recently signed on to Aguiar’s legal team; he declined to comment on his client’s circumstances to Tablet, citing the ongoing litigation.

Documents filed by Kaplan in U.S. federal court suggest that Aguiar has been regularly leaving threatening voicemails for Kaplan and others as the Tropper scandal has unfolded. Their content, which has not previously been reported, demonstrates the degree to which Tropper’s organization has become enmeshed in the increasingly vicious family feud between Kaplan, who remains Eternal Jewish Family’s chairman, and Aguiar—both wealthy, ambitious men who have come to play increasingly prominent roles in the secular Jewish world, even as they sought, via Tropper, to increase the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold over the process of conversion to Judaism backed by the legal authority of the State of Israel.

“I demand that you resign as Chairman of EJF,” Aguiar allegedly said in a December 15 voicemail message, threatening to sexually violate Kaplan if he didn’t comply, according to court documents. “You can call me when the fucking pain is bad enough,” he said in another message, filed in support of Kaplan’s motion to hold his nephew in contempt of court. (The presiding judge has not yet ruled on the request.) Additional filings contain more such messages: on December 20, the same day the New York Post published the seamy details of Tropper’s alleged sexcapades with Shannon Orand, the conversion candidate from Houston, Aguiar allegedly left the following message: “It’s the eighth night of Hanukkah and the flames are burning loud. I just sent over some candles for you guys and some pizza and some other items and gifts today so that you would have them as a token of our appreciation from our family to our family of just how much we love you ‘cause we love you so much that we decided to let you know that we’re praying for you in the event that you finally decide to commit suicide.” In court filings, Aguiar’s attorneys have not disputed their client left the voicemails, but argue that their content does not constitute harassment.

As president of the 92nd Steet Y, Kaplan, 47, regularly hobnobs with some of the most powerful Jewish philanthropists in New York. He and his wife, Daphna Recanati, a member of one of Israel’s wealthiest and best-known families, also support major scholarship programs for arts education at the Y and have given millions to other charitable causes in Israel and the United States. Separately, Kaplan—who wrote a 788-page Oxford dissertation on Malaysia’s geopolitical positioning during the Cold War before, in 1994, opening a firm that prospected silver mines with financial backing from George and Paul Soros—has established a nonprofit organization called Panthera, devoted to wildcat preservation and research, which has created vast reserves of land in Brazil for big cats to roam free. (A recent admiring profile of Kaplan in the New York Times revealed that he also harvests honey from his jaguar preserves.) A serial entrepreneur, Kaplan moved on from oil wells to gold mining, through a new company based in London, which has hired Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, as an adviser, according to British press reports.

Aguiar, 15 years Kaplan’s junior, is the son of the billionaire’s older sister, Ellen Kaplan, who left Judaism to become an evangelical Christian. He was born in Brazil, but grew up in Fort Lauderdale, where he was a tennis star for his Christian prep school, Westminster Academy. Even after “returning” to Judaism, Aguiar continued to support the school, which is also his wife’s alma mater, giving it a $50,000 grant in 2007. After graduating from Westminster, he attended Clemson University, in South Carolina, but dropped out and moved to New York, where he became a clerk on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In 2001, Kaplan offered to bring Aguiar into his new business venture: oil and gas exploration. In court documents, Aguiar recounts getting into a car and driving to Texas, where he and a geologist, John Amoruso, made one of the largest onshore natural-gas finds in the past decade; as gas prices skyrocketed in the middle part of the decade, Aguiar and Kaplan’s company, Leor, attracted Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch as investors before selling to oil giant EnCana in 2007.

In addition to discovering large deposits of untapped natural gas, Aguiar was also rediscovering his ancestral heritage. In interviews, he likes to recount the tale of calling Tovia Singer, a Monsey-based rabbi who specializes in outreach to Jews who have become evangelical Christians, to demand the rabbi stop trying to take Jews away from Jesus. Instead, Aguiar continues, he fell in love with the Torah. In 2003, Kaplan introduced his peripatetic nephew to Tropper, who bestowed upon him the name Yehuda Dovid and took him on as a pupil in his yeshiva. Eventually, Aguiar convinced Jamie Black, his onetime high-school girlfriend, to convert to Judaism. “I thought about Jerusalem since I was a child,” Aguiar told a documentary film crew last year. “I had these amazing visions of Samson, this big strong guy, and David with the slingshot—these visions of heroes in my mind.”

Until their falling out two years ago, Kaplan and Aguiar shared both a thriving energy business—Leor was named after Kaplan’s children, Leonardo and Orianna—and a charitable organization, the Lillian Jean Kaplan Foundation, named for Kaplan’s mother and established after her death in 2002 to support Thomas Kaplan’s “philanthropic and religious goals.” From the outset, Kaplan was the principal donor to the foundation, contributing more than $1 million annually. Aguiar ran the foundation, which was registered to his home on a cul-de-sac in Fort Lauderdale, and which gave to an array of causes, including medical research and Jewish groups ranging from Hadassah, Magen David Adom, and the Jewish National Fund to ultra-Orthodox education and outreach groups, including Tropper’s yeshiva, Kol Yaakov, in Monsey.

It remains unclear why Kaplan and Aguiar, having cemented their very profitable relationship in the oil fields of Texas, decided to get so deeply involved with Tropper, a moonfaced ultra-Orthodox rabbi who first came to public prominence in his community in 2005, when he joined a group of halachic authorities who had ostracized a fellow ultra-Orthodox rabbi who had the temerity to claim that the universe might be more than 5,700 years old. No rabbi who believed that the universe predated the Jewish calendar, Tropper insisted, could be a valid judge for a conversion to Judaism—a claim that carried with it the implication that no one who believed otherwise should be allowed to become a Jew. (Tropper subsequently invalidated a woman’s conversion to Judaism on the grounds that she had later been seen wearing pants, a sartorial decision that in his binding opinion proved that she was never actually Jewish.)

Between 2003 and 2008, the last year for which documents are available, the Kaplan foundation paid out more than $8 million to Tropper’s various enterprises, helping the rabbi establish adherence to his personal brand of biblical literalism as the gold standard for Jewish belief and practice, and for conversion to Judaism. But it’s not clear how warm their relationship ever was; emails filed in one of the court cases indicate that, as early as 2004, Kaplan was losing patience with his rabbinic ally, who was demanding more money. “Your method of recognizing my generosity is to threaten withholding of your contacts, a form of spiritual scorched earth,” Kaplan wrote. “You’ve acted like a child and jeopardized the greatest project with which you could ever be associated. Quite frankly you should be ashamed of yourself.”

In 2007, after the sale of Leor closed, Kaplan and his wife, Daphne, contributed $36 million to the foundation; Aguiar, in his first contribution, added another $25 million. By the middle of 2008, as the relationship between Kaplan and Aguiar began to deteriorate, Kaplan attempted to remove his nephew—who had been drawing six-figure management fees—from the foundation. In a lawsuit pending in Florida state court, Kaplan accuses Aguiar of hijacking the foundation and distributing $7 million to certain rabbis “to further his claim he is the Jewish Messiah.”

By then, Aguiar had already moved to Israel, where he has used his $200 million from the Leor sale to become something less than the Messiah—instead, he’s a bona-fide Jerusalem celebrity, instantly recognizable to Israelis as the owner of Beitar Jerusalem, the country’s most famous soccer club, whose bright yellow jerseys and caps he frequently wears. He is also known for high-profile charitable donations to major organizations, including an $8 million gift a year ago to Nefesh b’Nefesh, a group that promotes aliyah among North American Jews. In October, he appeared onstage with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, at the annual Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, which Aguiar and his wife co-chaired. Earlier in the year, he chaired a similar conference there, and he bestowed a “Defender of Jerusalem” award on Texas Gov. Rick Perry during the politician’s August visit to the Holy Land.

In September, Israel’s Channel 10 aired a documentary about the country’s newest hero, in which Aguiar offered a guided tour of an unoccupied apartment he owns in Jerusalem’s Old City, overlooking the Western Wall. “What did you think, I was going to be in Row 56 or something?” Aguiar asked. “This is like VIP seats here—in case something happens”—he seems to be referring to the arrival of the Messiah—“I wanted VIP seats. If it never happens in our lifetime, then we have something to look forward to.”

The show also captured Aguiar—who explained in his interview with Tablet that he is relieved to have moved his allegiance from Tropper’s strict form of ultra-Orthodoxy to the more relaxed, welcoming Judaism of Chabad—stopping to buy cigarettes at a corner shop. “Jerusalem like you, love you,” exclaims one of the shopkeepers. “You been to selichot”—Jewish prayers of atonement—“at the Kotel?” asks he other. Aguiar responds that he has not, and pauses before asking: “What is selichot?”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.