Prison sentence unlikely for former JEC director Pil

Nearly a year to the day after he pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge of illegally structuring bank deposits, Rabbi Bentzion Pil's long, strange legal saga took a huge step toward closure last week.

Though no final punishment will be handed down until Jan. 4, the language used by Judge Martin J. Jenkins at Pil's Dec. 14 sentencing hearing at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco rendered a prison sentence highly unlikely.

While Assistant U.S. Attorney Ross Nadel had been seeking an 18-month prison term, the judge said he was "inclined" to sentence Pil to six to 12 months of "community confinement" in either a halfway house or under electronic surveillance.

"I was doing wrong, I'm sorry at this time," Pil, wearing a long black overcoat and black yarmulke, told Jenkins at the hearing. "I should be more careful, because of this I suffer. I'm very sorry for what I did."

At the close of the 2-1/2 hour hearing, Pil, the co-founder and former director of San Francisco's now-defunct Jewish Education Center, translated the news to a group of yarmulke-wearing Russian Jewish supporters — most of whom did not speak English — while his lawyers praised the judge's decision.

"[Pil's] conduct in court and the letters written were very important," said attorney Michael Stepanian, who, along with Randy Sue Pollock, represented the rabbi.

Jenkins' task was a Herculean one, largely because of the flood of pro-Pil letters sent his way by members of the local Russian Jewish community and fellow rabbis hailing from the Bay Area, the nation and throughout the world.

"I think the judge is a very fair judge, very fair and thoughtful," Stepanian added. "The judge read every single piece of information given him, and that was a huge job."

Local Russian-language newspapers carried full-page ads from Pil telling members of the community, "Don't do what is forbidden by law…don't do what I did," and urging supporters to send letters to Jenkins.

A pro-Pil petition running in the Nov. 22 edition of Rabbi Shimon Margolin's 5,000-circulation, Russian language San Francisco Jewish Gazette garnered 550 signatures.

Pil's support within the community –and his lawyers' arguments that he is a vital and indispensable asset to the area's Orthodox Russian Jews — seemed to be the major factor in Jenkins' decision to depart from sentencing guidelines.

Pil's legal team contended that Pil and Margolin are the only two Orthodox rabbis in the area who speak Russian, but only Pil has his own shul, the Schneerson Synagogue, where he conducts morning and evening minyans as well as weekly Shabbat services. Pil's lawyers said the rabbi's High Holy Day services often attract more than 400 members of the Russian Jewish community.

The lawyers also said the youthful Margolin does not have Pil's connections with elderly members of the Russian Jewish community.

Pil "knows the older immigrants; he is growing old with them," said Pollock. "To take Rabbi Pil away from them would be very detrimental. They have no other rabbi to go to."

After facing years of investigations and numerous charges stemming from the JEC's financial irregularities, Pil agreed to a plea bargain and pleaded guilty on Dec. 17, 1999 to a single charge of illegally structuring bank deposits so as to avoid federal detection.

Between January and December 1995, Pil or his employees made 282 deposits totaling $1,718,501 with Bank of America. Many of the deposits were just under the $10,000 level at which a domestic bank or financial institution is required to file an additional report.

At the sentencing hearing, Pil told Jenkins that his tumultuous upbringing in the former Soviet Union was a major factor in his conscious decision to elude government scrutiny.

"Because I'm from Russia, psychologically I'm scared of the government giving extra attention," said Pil, who emigrated from his native Uzbekistan in the mid-1970s. "In my mind, every time I fill out a form, the government or IRS will give extra attention."

Jenkins, however, did not see Pil's excuse as grounds for departure from sentencing guidelines, pointing out that the rabbi used to run a school and "licensing a school requires some government intrusion."

The fact that the illegally deposited funds were not used for unlawful purposes also failed to make an impression on Jenkins.

He did, however, see Pil's acceptance of responsibility and lack of a criminal background as reason for a downward adjustment in sentencing.

The news that Pil would almost definitely avoid jail time got an overwhelmingly positive reception among San Francisco's Orthodox and Russian Jewish communities.

"I'm very pleased. The faith of our community was saved," said Margolin. "We will not be fingered now by people saying, 'Oh, your rabbi is sitting in jail.' I don't want anybody saying, 'Russian Jews are criminals and their rabbi is a criminal.' This has a very big impact on the reputation of our community."

Rabbi Yosef Langer, director of the Chabad of S.F., said the fact that Pil is the father of nine children should be taken into account.

"He and his family have given themselves to the Russian Jewish community," said Langer. "I hoped he learned his lesson and that a man with a huge family shouldn't have to go to jail."

Yet while Margolin and Langer wrote letters to Jenkins urging leniency — and, via his newspaper, Margolin did much more than that — both rabbis still have serious issues with Pil.

"I don't in any way approve of what he was doing. In fact, I have spoken to him a couple of times about resigning," said Margolin. "I think the Schneerson Synagogue is probably the only synagogue in the country to have a convicted felon as rabbi. I am saddened by that."

Langer, for his part, has had a longstanding dispute with Pil's use of the name "Schneerson" — after the late Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson — first for his school and now for his synagogue.

Although Pil is not affiliated with Chabad or the Lubavitch movement, he has been described as "belonging to the Chabad branch of Orthodox Judaism" in such publications as the San Francisco Chronicle. Pil's legal misdeeds have further antagonized Chabad.

"It has to be very clear in the community's eyes that he is an independent contractor, not answerable in any way, shape or form to anyone in the Chabad organization," said Langer, the Bay Area's senior Chabad representative. "Using the names 'Chabad,' 'Lubavitch' and 'Schneerson' confuse people in the community who are unaware of these nuances. Rabbi Pil knows what he's doing in using these names."

In addition to the probable punishment of six to 12 months of community confinement, Jenkins said he was also inclined to sentence Pil to probation and community service within the non-Jewish community.

According to the judge, Pil's actions "smack, in some respects, of a lack of understanding of civic and governmental regulations.

"I view the recommendation [of service within the non-Jewish community] as one that's appropriate," Jenkins added. "In addition, he ought to take a class or two at a junior college. That's also appropriate to enlighten him."

Pil has reached a settlement in his own personal bankruptcy case, but the case against the JEC continues. When the nonprofit was forced into bankruptcy in 1997, hundreds of creditors were owed millions of dollars. Many radio stations — which played the JEC's well-known ads soliciting used car donations — were among the creditors.

Still, Pil's lawyers say come next month's sentencing hearing, the rabbi will see a light at the end of his legal tunnel.

"This will put an end to all the legal turmoil," said Stepanian.

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.