Pil miffed over 9-month sentence in halfway house

After years of investigations, a mountain of allegations, a plea bargain, a year of continuations and two sentencing hearings, Rabbi Bentzion Pil has finally received a punishment for his financial misdeeds –and he doesn't like it.

U.S. District Court Judge Martin J. Jenkins settled upon what he called "a mid-range sentence" in Pil's Jan. 4 sentencing hearing. It fell between the prosecution's demands for 10 months in a halfway house and the defense's proposition of six months of home confinement.

The founder and former director of the now-defunct Jewish Education Center was sentenced to nine months in a halfway house and three years probation, and fined $10,000.

"This will allow Rabbi Pil to be active in the community and address the court's concern for punishment," said Jenkins of the sentence. "Sentences are not meted out so as to let [Pil] be most effective as a rabbi…This will not allow Rabbi Pil to give counsel without each and every day remembering the offense he has committed."

After years of investigations and a bevy of charges stemming from the JEC's financial irregularities, Pil agreed to a plea bargain in 1999. On Dec. 17 of that year he pleaded guilty to a single count of illegally structuring $1,718,501 in bank deposits, intentionally evading federal reporting laws on coin or currency transactions exceeding $10,000.

Pil summed up his feelings on the sentence as, "I'm sure not positive; it could be worse, it could be better," and he expressed irritation with Jenkins for not taking his family into consideration.

"The reason why they [picked] this judge is because, in my opinion, they wanted to make sure he shouldn't be Jewish and make sure he shouldn't have a wife and children. He shouldn't have any mercy because my wife is pregnant and I have nine kids," said Pil. "A person who has enough to eat doesn't feel for a person who is hungry."

Jenkins also ordered Pil to take a community college course in American government to punish him "for challenging governmental authority," to undergo mental health counseling to "address the concerns this court has" about Pil's oppressive upbringing in Uzbekistan, and to complete 100 hours of community service.

At the Dec. 14 sentencing hearing, U.S. Assistant Prosecutor Ross Nadel had sought a low-end sentence of 18 to 24 months in prison. Jenkins, however, saw Pil's acceptance of responsibility, his lack of a criminal background and the hundreds of letters and petitions touting his service to the local Russian Jewish community as grounds for departing from sentencing guidelines.

Jenkins placed the parameters of the sentence at six to 12 months in either a halfway house or home detention pending input from federal probation officers as to which would be more suitable for the Orthodox rabbi. At the Jan. 4 hearing, Laurie Bohanan, community corrections manager with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said a halfway house could accommodate all of Pil's religious needs, dietary and otherwise.

Many members of the Russian Jewish community, while pleased Pil avoided jail time, were upset he didn't receive the lighter sentence of home detention.

"He's a nice man. Russian community likes him, everybody loves him. Everybody was happy he was going to get six months at home; that's what [Pil] told us," said Liza Avrutin, the proprietor of the Israel Kosher Market, located in the heart of the Russian neighborhood in San Francisco's Richmond District. "People come in and say they're sorry for Rabbi Pil. Everybody is upset because he has nine children and No. 10 comes in one month, two months.

"I know he helps a lot of Russian people; he tried hard. He's supposed to be with his children."

Rabbi Shimon Margolin, whose Russian-language San Francisco Jewish Gazette ran a pro-Pil petition bearing roughly 550 signatures that was sent to Jenkins, also voiced mixed feelings about the sentence.

"I'm a little disappointed; I was hoping he'd get home detention and probation," said Margolin, who also serves the Russian-speaking community. "I want to emphasize, the community feels he didn't commit a violent crime and is the father of nine kids. Nobody wished for him to go to jail."

Margolin was briefly employed by the JEC in 1995, quitting abruptly after 4-1/2 months.

"There's a prohibition in Jewish law, an Orthodox tradition of not speaking negatively of a fellow Jew," explained Margolin. "After 4-1/2 months, I didn't want to be employed or associated with the JEC."

And despite his pleas of leniency for Pil, Margolin has been a critic of his fellow rabbi's actions. He says he hopes this sentence will teach Pil a lesson.

"I hope he learns from this and adheres to the regulations and requirements of the sentence," said Margolin. "And I hope he attracts as little attention as possible."

While Pil's criminal case has finally drawn to a close, the bankruptcy case against the JEC continues.

Malcom Leader-Picone, an attorney for bankruptcy trustee Stuart Kaplan, said he is currently involved in two adversary proceedings: an attempt to recover $200,000 in alleged preferential payments from the JEC's former "favorite lender" Luba Troyanovsky, and a suit against the law firm Steefel, Levitt and Weiss, which he claims "simultaneously represented the Pils and the JEC, creating a conflict of interest."

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.