As Yom Kippur ended on October 9, two Jewish men were arrested on charges of funneling foreign money to Republican political candidates. It doesn’t appear that Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman spent the day praying and fasting: They lunched at the Trump International Hotel in Washington with Rudolph Giuliani, the U.S. president’s personal lawyer, before being taken into custody at Dulles airport just as they were due to fly to Vienna.
Since then, these two Soviet-born businessmen have become stars of the Donald Trump impeachment drama, portrayed as Giuliani’s henchmen in implementing a shadow White House policy aimed at pressuring Ukraine to launch an investigation that would malign former Vice President Joseph Biden, the Democrats’ front-runner to become president in 2020. Parnas and Fruman are seen as instrumental in the firing of Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from August 2016 to last May.
As the U.S. media dove into the backstories of Parnas and Fruman – dubbed Giuliani’s “Florida fixers” – one puzzling detail stood out.
The two men had been honored with the Chovevei Zion Award at the annual dinner of the National Council of Young Israel in March. The honor followed their visit to Israel with the same Orthodox Jewish organization a month earlier. High-profile Republicans like evangelical leader Mike Huckabee and former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci were also on that trip.
Why would one of the oldest names in U.S. Orthodox Judaism honor two nonobservant Jews with no record of affiliation or financial contribution to a Young Israel synagogue or institution? Even more puzzling was that their non-Jewish associate – also with no Young Israel ties or donations – was also honored: Attorney Charles Gucciardo, a Republican donor and Trump supporter, who reportedly paid Giuliani $500,000, as part of a business arrangement between the lawyer and Parnas.
Lev Parnas, left, and Igor Fruman were honored with the Chovevei Zion Award at the annual dinner of the National Council of Young Israel in March 2019.Reuters Staff/REUTERS
But to many people familiar with the internal politics of the National Council of Young Israel, it was a no-brainer. According to eight Young Israel rabbis and synagogue lay leaders interviewed by Haaretz, the Parnas-Fruman-Gucciardo connection was a symptom of the deterioration of a robust national synagogue umbrella group into a narrow partisan cause.
According to these sources, while the council once focused on supporting Orthodox religious communities across the country, it now largely serves the political agenda of a cadre of lay leaders: Its president, Farley Weiss; its first vice president, Joseph Frager; and the president of political advocacy arm Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), Yechezkel Moskowitz.