Sunday, January 17, 2010

From Executive of the Year to Israeli Nuthouse

Guma Aguiar was the 2007 Oil and Gas Investor Executive of the Year. Things have gone seriously sideways (my emphasis in red):
"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."

"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."

"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."

"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.""

Topical cartoon (click on it to see it; the cartoonist, Eli Valley, is brilliant, and you may remember his work on Bernie and Abe).
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