Pulpit to culprit: Sex trap claim plunges cantors into war

JERUSALEM — A rivalry between two of Israel’s most famous cantors has spilled over from the exalted world of prayer into allegations of a sexual entrapment plot that includes hidden cameras, a police inquiry and a female private detective hired by one of the men to seduce his adversary.

The saga pits Naftali Herstik, a revered and influential cantor, against his former student, Israel Rand, an up-and-coming talent in the exclusive community of Jewish liturgical singers.

Prosecutors allege Rand tried to topple his one-time mentor in a fit of jealousy that began three years ago at a synagogue in the Hamptons outside New York.

The Justice Ministry said it has prepared an extortion indictment against Rand. He is scheduled to appear soon at a hearing where prosecutors will decide whether to press charges.

A cantor leads Jewish services with traditional melodies and arrangements. Some, such as Herstik and Rand, have obtained celebrity status, recording albums and performing in prestigious symphony halls in Europe and the United States.

Prosecutors believe Rand hired the detective to pose as a musicology student, lure Herstik to a hotel and photograph intimacies. Rand allegedly sent pictures to the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, where Herstik is the longtime cantor, to get him fired.

In an interview, Herstik said he didn’t fall for the scheme. He said he agreed to meet the woman at a Tel Aviv hotel because she said she was interested in classical music. He said he entered her hotel room, noticed hidden cameras and immediately fled.

He has since filed a complaint against Rand and the private investigators he allegedly hired. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld confirmed an investigation was launched, and the Justice Ministry said it would soon decide whether to indict Rand and three others, including the detective.

When reached by The Associated Press, Rand declined to comment, saying “I don’t want to talk about it.” The Haaretz newspaper published what it said was a transcript of Rand’s police statement in which he was quoted as saying he hired the detective to gather information on his rival because “the man has been persecuting and defaming me for years. He has been making up stories about me. In the last two or three years he has harassed me. When they invited me to appear in the Great Synagogue, he prevented it with all sorts of excuses.”

The Great Synagogue in central Jerusalem is popular with visiting Jewish dignitaries and often hosts national ceremonies. Worshippers have included presidents and prime ministers.

Herstik was briefly suspended, then reinstated after the synagogue established his innocence.

“Basically, he was entrapped. He is certainly a victim of a bizarre plot and fortunately didn’t succumb to the aspirations and goals of the plotters,” said Rabbi David Fuld, president of the Great Synagogue’s board. “If indeed it was Rand, it brings into question why he would be allowed among civilized Jews.”

But Herstik’s spokesman, Amir Dan, said the cantor believes the conspiracy ran even deeper and has filed a police complaint against the synagogue’s chairman and vice president, accusing them of taking part in a plot to topple him. The vice president’s brother runs a cantorial school with Rand that is competing with Herstik for students, Dan said.

The synagogue’s director declined to comment on the police complaint and lawsuit.

Herstik has been the Great Synagogue’s chief cantor since 1981. He also has performed with the London Festival Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The scion of a Hungarian cantorial family, he emerged as a major cantor in the early 1970s at London’s Finchley Synagogue. In 1984, he founded the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute, which has trained many of the world’s leading cantors.

One of his students was Rand, who is in his mid-40s and is currently chief cantor at the Great Synagogue of Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv.

Herstik’s brother, Natan, said Rand’s antagonism toward his former teacher began in 2005, when Rand was dismissed from the Hampton Synagogue and its New York City affiliate, the New York Synagogue, and replaced by Herstik’s son, Netanel, an up-and-coming young cantor.