Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the religious scholar and spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jews who transformed his downtrodden community of immigrants from North Africa and Arab nations and their descendants into a powerful force in Israeli politics, died on Monday. He was 93.
Yosef, who had suffered from a variety of medical ailments for several years, was hospitalized in recent days in critical condition after suffering kidney failure and problems with other bodily systems. Officials at the Jerusalem hospital that treated him announced his death.
Yosef was often called the outstanding Sephardic rabbinical authority of the century. His prominence helped boost the confidence of his community, which makes up roughly half of Israel's population but was long impoverished and faced discrimination by Ashkenazi — or European — Jews who traditionally dominated Israel's government and religious institution.
Yosef parlayed his religious authority into political power, founding Shas, a party representing Sephardic Jews that became a kingmaker in several government coalitions.
As hospital officials announced his death, anguished cries could be heard from a large crowd of supporters that had gathered.
Eli Yishai, a Shas leader, stepped outside the hospital, recited a Jewish blessing and then broke down into tears.
"How will we remain alone? Who will lead us?" said Arieh Deri, another Shas leader, as he sobbed uncontrollably.