A rabbi convicted of sexual assault who spent several years on the lam was sentenced to 18 months in prison Tuesday after a court approved his plea bargain.
Rabbi Eliezer Berland, 79, who enjoys a cult-like following in the Bratslav Hasidic sect, was convicted last week on two counts of indecent acts and one case of assault as part of the deal.
The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court sentenced him to 18 months in prison, though some seven months that he spent in jails in South Africa and the US will count as time served.
Berland fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he molested two female followers, one of them a minor.
He was on the run from authorities until earlier this year, eluding several Israeli attempts to extradite him. He moved between Zimbabwe, Switzerland, the Netherlands and South Africa, accompanied by a group of devout followers numbering around 40 families.
During the hearing, Berland asked for forgiveness for his actions.
“I regret from the depths of my heart all the damage I caused to any man or woman either directly or indirectly,” he said.
One of Berland’s victims described in court documents how she “wakes up from nightmares during the night, dreaming how he raped me,” adding that her “life was destroyed” after she was raped when she went to receive a blessing from him on account of his stature as an esteemed rabbi, according to her testimony published by Channel 2 earlier Tuesday.
The woman also said that since she came out against the rabbi she has been “chased after” by his followers, two of whom physically attacked her husband, threatening “to break his bones.”
She added that upon his release “her life will be in danger,” pointing to Berland’s record of instructing his followers to physically harm all those who speak out against him and the assault against her husband.
According to the indictment, Berland would often receive people in his homes in Jerusalem and in Beitar Illit and held private meetings intended for spiritual guidance, counseling or benedictions. The rabbi would sometimes take advantage of the meetings and of his position in the community to commit sexual acts with women, including minors.
Berland, founder of the Shuvu Bonim religious seminary in Israel, had also been accused of instructing two of his disciples to hurt anyone who tried to expose his actions.
Days after his July 19 return and subsequent arrest in Israel, Channel 2 aired a recording, allegedly of Berland admitting to rape. Berland’s attorney denied that the voice on the recording was Berland’s, saying his enemies were trying to hurt him.
Last summer, prior to a move to South Africa, Berland fought his extradition from the Netherlands on the grounds that the alleged assaults happened in the West Bank and that Israel does not have jurisdiction there.