A rabbi extradited from South Africa for sex offenses and arrested upon his arrival in Israel last week, after being on the run for three years, has been caught on camera admitting to raping one of his female followers.
“She was raped from start to finish,” Berland says in footage released by Channel 2 television on Tuesday night. “Afterwards she thought it was permissible… the first time I raped her.”
According to Channel 2, the incriminating recordings were made four years ago by two of Berland’s followers. They were told to burn all the tapes and other potentially incriminating material “in case the police do not cooperate.”
But some of the tapes survived, and were handed over to police Monday. In another tape, Berland can be heard instructing one of his followers to place a bomb under the bed of an unnamed person — to send them to heaven.
Berland was extradited to Israel last week to answer charges of molesting female followers, including a minor. He was also accused of involvement in an attack on the husband of one of those women who complained against him.
The 79-year-old Berland is a cult-like figure to his students and followers. He is credited by his followers with inspiring tens of thousands of Jews to adopt an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. He is the founder of the Shuvu Bonim religious group, part of the Bratslav Hasidic sect.
In one video (in Hebrew) aired Tuesday, Berland appears to be discussing an issue of Jewish law whereby if a wife has an affair she becomes forbidden to remain married to her husband. However, if she is raped, however, this does not apply.
In the heavily edited video, Berland appears to contradict himself and claims that the woman, or perhaps another, is no longer married. “Afterwards she already asked me ‘What? What is happening here?’ I said to her ‘You are no longer married.'”
The video then shows Berland giving an entirely different justification for his actions. “She never did this voluntarily. She understood that she was like a divine messenger, to be the wife of the [rabbi],” Berland says, referring to himself in the third person.
In another video, Berland is seen speaking to a group of his followers in Hebrew. A student whispers something to him, to which Berland replies: “They placed the bomb for him? Who tried to do this?” He then entrusts one of his followers, Shlomi, to “go to Rishon Lezion and deal with those who placed the bomb.”
It is unclear to whom Berland is referring, or whether he was actually referring to a bomb. It is possible that he was using coded language for an entirely innocent activity.
A source close to Berland told the ultra-Orthodox website Hadrei Haredim in response that the video was edited by sources who wished to discredit Berland.
“Dozens of people attended this lesson, and it was recorded by followers of the rabbi and uploaded to YouTube. Those same people chose to cut the film, edit it and send it to the media during the rabbi’s trial. This is part of the well-oiled and prepared system that tries to harm the rabbi and his community.”
Berland was on the run from authorities from 2013 to 2016, 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.
On Tuesday afternoon, Lod District Court upheld a police appeal against a decision by Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court to release Berland to house arrest. The rabbi was to remain in custody for another day for further questioning.