21 cases, 200 witnesses: Berland to remain jailed over miracles-for-cash con
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21 cases, 200 witnesses: Berland to remain jailed over miracles-for-cash con

Cult-leading convicted sex offender rabbi, 82, accused of extorting millions from sick followers, evading taxes; police say probe opened ‘Pandora’s box’; he denies charges

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Eliezer Berland arrives for a court hearing at the Magistrate's Court in Jerusalem, on February 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )
Eliezer Berland arrives for a court hearing at the Magistrate's Court in Jerusalem, on February 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

A Jerusalem court on Sunday extended the remand of convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland by five days, following a wide-reaching investigation into allegations he fleeced terminally ill followers out of money with promises to heal them, pocketing millions of shekels in fees.

Berland, 82, was arrested in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood along with his wife and other senior members of his ultra-Orthodox Shuvu Bonim sect at about 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, as his followers clashed with police nearby.

Police had requested that Berland and the other suspects be held in custody for 10 days. In a statement to the court, police said their covert investigation into Berland, launched several months ago, opened a “Pandora’s box” that saw 200 witnesses ultimately step forward.

There are currently 21 criminal cases against Berland, his wife, and four of his aides of suspected fraud, extortion, money-laundering and serious tax offenses to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels, police said.

Though the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge approved a five-day remand, only partly acceding to the police demand, Judge Eliezer Bialin wrote in his ruling that he had received highly compelling evidence of “widespread, sophisticated and systematic crimes that were committed over time.”

“As a result of those donations, the bank accounts, including those of Berland’s wife, apparently received tens of millions. Berland and the others operated as a money-extorting machine [targeting] people in crisis,” added the judge.

Eliezer Berland arrives for a court hearing at the Magistrate’s Court in Jerusalem, on February 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Berland denied the charges during Sunday’s court hearing, saying he only offered blessings and healing services when asked, and at sums far lower than those alleged by police.

Outside the courtroom, members of the fringe Shuvu Bonim sect run by Berland protested his arrest on Sunday afternoon.

Police officers seen during a raid on offices in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem on December 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Berland had been under investigation for fraud after it emerged he allegedly told a cancer patient not to accept medical treatment and instead pay him money so that she would  live. After she died, her mother filed a police complaint, accusing him of manslaughter.

Since then, the case has gathered hundreds of complaints to police against Berland for selling prayers and “wonder drugs” to desperate members of his community, including promising families of handicapped individuals that their loved ones would be able to walk, and families of convicted felons that their loved ones would be freed from prison.

Earlier, police said Berland’s ring “took cynical and terrible advantage of hundreds of citizens and their families, who were facing their most difficult times, and demanded tens of thousands of shekels from them for prayers and healing.”

In addition, police said they uncovered evidence of “money laundering, hidden assets and tax offenses worth hundreds of millions of shekels, which the suspects are suspected of laundering through dozens of bank accounts.”

Eliezer Berland and his followers, in footage posted online in August 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

The suspects had a detailed price list for healing prayers, with prices rising as the medical condition became more dire, according to officials.

In one complaint, a family paid Berland tens of thousands of shekels multiple times for blessings and amulets to save a sick loved one. When the person died from the disease, Berland’s associates asked for another payment — to ensure their loved one would be first in line at the Messianic resurrection.

In the Sunday raid, dozens of boxes of powders and pills were found at Berland’s home that were given to supplicants as “wonder drugs.” Initial laboratory checks revealed them to be over-the-counter pain medication and candy, including Mentos, officials said Sunday.

Berland’s grandson defended the distribution of the candy on Sunday, telling reporters, “Just as the [Sephardic kabbalist] Baba Sali gave out cups of arak [liqueur] and blessed them, my grandfather gave out Mentos.”

Since 2017, the Shuvu Bonim community has been known to market “wonder drops from the Garden of Eden” that promised to cure all diseases, from learning disabilities to fatal cancers. The sales and distribution of the “wonder drops” were under the sole discretion of one of the aides arrested on Sunday, whose name has yet to be publicized. And the treatment was fully endorsed by Berland as a cure-all.

“He sets the prices, he sets the dosage, for every disease and every affliction. It’s a medicine that cures every disease in the world, from cancers, paralysis… there is no disease that it doesn’t cure,” Berland said in a recording heard by The Times of Israel, which saw him warn his other followers not to disturb the aide’s “monopoly” over the drug.

Three years ago, the Health Ministry was alerted to the existence of the drops after the Israel Hayom daily reported on the substance. The ministry warned pharmacies of penalties should they attempt to sell the unregulated substance, which the daily said cost NIS 70-100 ($20-30) per bottle. Recent photographs of Berland’s visits to followers’ homes have shown bottles of the drops on a table alongside the Shuvu Bonim leader, indicating its ongoing distribution.

Police officials said Berland controlled an organized and hierarchical system of alleged exploitation, with a clear command chain.

Footage from the predawn arrest showed Berland’s supporters throwing rocks and other objects at officers in an attempt to stop the arrest, injuring two. Riot police surrounded the vehicle in which the rabbi was placed by the arresting officers, and are seen in footage pushing back supporters who tried to reach the car or lie in front of it.

According to a report by a photographer for the Kikar Hashabbat news site, police also responded with stun grenades.

Berland commands a cult-like following among the thousands of members of group, an offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect. He fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted several female followers.

After evading arrest for three years and slipping through various countries, Berland was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November 2016 on two counts of indecent acts and one case of assault, as part of a plea deal that included seven months of time served. He was freed just five months later, in part due to ill health.

Since then, he has resumed his activities as the leader of the Shuvu Bonim community.

After his release from prison he was visited by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. Earlier this year, a recording surfaced of Litzman, the leader of the Agudat Yisrael party, and fellow member Meir Porush allegedly discussing a political deal with a Berland aide last fall, ahead of the municipal elections in Jerusalem.

Men gather to pray during a demonstration in support of Rabbi Eliezer Berland before his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, on July 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Berland has long been known to take “pidyonim” — contributions in exchange for blessings. In late-night visits, and surrounded by dozens of followers, Berland frequently shows up at Israeli hospitals across the country, unattended by staff, to bless the sick, according to footage uploaded by his followers.

Despite a Health Ministry advisory in January 2019 warning hospitals of these visits, Berland and his followers have said the ongoing nocturnal visits continued unimpeded as late as October 2019.

Activists who have spoken to The Times of Israel in the past have cited several cases of followers who, they say, have sold their houses or have been plunged into debt for these benedictions, in what they argue is tantamount to extortion by a leader with undue influence over his followers.

A report on Channel 13’s “Hamakor” program last year detailed how Berland instructed Nurit Ben Moshe’s daughter to forgo cancer treatment and instead pay him thousands of shekels to pray for her to be cured.

Footage from the ‘HaMakor’ investigative program on Channel 13 about Rabbi Eliezer Berland. (Screen capture: Channel 13)

Among his instructions were for her to eat a simple diet including soups made only from orange vegetables, something the report said had a significant negative impact on her health.

After intensive efforts by Ben Moshe, Berland eventually gave the go-ahead for her daughter to seek medical help, but by then the cancer was already too advanced for her to be saved.

The investigative report featured extensive hidden camera footage, including of Ben Moshe giving Berland thousands of shekels to pray for her daughter.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland covers himself with his talit (prayer shawl) at the Magistrate Court in Jerusalem where he was sentenced to prison for indecent acts and assault, on November 22, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

In January 2019, Channel 12 news reported that Berland told followers that he could revive people who were officially declared brain dead, if family members ponied up some NIS 20,000 ($5,400).

Also that month, a recording of Berland emerged that provided a glimpse of his attitude toward the donors. In the recording, accompanied by mocking laughter, the rabbi recounted how he had told an English-speaking woman to cough up $18,000. She heard $80,000 and complied, then he asked for more.

In March 2019, it emerged that Berland’s wife, son and grandson were being sued for misappropriating charitable donations for personal use.

An attorney for Berland, Sharon Nahari, protested the arrest Sunday, saying Berland was not a flight risk.

“The allegations against Rabbi Berland and his wife have already been published in the media, in both video and print. The rabbi has not fled and did not obstruct the investigation, even though he and his wife were aware of the investigation. The arrest this morning was inappropriate. They should be freed. The rabbi is 82 and must take his medications. He wife is 83. There is no reason not to release them to their home while the investigation continues,” Nahari said in a statement to the press.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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