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Convicted sex offender rabbi released to house arrest in ongoing fraud case

Court places severe restrictions on Eliezer Berland, including ban on contacting any of his followers, posting NIS 1.2 million bail, and having 2 wardens with him at all times

Rabbi Eliezer Berland arrives for a court hearing at the Magistrate's Court in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )
Rabbi Eliezer Berland arrives for a court hearing at the Magistrate's Court in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

A sex offender rabbi who has been accused of defrauding his sick and elderly followers out of millions of shekels was released to house arrest on Monday after more than a year in detention, under severe restrictions.

The Jerusalem District Court set the release terms for Rabbi Eliezer Berland, the leader of the extremist Shuvu Bonim sect, who allegedly conned his desperate followers out of huge sums of money with promises of miracle cures.

Berland, 83, will be banned from using any form of communication with anyone except a specific list of people, and must not contact any of his followers. He has been required to post NIS 1.2 million ($369,315) in bail and to commit to another NIS 1.2 million to be paid if he tries to flee the country.

The location of his house arrest is to be kept secret and Berland must pay for a private security company to maintain a 24-hour watch over him, including a team of wardens, two of whom are to be with the rabbi at all times.

Berland’s legal team welcomed the development, which they said was needed due to his poor health.

“Regrettably, Rabbi Berland’s health has very much deteriorated in recent months and we are happy that the court recognized the need to release Rabbi Berland to a detention alternative to preserve his health, until the end of proceedings,” his attorneys said in a statement.

Berland has been under arrest for over a year as his case continues.

Last month, attorneys representing his alleged victims protested an emerging plea bargain with prosecutors. In a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Jerusalem prosecutors, the lawyers derided the reported agreement as “absurd” and an “insult” to those who claim they were swindled by Berland.

They implored the attorney general and prosecutors not to give weight to Berland’s advanced age and ill health in formulating the plea bargain, noting that legal authorities had freed Berland from prison early due to poor health several years ago when he was serving time for sex offenses. Yet Berland went on to commit other crimes, they said.

The details of the negotiations on the plea bargain, which are ongoing, have yet to be confirmed by the authorities. The alleged victims’ lawyers said that to the best of their knowledge, it would include 14 months of imprisonment, compensation of NIS 5,000-10,000 ($1,500-$3,000) per victim and a fine to be paid to the state.

Supporters and followers of Rabbi Eliezer Berland protest for his release outside the Jerusalem District court in Jerusalem, on May 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Berland was arrested for fraud in February 2020 after hundreds of people complained to police that he had sold prayers and “wonder drugs” to desperate members of his community, and promised families of individuals with disabilities that their loved ones would be able to walk and families of convicted felons that their loved ones would be freed from prison.

In the arrest 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. He was charged in that case in March last year.

Berland has denied the charges, saying he only offered blessings and healing services when asked, and at sums far lower than those alleged by police.

In May, he was further charged with tax evasion, violations of money laundering laws and other offenses for failing to report and even concealing income generated through his activities with the Shuvu Bonim sect.

Berland continues to command a cult-like following among the thousands of members of his 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 returned to Israel and 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.

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