ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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Court allows sex offender Rabbi Berland to travel to Uman despite stay of exit order

Cult leader required to deposit NIS 650,000 in guarantees; given permission for pilgrimage to Ukraine even though government warning in force against visiting war-torn country

Rabbi Eliezer Berland arrives for a court hearing in Jerusalem, November 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Rabbi Eliezer Berland arrives for a court hearing in Jerusalem, November 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Jerusalem District Court granted permission on Thursday for convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland to visit Uman in Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah, despite a stay of exit order on him and severe government warnings against all travel to the war-torn country.

The court ordered Berland, 84, to deposit a guarantee of NIS 650,000 ($190,000), of which NIS 200,000 must be in cash. Hundreds of his followers from the Shuvu Bonim cult are expected to join him on the trip.

Berland has served separate prison sentences in the past for sex offenses and fraud, and last year was implicated but not charged in the decades-old murder of a teenager. He has also spent years on the lam from Israeli authorities. The stay of exit order has been in place since 2017. He was most recently released from prison in December.

Berland submitted a request to the court on Sunday to approve a two-week trip to Uman and proposed a NIS 150,000 guarantee. Berland had already bought tickets to fly on September 18 before the hearing. He is slated to fly to Vienna and from there fly to Poland and then travel by land to Ukraine.

Victims of Berland opposed granting him permission to leave the country, telling the court that he had received “endless leniencies” during the criminal procedures against him due to his advanced age and supposed ill health.

“This same sex offender is asking to make a long trip with intermediary stops to a war zone for which the Israeli government (and even the Ukrainian government) has issued a clear and severe warning to avoid traveling to Ukraine, and especially Uman,” the victims wrote in their submission to the court asking it to reject Berland’s request.

Screen capture from video of Rabbi Eliezer Berland urging his followers to travel to Uman, August 2022. (Via YouTube, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

In 2018 and 2019 Berland was also permitted to travel for Rosh Hashanah, though in 2020 and 2021 he did not do so because he was in prison and due to travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Berland has been encouraging his followers to also travel to Uman, despite warnings from Israeli, Ukrainian and US authorities to not visit Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia in February.

In an address apparently filmed on August 30 and uploaded to YouTube on Tuesday, Berland demanded that his followers travel to Uman, stating “no one should dare stay here [in Israel] for Rosh Hashanah.”

Every year, tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims, mainly Hasidim, visit Uman from all around the world to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman for Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — celebrated this year from September 25 to 27.

Ukraine on Tuesday urged Jewish pilgrims against making the trip. The US Embassy in Israel issued a similar plea on Wednesday under the headline: “Do not travel to Uman for Rosh Hashanah.”

Last week, Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued its own warning, imploring pilgrims not to make the journey due to a “real and immediate risk to lives.”

Despite the war, worshipers have already begun to arrive in Uman. Local authorities are expecting more than 10,000 pilgrims, according to the governor.

The city, in central Ukraine, is relatively far away from the frontline, but it has been hit several times by Russian strikes, according to regional governor Igor Taburets, cited by Interfax-Ukraine.

Jewish men in the street near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in Uman, on eve of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 6, 2021. (Flash90)

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) was the founder of an ultra-Orthodox movement that settled in Uman in the early 1800s. He is one of the main figures of Hasidic Judaism, a mystical movement that appeared in the 18th century and flourished in places like Poland and Ukraine. Pilgrims often cite a religious text from the rabbi, who promised that he would “save [worshipers] from hell” if they came to visit his tomb on Rosh Hashanah.

Berland 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.

He was arrested again, this time for fraud, in February 2020 after hundreds of people filed police complaints saying that he had sold prayers and pills to desperate members of his community, promised families of individuals with disabilities that their loved ones would be able to walk, and told families of convicted felons that their relatives would be freed from prison.

Berland was convicted last year under a plea bargain and given an 18-month sentence, but was released in December.

In November 2021 police investigating the murder of a teenage boy in the 1980s told a court that Berland had ordered the killing.

Police said Berland allegedly sent the suspects who kidnapped and killed 17-year-old Nissim Shitrit, but that he was not present at the time of the murder. Berland is linked to three suspects arrested for their involvement in the crime, which went unsolved for 35 years.

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