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Cult leader rabbi Berland sent suspects who killed teenager, police tell court

At Jerusalem remand hearing, a police representative says convicted sex offender and head of Shuvu Bonim sect ordered his followers to kidnap and kill Nissim Shitrit in 1986

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)

Hasidic cult leader and convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland ordered the murder of a teenage boy in the 1980s, police told a court on Wednesday.

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, the head of the Shuvu Bonim cult, is linked to three suspects arrested for their involvement in the crime, which went unsolved for 35 years.

According to the police representative in the courtroom, one of the suspects killed Shitrit, one oversaw the murder and a third drove the vehicle. The driver has denied any direct involvement in the killing, but was remanded until Sunday.

Until recently, police had not definitively ruled that Shitrit was murdered, and his body has not been found, though it was thought he had been beaten to death.

Police made the allegations at a court hearing about extending the remand of Berland and the other suspects. The court ordered Berland, who is already in prison for fraud, and five other suspects to remain in custody until next week. Another suspect will be released Thursday to house arrest.

A man arrested on suspicion of involvement in the murder case of Avraham Edri and Nissim Shitrit is brought to the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on November 10, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police told the court that the prosecution is still not ready to file an indictment but it is believed that charges will be brought next week, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

A number of people have been detained recently over the death of Shitrit in the 1980s and the unsolved murder of 41-year-old Avi Edri in the 1990s. A gag order restricts many details of the investigation including naming the suspects, many of whom are said to be in their 60s and 70s.

Last week, the chief suspect in the murder of Shitrit reportedly confessed to the crime.

Police said they were searching for the remains of the boy after the suspect told investigators that he and other members of Berland’s Shuvu Bonim had taken the 17-year-old to a forest near Jerusalem and killed him, Channel 12 news reported.

Nissim Shitrit (L) and Avi Edri in undated photos (Courtesy)

According to the report, following the confession, investigators took the suspect to the forest but he was unable to lead them to where the body was buried.

At a remand hearing last week for two suspects in the case, a police representative told the court that investigators knew who participated in the abduction of Shitrit and who committed the homicide, apparently on February 2, 1986, three days before the teenager was eventually reported as missing.

At a hearing last week, Judge Elad Lang said of Berland, 83, that “there was reasonable suspicion that he committed offenses. He implicated himself and provided a detailed version of events.”

During his questioning last week, Berland was brought face-to-face with Shitrit’s brother Meir, according to Hebrew media reports.

Meir Shitrit asked the rabbi if he should begin the traditional Jewish mourning rituals, including the week-long shiva and saying Kaddish, a prayer that mourners recite for the deceased. Mourning rituals are not begun until a person’s death is confirmed.

Berland responded, “You can sit shiva and say Kaddish, I am sorry I didn’t tell you 35 years ago,” the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Berland entered prison last month after he was convicted of fraud in June, in a plea deal that saw him sentenced to 18 months. He was then arrested over the killings at the Nitzan Prison in Ramle.

Police guard followers of Rabbi Eliezer Berland waiting for his arrival at the Nitzan Prison in Ramle, on October 28, 2021 (Flash90)

Shitrit was allegedly beaten by the sect’s “religious police” four months before he was last seen in January 1986. In a documentary released by Kan in 2020, one of Berland’s former disciples said that the religious police murdered the boy, dismembered him and buried his body in Eshtaol Forest near Beit Shemesh. His remains were never found and the case was never solved.

Edri was found beaten to death in Ramot Forest in the north of Jerusalem in 1990.

Shuvu Bonim, an offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect, has had repeated run-ins with the law, including attacking witnesses.

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 his ill health.

Berland was arrested 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.

The 18-month sentence he is currently serving was set to include the year he spent in jail before being released to house arrest in February of this year.

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