Close relatives of a prominent rabbi convicted of sex crimes are being sued for misappropriating charitable donations for personal use, Israeli TV reported Sunday.
According to Channel 12, the Justice Ministry-approved lawsuit is seeking NIS 50 million ($13.76 million) from the wife, son and grandson of Rabbi Eliezber Berland, who heads the Shuvu Bonim religious community.
Another 11 people are also named in the suit, most of whom the report said acted as fronts.
The suit was filed by Isachar Bar Hillel, who was appointed as the permanent liquidator of Shuvu Bonim, a group within the Bratslav Hasidic sect.
The network reported that Bar Hillel determined that much of the misused funds had gone toward purchasing real estate overseas, such as in the Ukrainian city of Uman, a pilgrimage destination in Bratslav Hasidism.
Berland’s name is not mentioned in the suit, as he was not personally involved in transferring money out of Shuvu Bonim’s bank accounts, the report said.
Long considered a cult-like leader to thousands of his followers, 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, 81, 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 Shuvu Bonim, which has been disavowed by much of the broader Bratslav dynasty.
Shuvu Bonim — whose activities focus on religious outreach to secular Israelis — has long been rumored to demand exorbitant donations in exchange for mystical and religious rites, including blessings and promises to heal the sick.
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 cult-like leader with undue influence over his followers.
The donations — provided by ostensibly consenting adults for a religious service — are not illegal under Israeli law.
In a recording obtained by The Times of Israel, which is punctuated by derisive laughter by his followers, Berland boasted of exploiting a woman who donated tens of thousands of dollars.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.