Six followers of Hasidic rabbi and convicted sex offender Eliezer Berland were reportedly detained Sunday evening over suspicions of fraud and money laundering.
In a series of raids, police searched the suspects’ homes, seizing documents and bringing the men in for questioning, according to Hebrew-language media reports.
There were no details about the suspicions against the six, but it was reportedly tied to an investigation opened into Berland following a report by Channel 13 alleging he told a cancer patient not to accept medical treatment and instead pay him money so that she will live.
Berland commands a cult-like following among the thousands in his offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect and has used his followers’ faith in his righteousness to bilk them out of large sums of money in exchange for mystical and religious rites, including blessings and promises to heal the sick.
After her daughter died as a result of the faulty non-medical advice from Berland, Nurit Ben Moshe filed a police complaint on November 7, with her lawyer arguing that Berland’s conduct constituted manslaughter.
Berland was not arrested as part of the raids, but his house was searched by police, according to the Behadrei Haredim news site.
The investigation into the death was expected to focus on trying to get inside information from Berland’s supporters, a tough task since they are a closed circle and tend to be extremely devoted to their leader. Many of them have taken violent action and threatened those who speak against Berland.
Berland fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted several female followers and was for years protected by a fiercely loyal network of cadres around the world.
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 the Shuvu Bonim community, an offshoot of the Bratslav sect that has been disavowed by the broader Hasidic dynasty.
Despite the backlash against Berland, many of his followers remain faithful to a man that one believer described to Haaretz as “God… incarnated in a human being” and Berland remains, if on the fringe, a part of Haredi society.
After he was released 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.
In January, Channel 12 news reported that Berland told followers that he could revive people who were officially declared brain dead, if family members pony up some NIS 20,000 ($5,400).
Also in January, a recording of Berland emerged that provided a glimpse of Berland’s 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, it emerged that Berland’s wife, son and grandson were being sued for misappropriating charitable donations for personal use.