Eliezer Berland, a convicted sex offender and self-styled messiah, has boasted of exploiting a woman who donated tens of thousands of dollars, according to a recording obtained by The Times of Israel that is punctuated by derisive laughter from his followers.
Long considered a cult-like leader to thousands of his followers from the Bratslav Hasidic sect, 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 7 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.
Berland’s 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.
Now, a recording peppered with mocking titters provides a glimpse at Berland’s attitude toward the donors.
“On Christmas, we had a meeting, and in the middle of the meeting, a telephone call came that a woman donated NIS 300,000, $80,000,” Berland says in the recording, which is not dated.
“I had told her 18[,000] — that’s what I told her — and she heard 80,” Berland says, indicating that he had spoken to the woman in English.
After an indistinct murmur, he says he went on to ask for more money: “I told her now we need another 50,000 [unclear if dollars or shekels], so she said, ‘I don’t have any more.’ I said, ‘Then speak to your friends.'”
“So she made dozens of telephone calls, and didn’t manage to collect even one agura [cent], and then she remembered that she has a friend, here in Israel, who is having a wedding [in the family], so I told her, pick up the phone to your friend and ask if she can loan you [the money]…”
Contacted by The Times of Israel, Barak Barber, a current Berland aide, did not deny the authenticity of the recording.
Asked to comment, he wrote that “I don’t understand what there is to react to. What did you hear [in the recording] that isn’t okay?”
Barber said the recording “is very old. I’ve never heard the rabbi berating anyone, ever, but those who don’t understand his exaltedness will never understand any explanation, so it’s not worth the effort.”