Minister for Jerusalem Affairs and Jewish Heritage Meir Porush faced demands Tuesday that he apologize for stepping in to help convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland to try beat a visa ban on entering Ukraine so that he can make a pilgrimage to the city of Uman for the coming Rosh Hashanah holiday.
The Magen organization, which provides support for victims of sex abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community, said in a letter to Porush that it was “shocked” at reports of his assistance, which it described as a “rash and despicable” use of his position as a member of government. Porush has reportedly taken upon himself to coordinate the pilgrimages to Uman from Israel, which see tens of thousands make the journey every year.
Ukraine put Berland on its visa blacklist after he said in a speech that the country was invaded by Russia in 2022 as a punishment for Kyiv hindering members of his Shuvu Bonim sect from visiting Uman in recent years. The remarks were reported on a website carrying Berland’s Torah lessons, then quickly deleted, but not before Ukrainian officials heard about them and slapped the rabbi with a three-year ban on entering the country.
Porush, a member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction in the Knesset, recently sent a personal letter to Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, asking him to take Berland off the blacklist, according to Hebrew media reports. Korniychuk responded that such intervention requires an official request from Israel, which has reportedly not been submitted.
Aside from the letter to the ambassador, Porush was said to have penned a letter of recommendation that was included in an appeal submitted by Berland to Ukraine’s Administrative Court against his visa ban. The appeal was rejected.
According to Channel 12, Ukrainian authorities are barring members of Berland’s Shuvu Bonim sect from entering the country and going to Uman due to their behavior in the past, and in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report did not specify what had upset the Ukrainian authorities. Berland last year encouraged his followers to head to Uman despite warnings from officials in Ukraine and Israel that they stay away due to the ongoing Russian invasion.
The attempt by Porush to remove the restrictions came amid expectations that Berland’s followers will nonetheless attempt to enter Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah, Channel 12 reported.
Distancing himself from Porush, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office put out a statement later Tuesday saying he “rejects the appeal” on Berland’s behalf.
In its protest letter to Porush, the Magen organization wrote, “We were shocked to see reports that, by virtue of your position as a minister in the Israeli government… you chose to invest resources and efforts… to help the convicted sex offender Eliezer Berland enter Ukraine for the Rosh Hashanah holiday.”
“As the aid center for victims of sexual crimes in the ultra-Orthodox community,” the letter continued, “we expect you to issue a public apology to the victims of Berland, who you chose to help on behalf of the citizens of the State of Israel.”
Berland, 85, has served separate prison sentences in the past for sex offenses and fraud, and in 2021 was implicated but not charged in the decades-old murder of a teenager. He has also spent years on the lam from Israeli authorities. A stay of exit order has been in place against him since 2017.
Despite the stay of exit order and severe government warnings against all travel to war-torn Ukraine, the Jerusalem District Court last year granted Berland permission to to visit Uman for Rosh Hashanah.
At the time, 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.
In 2018 and 2019 Berland was also permitted to travel for Rosh Hashanah, but in 2020 and 2021 he did not do so because he was in prison and because of travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Every year, tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims, mainly Hasidim, visit Uman from all around the world to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) for Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — celebrated this year from September 15 to 17.
The city, in central Ukraine, is relatively far from the frontline, but it has been hit several times by Russian strikes, according to regional governor Igor Taburets, cited by Interfax-Ukraine.
Rabbi Nachman 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.
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.