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Police said probing if sex offender rabbi personally linked to cold case murders

Three suspects said to be members of the Shuvu Bonim sect, headed by convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland, were arrested Sunday for crimes committed in the 80s and 90s

One of the men arrested on suspicion of murdering Avraham Edri and Nissim Shitrit is brought for a court hearing outside the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on October 17, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussil/Flash90)
One of the men arrested on suspicion of murdering Avraham Edri and Nissim Shitrit is brought for a court hearing outside the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on October 17, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussil/Flash90)

Police are probing whether convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland, head of the extremist Shuvu Bonim sect, was personally involved in a pair of unsolved murders in the 1980s and 1990s, the Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday.

Police arrested three suspects — who are reportedly from Shuvu Bonim — earlier in the day in connection to the killings. On Sunday afternoon, a court ordered all three suspects remanded into custody for an additional eight days.

Police announced the arrest of the three individuals — two men and one woman — over their alleged connection to a murder in 1990 and a kidnapping and suspected murder in 1986. Police said Sunday that the individuals were arrested and questioned over allegations of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy to commit a crime. Most details of the investigation are under a gag order that is in place until the end of the year.

Police told the court that they need to continue carrying out the investigation and following up on dozens of leads, and they are concerned that releasing the suspects could interfere in their efforts.

According to Hebrew media reports, the suspects were arrested in connection to the disappearance of 17-year-old Nissim Shitrit, who 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 parts in the Eshtaol Forest near Beit Shemesh. His remains were never found and the case was never solved.

A woman suspected of being linked to the murders of Avraham Edri and Nissim Shitrit is brought to a court hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on October 17, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussil/Flash90)

Kan reported Sunday evening that police had not made any progress toward locating Shitrit’s body.

The second murder reportedly connected to the arrested suspects was of 41-year-old Avi Edri in 1990, who was found beaten to death in the Ramot Forest in the north of Jerusalem. In the Kan documentary, Edri’s murder was tied to Shuvu Bonim by former disciples. It too has remained unsolved for over 30 years.

An attorney for the female suspect told the court that her client was a victim of the extremist sect, and is cooperating with police in order to see justice done. According to the attorney, the woman was forced by members of the sect to lure one of the victims to a specific location.

The cult-like Shuvu Bonim offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect commanded by Berland has had repeated run-ins with the law, including attacking witnesses.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland arrives for a hearing at the Jerusalem District court on February 28, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

Last May, he was further charged with tax evasion, violations of money laundering laws, and other offenses for failing to report and concealing income generated through his activities with Shuvu Bonim.

Berland is set to return to prison this month after being convicted of fraud in a plea deal in June that saw him sentenced to 18 months in prison. But the sentence will include time already served, as Berland spent a year in jail before being released to house arrest in February of this year.

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