Sex convict rabbi set to be honored with bonfire-lighting, perhaps for last time

Amid protests, Religious Affairs Ministry says there’s no law to bar Eliezer Berland from Lag B’Omer ceremony, but signals it will draw up rules to exclude him in the future

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland lights a bonfire during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 3, 2018. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)
Rabbi Eliezer Berland lights a bonfire during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 3, 2018. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

For the second time since his release from prison, a fringe religious leader who was convicted of sex offenses will on Thursday be honored at an annual Jewish pilgrimage ceremony in northern Israel.

Amid protests, the Religious Affairs Ministry said it was powerless under law to prevent Eliezer Berland from lighting a bonfire at the public Lag B’Omer ceremony at Mount Meron overnight Wednesday-Thursday, but signaled it would draw up new internal guidelines to exclude him in the future.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are expected to throng to the Galilee burial site of the famed 2nd Century CE sage and mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, on Wednesday evening and Thursday for a festival of bonfires and prayers. Throughout the 24-hour holiday, over a dozen rabbis — most of them prominent Hasidic leaders — are honored with public bonfire-lightings, among them Berland.

The tomb at Meron — the second most visited Jewish pilgrimage site in Israel after the Western Wall — is overseen by a subdivision of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Protesters outside the Israeli consulate in New York demonstrate against an honor granted to a religious leader who has been convicted of sex crimes. May 19, 2019 (courtesy)

“The ministry operates in accordance with the law and by legal standards. The issue has been appraised on the legal level by senior officials in the Justice Ministry, and we were informed that Berland’s lighting cannot be prevented by law,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.

The ministry said rabbis contact its National Center of Holy Places to be approved for the bonfire-lighting distinction. Over the years, the ministry has set out criteria, under which “the honor of lighting is granted to those who have a large and significant group of Hasidim.”

“In light of the public criticism that was heard this year, our legal advisers are setting out new criteria that will match and reflect the demands that were raised in recent years,” it said, signaling it would be designed to keep Berland, the leader of the shadowy Shuvu Bonim community, out.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland shrouds himself with his talit (prayer shawl) at the Magistrates Court in Jerusalem, as he is put on trial for sexual assault charges, November 17, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Last week, the Israeli Center for Cult Victims penned a letter to the authorities decrying Berland’s participation in the annual event, and were later joined by other women’s rights groups.

Several dozen protesters also gathered outside the Israeli consulate in New York earlier this week to protest Berland’s participation in the Meron ceremony, which is funded by the state.

Attempts to block Berland from the Lag Ba’Omer bonfire-lighting last year failed.

The controversy was acknowledged by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau on Tuesday, who said the issue was “the responsibility of the Religious Affairs Ministry and not the responsibility of the Rabbinate.”

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau March 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“On the one hand… we know that the power of repentance is very, very great. Whether or not there was repentance here, that’s a question that I can’t answer. Certainly, as a society, we cannot accept a situation in which men, women or children are hurt,” Lau told Israel Radio, when asked about Berland.

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 Hasidic Bratslav dynasty.

Berland has also been accused of extorting money from terminally ill patients with promises of miracles.

Ultra-Orthodox men celebrate Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men celebrate Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Lag B’Omer is a key holiday in the Jewish mystical tradition, said to be the day of the death of Bar Yohai, and also marking the anniversary of when he first conveyed the text of the seminal Jewish mystical work, the Zohar.

Literally meaning the “33rd of the Omer,” the holiday falls during the seven weeks between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot that are treated as a semi-mourning period for the students of rabbinic sage Rabbi Akiva, who are thought to have perished in a plague during those weeks. The period before and sometimes after Lag B’Omer is thus traditionally a time when public celebrations are avoided.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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