Sex offender rabbi Berland indicted in miracles-for-cash case

Sect leader accused of serially promising to heal permanent disabilities and cure incurable diseases, swindling millions of shekels from followers over years

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

Jerusalem District prosecutors on Sunday filed a criminal indictment against Eliezer Berland, a rabbi and convicted sex offender who was arrested last month for allegedly fleecing millions of shekels from terminally ill patients by promising miracle cures.

The indictment, filed at the Jerusalem District Court, accuses Berland of exploitation and aggravated fraudulent receipt. Prosecutors requested that the 82-year-old be kept in custody until the end of court proceedings against him.

According to the charge sheet, over many years, Berland deliberately tricked patients into believing he could resurrect the dead and cause full recovery from incurable illnesses, permanent disabilities and serious diseases.

“Sometimes… the defendant recommended products or pills about which he made false claims,” it says. “The defendant misrepresented treatments on many dozens of occasions and through that made a profit of millions of shekels.”

On one occasion, the indictment says, Berland demanded NIS 20,000 ($5,700) from parents of a cancer patient and promised that, in return, their daughter would be cured.

On two other occasions, he is accused of taking money from relatives of a person declared brain-dead by doctors, promising they would recover. On one of those occasions a Berland associate said the rabbi holds a “resurrection ceremony” once a week.

Berland is also accused of recording and broadcasting a message ordering his followers to attack a couple belonging to the community and “break their bones” because their behavior was “contrary to Torah law.”

Outside the court, dozens of Berland’s supporters sang loud songs, prayed, read out Bible verses and held signs calling for his release.

Last month, masked attackers vandalized the home of a man who testified against Berland in the case. In security camera footage, the vandals, armed with clubs, first approach the home’s front door, then smash the house’s windows through their metal security bars, and at one point attempt to open one of its doors.

The witness was identified by Channel 13 as Rabbi Yom Tov Cheshin, who was once considered close to Berland. Cheshin and his children were at home at the time of the attack but were not injured. The home is in the central city of Beit Shemesh, the report said.

Berland was arrested for fraud after hundreds of people complained to police that he had sold prayers and “wonder drugs” to desperate members of his community, and promised families of individuals with disabilities that their loved ones would be able to walk and families of convicted felons that their loved ones would be freed from prison.

He was arrested in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood along with his wife and other senior members of his ultra-Orthodox Shuvu Bonim sect as his followers clashed with police nearby. In the arrest raid, dozens of boxes of powders and pills were found at Berland’s home that were given to supplicants as “wonder drugs.” Initial laboratory checks revealed them to be over-the-counter pain medication and candy, including Mentos, officials said.

Berland has denied the charges, saying he only offered blessings and healing services when asked, and at sums far lower than those alleged by police.

Berland commands a cult-like following among the thousands of members of his group, an offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect. He 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.

Since then, he has resumed his activities as the leader of the Shuvu Bonim community.

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