Sex offender rabbi turned away from Ukraine border crossing ahead of Uman pilgrimage

Berland flies back to Israel after being barred entry into country that blacklisted him for claiming Russian invasion was punishment for Kyiv barring his sect from Uman

Screen capture from video of Rabbi Eliezer Berland urging his followers to travel to Uman, August 2022. (Via YouTube, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Screen capture from video of Rabbi Eliezer Berland urging his followers to travel to Uman, August 2022. (Via YouTube, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland tried to enter Ukraine on Thursday despite being banned and was turned away by border guards, Hebrew media reported.

Berland tried to cross from Romania, where he had been staying for the past week, so that he could make a pilgrimage to the city of Uman for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday. The rabbi ostensibly hoped that crossing by land would allow him to fly under the radar of Ukrainian authorities.

Berland was photographed flying back to Israel in what appeared to be a private jet after being denied entry into Ukraine.

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.

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush, from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, penned a letter to Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel asking for the latter’s intervention in lifting the ban on Berland — a letter that caused an uproar among victims’ rights groups — but the envoy declined to intervene.

According to Channel 12 news, Ukrainian authorities are also 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.

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 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.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men seen praying in the streets of Uman, Ukraine during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 4, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

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.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland arrives for a court hearing in Jerusalem, November 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Berland was convicted in 2021 under a plea bargain and given an 18-month sentence, but was released in December.

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.

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