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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)
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)
ToI investigatesThe #MeToo moment of the Bratslav Hasidic community

The ex-aides of a messianic, sex-convict rabbi fight from within to cast him out

Bratslav hasidic leaders have issued a rare ban on Eliezer Berland, a cult leader seen as a modern ‘Sabbatai Tzvi’; the rest of the Haredi world is proving reluctant to follow suit

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Main image by Yonatan Sindel / Flash90

This is the story of a venerated rabbi who is also a convicted sex offender, of the courageous ex-aides and former students who exposed his crimes at tremendous personal cost, and of the small sector of his ultra-Orthodox community that eventually recognized his guilt and shunned him. It is also the story of the wider community that still won’t openly condemn him, and of victims who’ve escaped his clutches and those who’ve stayed loyal. It is the story of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, a self-styled messiah who, after a year behind bars, is today again a free man.

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It was the night after the Yom Kippur holiday concluded in 2013, and Rabbi Yom Tov Cheshin, the man once deemed the closest confidant of the then-fugitive religious leader Eliezer Berland, was cloistered in a safe house in Israel, nursing a slew of open wounds, and wondering whether he had no choice but to destroy his painstakingly assembled archive of material detailing Berland’s sex crimes and other sordid deeds.

Cheshin was once one of Berland’s most loyal disciples. But when allegations began to surface against his mentor, the mild-mannered Bratslav Hasid covertly began to investigate him. Cheshin’s secretly recorded conversations with the enigmatic and mercurial religious leader contained a year and half’s worth of Berland’s maudlin confessions and violent outbursts. He also had bombshell testimony from female victims within Berland’s Shuvu Bonim community (a subsect of the Bratslav Hasidic dynasty). There was enough material in his possession, Cheshin believed at the time, to put Berland behind bars for life.

Three years later, Berland would indeed be incarcerated — though hardly for life — over two of the sexual assault allegations to emerge from that period. After evading Israeli police in a globe-trotting race through five countries, Berland was eventually captured and extradited to Israel, cut a plea bargain, went to jail, and won early release in the spring of 2017 — one year into his 18-month sentence.

Free again, Berland has now reassumed the reins of the Shuvu Bonim community —  since designated a cult — with his hypnotic hold over several hundred followers only mildly impaired and his self-deification, according to his ex-followers, wholly intact.

So powerful is his influence that two women, whose testimony of alleged serious sexual exploitation by the aging leader spearheaded Cheshin’s private investigation into Berland, remain in the community until this day.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland speaks with students in a video from several years ago (Screen capture: YouTube)

Back in 2013, Cheshin was hoping to use the recordings to lay bare Berland’s crimes before the rabbis of his Bratslav Hasidic community and the broader ultra-Orthodox world, demystifying the self-styled kabbalistic mystic he had admired since his youth.

But as police took interest in the Berland case and came closer to sniffing out his cache, what Cheshin saw as the risk of law enforcement and media exposure grew. Deeply suspicious of the cops and the press, as are many in the ultra-Orthodox community, Cheshin regarded the two hierarchies as working in tandem, and as potentially dangerous — one long, hostile arm of the state.

“I was sure that the moment the police got their hands on the tapes, the next day it would be on YouTube. I had no idea how these things work,” explained Cheshin in one of several interviews with The Times of Israel in recent months.

The possible seizure of the evidence by the Israeli authorities was therefore, for him, a veritable doomsday scenario, to be avoided at all cost.

“I felt like I was in possession of an atom bomb, and even if I hid it, it doesn’t matter where, someone would find it in 10 years, and it seemed to me like it would destroy the world,” said Cheshin. Or at least, more pertinently, would deeply damage his community.

More pressingly, there was also the matter of Berland’s followers, with their burnished reputation for lawlessness and violence, whom Cheshin compares to jihadists or the mob. Should the recordings reach the Israeli public, Berland’s supporters would immediately recognize the source, and, he feared, would come to kill him.

Days before his post-Yom Kippur moment of truth in 2013, Cheshin had been violently assaulted in Uman, the Ukrainian pilgrimage site where the spiritual father of the Hasidic sect, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, is buried. Blow by painful blow, Berland’s Shuvu Bonim community members exacted their retribution against Cheshin, whom they suspected of possessing incriminating information on the emerging sexual assault allegations that had prompted their leader to flee. It was only by disguising himself as a German tourist that Cheshin managed to slip out of Ukraine after the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage, and make it back to Israel.

Rabbi Yom Tov Cheshin (YouTube screenshot)

Which was why on the night after Yom Kippur ended, Cheshin was secretly sequestered in a friend’s house to dodge the fists of Berland’s army of devotees. There, he sat down with his partner in investigating the allegations, Rabbi Tzvi Tzucker, Berland’s son-in-law and the head of the ultra-Orthodox communal modesty patrol Tohar HaMahane. Together, they arrived at the “difficult,” if in their view, unavoidable, decision: The incriminating material they had on Berland, all copies, would have to be destroyed; the story must not get out.

Their reasoning was manifold: that the revelations would be a desecration of God’s name; that the scandal would destroy the Shuvu Bonim community; that it would downgrade serious sins of sexual impropriety in the eyes of Berland’s followers; that the detailed questioning of the women regarding Berland’s various sexual infractions, spread on national Israeli news, would cast the pair as purveyors of pornographic and immodest content (and “we would destroy the walls of purity, far more than Berland”); and that as the covert chronicler of Berland’s illicit deeds, he, Cheshin, would be ordered to testify.

Primarily, however, the two men were simply afraid for their lives at the hands of Berland’s followers.

Ultra-Orthodox men gather during a demonstration in support of Eliezer Berland, who was jailed at the time in South Africa, in front of the Embassy of South Africa in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv on April 25, 2016. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Concerned that police were listening on the line, Cheshin phoned his wife at home, furtively alerting her to the locations of his various concealed tape recorders through code words related to Yom Kippur ritual items. His computer was with him.

‘It seemed to me like it would destroy the world’

With hammers and axes, the evidence was obliterated. A decisive thump, and an alleged outburst by Berland’s wife Tehilla, calling her husband a “sadist” and pervert — recorded when Cheshin arbitrated between the feuding couple — was ground to dust.

Another blow, and the alleged original testimony of a primary victim, recounting how Berland told her they would conceive the Messiah through the most unholy debasement, was wiped away. Pressing on, they destroyed tapes in which Berland lampooned various biblical figures, in which he called for the “slaughter” of a follower, in which he ordered a bomb planted under his own grandson’s car.

Cheshin would keep hold of the smashed remains. But he, his wife, and Rabbi Tzucker, already estranged from the community by choice, would also keep their silence, for three long years.

The Bratslavs’ #MeToo moment

Eliezer Berland remained on the run from Israeli authorities until the summer of 2016, eluding several Israeli attempts to extradite him as he moved between Zimbabwe, Morocco, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and South Africa, accompanied by a group of dedicated followers numbering around 40 families.

In November 2016, months after his eventual extradition from Johannesburg to Israel, Berland was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay compensation after reaching a plea bargain on two counts of indecent acts and one count of assault. The jail sentence included time served since the extradition proceedings began in South Africa in April 2016. He won early release in April 2017, six months before his jail sentence was up, due to ill health.

His dwindled Shuvu Bonim community — now numbering some 200-300 families, according to activists; 800-1,000 families, according to Berland’s current aides — lives on.

But five years after destroying his cache of incriminating material, Cheshin, 39, has entirely changed tack, and has invested tens of thousands of shekels to undo what he did back then — to restore the smashed recordings. Now, furthermore, he is at the forefront of a battalion of Shuvu Bonim whistleblowers who operate a hotline to raise awareness of the dangers posed by Berland, who run social media accounts, and whose efforts to lobby rabbis for condemnation of Berland led to the convening of a special rabbinical court to hear the testimonies of the assaulted women.

The years-long struggle to expose Berland offers rare insight into the internal policing, by modesty patrols and rabbinic aides, of claims of sexual assault in deeply insular Hasidic communities, where seeking law enforcement or media intervention is forbidden

Remaining a deeply devout Bratslav Hasid (he politely apologizes during a five-hour interview for the direction of his gaze, to the left of my head, explaining that he does not look at women other than his wife on religious grounds), Cheshin is somber and a meticulous archivist, whose efforts to retrieve documents and compile evidence against Berland underline an evident penchant for sleuthing and whose commitment to the cause is rooted in religious conviction.

His account of the years-long struggle also offers rare insight into the internal policing, by modesty patrols and rabbinic aides, of claims of sexual assault in deeply insular Hasidic communities, where seeking law enforcement or media intervention is forbidden.

Defying repeated violent assaults by Berland followers and a torrent of death threats, the small group of volunteers has, since 2016, clinched a broad Bratslav Hasidic rabbinical denunciation of Berland, fielded numerous civil lawsuits, and arranged protests outside public appearances by Berland; it no longer shies away from media involvement or social media to spread the word on Berland’s misdeeds.

The shift begs to be dubbed the #MeToo moment of the Bratslav Hasidic community, although the ardently religious group largely eschews the internet and likely would greet the comparison with a shrug.

Still, in a community where shunning through silence is often seen as an effective method to root out misbehavior, and the rare public denunciations of misconduct are heavily cloaked in Jewish sources and euphemism, the activists have extracted an explicit Jewish legal ruling from Bratslav rabbis against Berland, with some rabbis going as far as banning their followers from marrying into the Shuvu Bonim community or praying with its members.

Supporters of Eliezer Berland argue with protesters during a protest in front of a conference hosting Berland after he was charged with sexual assault, in Bat Yam, central Israel, on January 30, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The disavowal of sex-offender Berland in the community, which activists stress unhappily has yet to fully spread to the ultra-Orthodox world at large, was also galvanized by the other, largely overlooked portion of the Berland story: His messianism and equation of the tzaddik, or righteous man, with God.

Approached by Cheshin with testimonials on Berland, dozens of Haredi rabbis “all, almost in unison, raised the name of Sabbatai Tzvi,” Cheshin said, referring to the 17th-century false messiah in the Ottoman Empire who sent Jewish communities across Europe into an ecstatic frenzy, before ultimately converting to Islam in captivity.

Cheshin and the anti-Berland activists, as a result, almost exclusively refer to his supporters as Sabbateans.

Men gather to pray during a demonstration in support of Eliezer Berland outside the Magistrate’s Court in Jerusalem where Berland was on trial for sexual assualt, on July 29, 2016. A sign reads ‘The people of Israel [stand] with the tzaddik’ (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
For Berland’s followers, “he entirely replaces God,” said Cheshin. “Let’s put it this way: They don’t need God; he fulfills all the functions of God: He hears their prayers, he has the power to make [through spiritual means] infertile women pregnant, cure cancer. Not in the sense of a tzaddik praying. In the sense that he is the source of power.”

Five years after he took a hammer to his trove, Cheshin has managed to retrieve many of the tapes. Unbeknownst to him, a rabbinical court emissary who arrived at his home as part of a Jewish legal case involving one of the female Berland victims, had secretly recorded some five hours of the testimony Cheshin had played for him, with a tape recorder concealed in his pocket. With Berland’s extradition to Israel in 2016, the emissary handed Cheshin the recordings.

Gone, however, is the full hours-long recording in which he and Tzucker confronted Berland, exacting a confession from him that he had raped a follower, a married woman, he said, though parts of the recording have been recovered.

Also irretrievable was most — though not all — of the audio of that woman’s first testimony, when she quoted Berland’s “chilling” statement that Cheshin said the activists remarked among themselves would someday headline a book or TV series on Berland’s crimes: “I created you for me.”

Nocturnal tours

Berland’s own social media machine, meanwhile, is no less well-oiled.

Every night, WhatsApp groups operated by his followers come alive, updating anyone interested on his every move and flooding social media channels with photos and videos, often well into the early morning hours: Berland is in Holon, Bat Yam, Beersheba, conducting home workshops for supporters or would-be followers. He’s on Route 6. There he goes, off Route 443. He has arrived home. Dial in to the Berland hotline to hear his lectures or the morning or nightly prayers live. If you missed it, no matter: There’s likely a YouTube clip, a link from a Berland Facebook fan page, or updates posted on the Shuvu Bonim website.

Men gather to pray during a demonstration in support of Rabbi Eliezer Berland outside the Magistrate’s court in Jerusalem where Berland was on trial for sexual assault, on November 17, 2016.(Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Berland’s nocturnal tours frequently stop at Israeli hospitals in the predawn hours to visit the sick, with footage posted in the groups showing the 80-year-old and his followers moving silently through empty halls, unattended by staff.

His followers brazenly post videos of the speedometers of the vehicles accompanying Berland’s convoy, often hovering well above the legal limit.

And his supporters arrange monthly late-night visits to pilgrimage sites deep in Palestinian areas, from Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus to the grave sites of Natan and Gad the prophets in the West Bank village of Halhul near Hebron.

YouTube videos uploaded by his followers also include slickly produced “exposés” targeting his detractors.

At the prodding of several female MKs and activists, Facebook in July suspended the main page dedicated to Berland — with over 22,000 likes. The decision was not taken due to its status as an official fan page for a convicted sex offender, but rather because its operator was apparently using a fictive profile and bullying guidelines were violated on the page. But on July 19, the page was restored. Facebook declined to comment on the about turn, saying only that “the issue was examined and dealt with.”

The active use of social media ties in to the community’s focus on outreach, with a sizable number of Shuvu Bonim members being baalei teshuva (formerly secular) Israelis, many of them Mizrahi, who became religiously observant through Berland.

Inside Berland’s Jerusalem enclave

While there are over 30 synagogues affiliated with the Shuvu Bonim name nationwide, Berland’s stronghold continues to be in the heart of Jerusalem, on and around Hahoma Hashlishit street that stitches the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim to Damascus Gate.

In July, the Jerusalem municipality began enforcing a cleanup of the area, dismantling tents and collecting piles of trash, after years of neglect and long-ignored complaints by neighbors. Cleared of some of the junk heaps, the rundown area housing the group otherwise appears to have been untouched for decades.

Supporters of Eliezer Berland argue with protesters during a protest in front of a conference hosting Berland, in Bat Yam, central Israel, on January 30, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Around the corner from the Education Ministry, the small enclave begins where a bank meets a private money exchange — “Change Breslov” — and features all the trappings of Jerusalem Hasidic life. Black cars marked “gemach,” or Haredi free-loan society, are parked on its streets. Women push strollers and chit-chat about work, vacations, cooking, as dozens of young sidelocked boys and modestly dressed girls cycle and rollerblade down its narrow stone alleys with unfettered enthusiasm.

The residents of the community do not look suspiciously on newcomers, and, when I visited Berland’s enclave in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim area recently, they peaceably directed me to the synagogue, where hundreds were gathered, as on every night.

Spotting an unfamiliar face, several women, unsolicited, parted the crowds outside the window, the same eager question bubbling up spontaneously on their lips: “Have you seen the rabbi?” (I dress modestly, and aware that journalists seeking to cover the Berland saga have been attacked, I did not identity myself as a reporter in these casual encounters that evening; in mentioning them here, I have not identified the people who spoke to me.)

Eliezer Berland and his followers, in footage posted online in August 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

Inside, floating above a sea of black hats, the tufty-haired Berland, wrapped in a white prayer shawl, was directing evening prayers in his distinctive slur. On the sidelines, four rows of young boys were being conducted in their singing by an excitable teacher, with especially vigorous intoning and fervent rocking rewarded with lollipops. Nearly all of them appeared to be named Nachman.

‘People here don’t delve too deeply into it… What does it matter if he’s the messiah or not?’

Outside, some 100 women and children pressed their faces against the glass. A smattering of half a dozen hijab-like head coverings, signaling the hardline tendencies of the community, were offset by women in far more modern dress. A pensive teenage girl, wearing a white T-shirt reading “Angel,” leaned arms-folded against a car. Several others were engaged in a heated argument about their high school teacher.

This was not the glazed-eyed cult of the imagination; on the surface, there was little to distinguish this group from the stringently ultra-Orthodox groups in the surrounding areas. But how many have fallen prey to the convicted sex offender? And do they believe Berland to be the messiah?

“People here don’t delve too deeply into it,” said a young woman holding a baby, who was born and raised on Hahoma Hashlishit Street, on the latter question. “What does it matter if he’s the messiah or not?”

Followers of Eliezer Berland seen during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’omer on Mount Meron in northern Israel on May 3, 2018. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

What matters is that around Berland one senses a “closeness to the divine,” as “the tzaddik connects the human being to God,” she continued, going on to describe cases in which she claimed Berland revived gravely ill people with his (paid) kabbalistic rituals.

Another woman, an English-speaker who was formerly Modern Orthodox before joining Shuvu Bonim five years ago, described the community as a “family” and Berland as a wonder-worker.

“The rabbi makes his followers humble,” she said solemnly, only her face showing beneath a black tent-like cloak.

“We’re ordinary people, we go on trips, go to hotels, go to guesthouses, do BBQs in the park, meet up, go to restaurants — completely normal people,” maintained Barak Barber, a current aide to Berland, in a subsequent telephone interview.

“We are a community that is being persecuted,” added a spokesperson in Berland’s inner circle, alleging that ethnic discrimination stands behind the broader criticism of their community. “Sephardim in the Haredi community have always been second-class, and also perhaps the children of baalei teshuva,” the spokesperson added.

Berland as messiah

Barber also denied the community views Berland as a messiah. “The rabbi has never spoken of himself in this way.”

“Even if he said something, it was in the context of a joke. The rabbi never said anything like this,” he said.

But numerous pieces of footage of Berland, books penned by his students and lectures by his followers defending his conduct, along with testimonials of those who left the community, indicate otherwise.

“The tzaddik is God himself,” Berland is quoted in multiple recordings as saying.

According to Cheshin, Berland explicitly refers to himself as “the tzaddik” and tells followers to pray to his photograph. “He speaks of himself as a God, 100 percent, God, messiah,” said Cheshin, though he also said of Shuvu Bonim: “I don’t think they have an organized theology.”

Berland is “above all, and because he is above all, he can also be right here. The rabbi said explicitly… wherever you speak to me, I hear you, I am there,” said one of his most prominent students, Yaakov Salma.

Men gather to pray during a demonstration in support of Rabbi Eliezer Berland before his arrival to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, on July 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A common defense by his students likens the convicted sex offender to King David in his encounter with the married Bathsheba, noting that the Talmud says the biblical monarch didn’t sin, contrary to what is perceived by a simple textual reading of the tale. Therefore, they contend, Berland’s transgressions are not what they appear to be to the untrained, un-mystical eye.

‘Even if he would commit adultery, on Yom Kippur, in the synagogue, in broad daylight, in front of all of his holy, holy Hasidim, they would say: he is doing spiritual corrections, that he doesn’t mean it’

“In all the generations, only one tzaddik was permitted to have [spiritual] lows,” explained his student Ofer Erez (who himself has over 12,000 Facebook followers), in a recent lecture. “You know who: The messiah, the messiah, this is the messiah, King David.”

Berland’s student, Ofer Erez (YouTube screenshot)

The mostly veiled allusions to Berland-as-messiah came to a head in two books penned by his students in 2016 — HaKatav M’Bein HaIlanot and Emunat Hahamim K’Hilchata — absolving sins of the common man when perpetrated by the “tzaddik” or messiah. Faced with an outcry from the broader Bratslav community, Shuvu Bonim distanced itself from the texts. But activists contend the books gave voice to the true feeling of his Hasidim.

“Even if he would commit adultery, on Yom Kippur, in the synagogue, in broad daylight, in front of all of his holy, holy Hasidim, they would say: he is doing spiritual corrections, that he doesn’t mean it,” said Isaac Winehouse, chairman of the international committee of the friends of Kav Breslev, the hotline raising awareness of Berland’s crimes.

Both Winehouse, an Israeli real estate businessman backing the activists, and Cheshin believe the families still entrenched in the community cannot be saved.

The goal of their activism now, they said, is to prevent new members from joining and other women from being attacked.

‘Berland’s control is total’

When she first began receiving testimonies about Shuvu Bonim, Rachel Lichtenstein, the director of the Israeli Center for Cult Victims, was initially hesitant. Most of the complaints came from secular Israelis whose children had severed family ties to join the community, and Lichtenstein wondered whether some were merely grappling with their children’s decision to alter their lifestyle to become religious. As testimonies continued to trickle in, her view changed.

“Slowly, we started receiving testimonies in which we saw Berland’s control was total,” said Lichtenstein, who is herself ultra-Orthodox.

Rachel Lichtenstein, the director of the Israeli Center for Cult Victims (courtesy)

Those accounts, she said, included claims of extreme financial exploitation (including a family exhorted to sell their house and give Berland the money), parental neglect of children in order to accompany Berland on his overnight jaunts, severed family ties including by members who were previously Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, a communal system of punishment and monitoring, and the insistence that followers hold to a singular, absolute truth. Lichtenstein did not elaborate what that single truth was, but she cited a case of a teacher in the Shuvu Bonim school system who lost her job after resisting instructions to pray to Berland, rather than God.

Those features prompted the organization to unequivocally designate Shuvu Bonim a cult. Evidence of sexual exploitation from women who approached Lichtenstein after Berland fled the country buttressed the classification once and for all, she said.

Six Shuvu Bonim women have contacted Lichtenstein with personal accounts of serious sexual assault, she said. The organization heard of two other cases from family members, though the women themselves did not appear. The victims also testified about two additional women who were sexually exploited, though they remain loyal to Berland, she said.

The process of ensnarement into cults is “very gradual,” explained Lichtenstein, comprising periods of trust-building, isolation, and finally, intimidation, compounded by a sense of truth-seeking and veiled threats about those on the outside.

Outside Berland’s synagogue on a day I visited, a middle-aged woman in a gray scarf and a pink paisley shawl flicked through customized prayers printed on laminated flashcards. A pink card for sustenance. An orange card for humility. She picked up a yellow card and murmured: “Let me be deemed worthy to learn in the Shuvu Bonim community all the days of my life.”

The Nigeria plan

When he began to clandestinely record conversations with Berland in 2010, entrapment was far from Cheshin’s mind. Rather, Berland was a “puzzle” the loyal disciple was intent on cracking, and when the opportunity arose to monitor him nearly 24 hours a day, it “was the fulfillment of a dream.”

Recording the Berlands “seemed something very lofty. I wanted to save these things, to observe them [later], to behave properly, not to make mistakes, to please them,” said Cheshin of his decision to start taping. The move was also practical: He was to arbitrate between the fighting couple, and needed to reflect back on the conversations to hammer out a compromise.

“I understood I was in the middle of something that could also have historic value,” he added.

The wife (right) and son of Eliezer Berland seen at the Magistrate Court in Jerusalem, where Berland was put on trial for sexual assault on November 17, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

His fascination with Berland began at a young age, despite his family’s forceful opposition to the rogue Bratslav leader. Stirrings of discontent emerged within the community against Berland in the 1990s over his then-monopoly on pilgrimages to Uman for which he charged exorbitant amounts; over what was seen as his trigger-happy sanctioning of divorces; and over the emergence of what Cheshin described as the “first religious crime organization” by some of his followers.

The criticism never induced full-fledged ostracization, because Berland was doing something the other rabbis in the community (Bratslav, unlike other Hasidic sects, does not have one rebbe), could not: successfully wooing secular Jews into the fold of the Hasidic dynasty.

Seeing the elders as “squares” and Berland as unmatched in his zealotry — particularly uncompromising on matters of purity, modesty, and chastity — Cheshin gravitated toward Berland as a teenager, though he stresses he was never a Shuvu Bonim Hasid.

‘If he’s Moses, let him split the sea, let him guide us to the promised land’

His opportunity to penetrate Berland’s inner circle only came years later, when he was hauled in as a mediator. That role followed a decade, starting in 2001, in which Berland was kept in a nearly hermetic state at home, only receiving select visitors for $1,000 fee, and surrounded constantly by a ring of security guards operated by his son and wife Tehilla.

The controversial arrangement divided the community.

“If he’s Moses, let him split the sea, let him guide us to the promised land,” Berland’s supporters would protest to Tehilla Berland, according to Cheshin. “Why are you putting a bridle on his mouth?”

Tehilla Berland would counter with metaphors often drawn from kabbalistic concepts: He was “a powerful light,” and her role was to ensure that others didn’t get burned, recalled Cheshin. Other times, Cheshin said, he would find her pacing at home muttering “he’s crazy, insane,” before swiftly shifting back into praise of his quasi-messianic stature.

From his captivity, Berland would frequently seek contact with the outside world, said Cheshin.

‘I loved him, respected him, I thought he was an incredible, messianic soul. But I didn’t submit to him’

In 2011, that came to a head when Berland’s grandsons and son-in-law Tzucker busted him out of his home — essentially kidnapping him, with his consent, from his wife and son.

Enter Cheshin, who was in the unique position of being close to Berland, his son, and his wife, whereas most of the community was split along the family lines.

During the ensuing tempestuous arbitration proceedings aimed at bringing them back under the same roof, Tehilla Berland agreed to continue to live with her husband on one condition: that Cheshin would monitor him full-time. (Recordings from the mediation proceedings were the subject of a recent lawsuit against Cheshin by Tehilla Berland, who charged that his recordings of the private conversations were illegally distributed to the public. A court initially ruled in her favor by default, ordering Cheshin to pay NIS 3 million — $829,000 — compensation after he failed to counter her claim by a court deadline. The court later reversed the decision pending his response.)

Men gather to pray during a demonstration in support of Eliezer Berland outside the court in Lod, Central Israel on July 26, 2016. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

For the next year and a half, recalled Cheshin, none was so close to Berland as he.

“I loved him, respected him, I thought he was an incredible, messianic soul. But I didn’t submit to him.”

The mystic’s contradictory personality gripped him: Berland was both a “suicidal hero” and utterly fearless, yet  indescribably weak when confronted one-on-one, particularly when facing his wife, he said. Socially attuned, he would tailor his comments to those he was addressing, moderating his tone for the temperate Cheshin, thundering with threats of violence when addressing his more abrasive constituents. Today, Cheshin believes Berland’s personality hews most closely to the diagnostic category of psychopath.

“He’s a meglomaniac, in the full sense of the word,” he said.

During the monitoring period, Cheshin said, he observed one instance of Berland pushing several women into an elevator ahead of Tehilla Berland’s return home. Rumors began to swirl that the rabbi was kissing his female followers on the forehead, which Cheshin said raised eyebrows, but was minor enough to be explained away. Still, Berland held one-on-one meetings with women, a highly unusual arrangement for a Hasidic rabbi, for which Cheshin was not present.

Rabbi Tzvi Tzucker, of the Tohar Hamahane modesty patrol (YouTube screenshot)

It was only after he left Berland’s immediate circle, however, that the more serious allegations emerged. In 2012, Cheshin was contacted by Berland’s son-in-law Tzucker, who asked him to accompany him in the questioning of a married woman in the community, as word spread of alleged sexual impropriety. Well aware that questioning perceived to be hostile to Berland would be rebuffed by the woman, Tzucker cooked up a cover: We will tell her the rabbi gave us each a handwritten note with pieces of a secret plan to bring the Messiah, and that her story will complete the puzzle, he said.

Cheshin brought along his recording devices. This time, however, it was no longer for the sake of his personal growth, but rather to expose “Berland’s hypocrisy and present to the rabbis his true face: A pervert and adulterer under a prayer shawl.”

The woman’s testimony led them to another female community member, and to a Berland aide who had walked in on them naked and who would ultimately serve as a key witness. That aide — who would leave the community and be violently assaulted by Berland’s followers — would discover his wife was among those molested by Berland.

In the summer of 2012, the pair confronted Berland, and he allegedly confessed to rape and other offenses, said Cheshin, and agreed to be placed on round-the-clock monitoring

As of this writing, Cheshin says he has gathered testimony over the years of a total of two women allegedly raped by Berland and eight other cases of alleged serious sexual assault. (In his 2016 conviction, Berland was found guilty of two counts of indecent acts and assault, as well as for plotting the attack on the aide-turned-witness who testified to witnessing Berland and a woman follower undressed.)

In the summer of 2012, the pair confronted Berland, and he allegedly confessed to rape and other offenses, said Cheshin, and agreed to be placed on round-the-clock monitoring. (A partial recording of Berland’s alleged rape confession survives.) With the backing of a sponsor who pledged to pay $30,000 a year for private security, they planned his isolation. He would be relocated to a remote area in Nigeria, separated from all but his closest family members until his death. The goal: To let him live out the rest of his days without harming others and to spare the community exposure and further pain.

“Our plan was to smuggle him outside the country, to a hidden place, so that he would be there in a controlled manner. We would watch over him. [There would be a] total disconnect from the community — just one class [he would teach] over satellite, once a week. And even this class, we would censor,” Cheshin recalled.

Berland consented, and plans were set in motion. But on the morning of the flight, with a taxi waiting outdoors, Berland slipped away — he went into the bathroom of his home, and was whisked off by two followers, to whom he had covertly given a key.

Cheshin had entered Berland’s inner circle just after Berland’s first, apparently self-orchestrated kidnapping — from his hermetic existence at home. Now that Berland had escaped a very different effort to spirit him away, Cheshin had had enough. The Nigeria plan thwarted, he cut ties with Shuvu Bonim altogether some two months later.

Others would stay: The two women Cheshin said testified about coerced sexual intercourse with the elderly Berland remain members of the community until this day.

Attempts by The Times of Israel to contact them for this article were unsuccessful.

‘How can it be? The man is 70!’

“For three years, we were silent,” said Cheshin.

“What stopped us from remaining silent was a stream of stories we received [on Berland] from Johannesburg,” he said, referring to allegations of sexual crimes committed by Berland while he was on the run in South Africa.

Moreover, Berland’s supporters launched a local campaign in Israel to clear his name, with no one countering their account of a conspiracy by the State of Israel to bring down the disgraced Shuvu Bonim leader, said Cheshin.

Tzucker’s Tohar Hamahane drafted a letter to Haredi rabbis in 2016, seeking advice. And quietly, Cheshin then embarked on a lobbying tour of ultra-Orthodox rabbis to drum up a coalition against Berland.

All of the rabbis were appalled by Berland, said Cheshin. And all refused to join a public campaign against him.

“They said, nearly unanimously, that this is life-endangering and every person who does something on the matter is liable to find himself in the grave, and we have no strength, there is nothing to do,” he said.

Above and a top of article: 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)

It was a dead end for Cheshin, who was not willing to proceed without rabbinic sanction.

But then, Shuvu Bonim followers slowly got wind of Cheshin’s activism. Death threats followed. A sample of WhatsApp messages, seen by The Times of Israel, posted in reference to Cheshin: “A spark of Hitler.” “We must mobilize those who beat him in Uman.” “Shatter him bone by bone,” “His body must be burned, the ashes thrown in the sea.” There were also musings on slipping Cheshin cyanide, as well as remarks to the effect that the rabbis Cheshin was seeking to recruit against Berland would end up eulogizing him at his funeral.

The threats were followed by the widespread distribution of fliers — pashkevilim — defaming Cheshin.

But Shuvu Bonim’s smear campaign was then met with a response “they didn’t dream of,” said Cheshin.

Bratslav rabbis, and in an unusual turn, the strict Eda Haredit communal organization, put out a letter in support of Cheshin. Though the text was far from an explicit condemnation of Berland, siding with Cheshin was an unsubtle repudiation of the Shuvu Bonim leader.

The fight was on.

In October 2017, a special Bratslav rabbinical court released a religious ruling, verifying the accounts of several women from Shuvu Bonim who appeared before the panel to testify against Berland, and exhorting all to distance themselves from him and his followers. In February, 26 leading Bratslav rabbis denounced him

In the fall of 2016, the Kav Breslov hotline was opened, featuring recordings of Berland collected by those who left Shuvu Bonim, personal accounts by former community members, and more. The hotline is modeled on other Haredi news sources targeting those who do not use the internet, television, or radio, whereby they can obtain updates through a phone call. The hotline receives thousands of calls a month, said Winehouse, and is run by a handful of volunteers, including Cheshin.

In October 2017, the furious lobbying paid off when a special Bratslav rabbinical court released a religious ruling, verifying the accounts of several women from Shuvu Bonim who appeared before the panel to testify against Berland, and exhorting all to distance themselves from him and his followers.

“We were convinced without the slightest of doubts that indeed, the rumors are true, and we also received many witnesses who testified that even though he said many times that he regrets his offensive deeds and does teshuva [repentance], he continued committing them shamelessly,” wrote rabbinical judges Betzalel Galinsky, Reuven Nakkar, and Yitzhak Leznovski. The ruling was also signed by Rabbi Nachman Zeev Frank, who was present during all the sessions.

In February 2018, the rabbinical court received another boost, with a letter by 26 leading Bratslav rabbis backing the ruling and openly expressing their denunciation of Berland. Since then, numerous conferences have seen leading Bratslav rabbis excoriate Berland and his adherents.

‘I didn’t want to get involved in this business, I didn’t want to. But my daughter came to me with others, and they said: ‘Why are you silent? Why are you silent?’

Also in February, prominent Bratslav rabbis agreed to sit down to be filmed by the activists for a video (Hebrew) denouncing Berland to be released to the media, a move Winehouse of Kav Breslov described as an “exceptional anomaly,” given that most of them are vehemently opposed to film, television, and internet.

In the video, Frank described his initial encounter with the testimonies by the women at Nakkar’s house, in a hearing that lasted from the early evening until 3 a.m.

“We heard stories — I didn’t stop crying. I cried, I cried, I cried, I said… it just killed me, that night. I said to myself, how can it be, the man is 70! We heard testimonies that are difficult even to speak about, awful descriptions” that would incur the biblical death penalty, he said.

Rabbi Nachman Zeev Frank (YouTube screenshot)

Recounting his own attempts to get other ultra-Orthodox rabbis on board, Frank added: “Why didn’t these rabbis come out [against Berland]? They told me explicitly: We have no strength for these wars. We are afraid. I don’t want to name the rabbis, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, who told me, this is a Bratslav issue.”

Rabbi Natan David Shapira, another prominent Bratslav rabbi who appears in the video, said his daughter had been in contact with Berland’s victims: “Some of them cried, and some were happy to be with him.”

“I didn’t want to get involved in this business, I didn’t want to. But my daughter came to me with others, and they said: ‘Why are you silent? Why are you silent?'” Shapira said in the video, fists clenched.

Supporters of Eliezer Berland argue with protesters during a protest in front of a conference hosting Berland who was charged with sexual assault, in Bat Yam, Central Israel, on January 30, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“You could see he wasn’t normal, but not to this extent. Who could dream of these things? Who could dream of it? Who could dream of it?” he continued.

Shapira also forcefully condemned what he described as the insufficient response in the broader ultra-Orthodox world.

“This is a drop in the sea of what should have been done. The entire world, the entire Haredi community, should have intervened here,” he said.

Why won’t the Haredim condemn him?

But the wider Haredi world remains reluctant to openly denounce Berland.

In April 2017, following Berland’s release from prison, United Torah Judaism’s Deputy Minister and MK Yaakov Litzman visited him in the hospital, and fellow MK Menachem Eliezer Mozes has toured Shuvu Bonim institutions and pledged increased funding for the community.

Despite his prison record, Berland was also invited to light a torch at the annual Lag Ba’Omer festival in Meron this past spring, under heavy police protection. In April 2018, his car was permitted to park in the main Western Wall plaza, a distinction reserved only for a select few religious leaders. The Education Ministry continues to fund schools operated by Shuvu Bonim. Public condemnations of Berland among Haredi rabbis are few and far between.

Efforts by the anti-Berland activists led by Winehouse continue, including backing a civil suit by three female victims against Berland, his wife, and Shuvu Bonim; seeking to open a new prayer space in Uman for Rosh Hashanah lest Berland or his followers appear; lobbying lawmakers; and protests to have social media content and pages dedicated to Berland removed.

Meanwhile, the activists accuse the Israel Police of turning a blind eye to a series of violent attacks on them by Berland followers, which despite “dozens of police complaints,” and powerful video documentation, have yielded no arrests or charges.

The Israel Police did not respond to several requests for comment.

Although Winehouse expresses pride in their success in discrediting Berland in the broader Israeli public, among Haredim, the issue is still seen as an internal Bratslav issue, he said.

Isaac Winehouse, the international chairman of Kav Breslov (courtesy)

According to Winehouse, Haredi newspapers have refused all of the activists’ attempts to place anti-Berland ads in their pages, though he also credits the local press for not providing any coverage of Berland at all. Overall, he warned, there is widespread ignorance of the convicted sex offender’s crimes due to a lack of access to this information.

“In the Haredi community, there is first of all a lack of knowledge, and also a lack of cooperation,” he said.“We are trying to figure out how to get them this information; they don’t have internet, they don’t have radios.”

Lichtenstein, of the Israeli Center for Cult Victims, said she has privately received the backing of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who encouraged her to continue her efforts against Shuvu Bonim. But when she sought a public condemnation, they were evasive, she said.

“That they know it’s happening and aren’t coming out against it, is, in my eyes, a disgrace,” she said.

No longer ‘rabbi’ Berland?

Cheshin’s attempts to broaden the excommunication of Berland are ongoing.

In the Haredi world, Berland is “questionable, bordering on disavowal,” he said. But ultra-Orthodox rabbis see the Berland phenomenon as “something outside their world. And they believe their acknowledgement of [the Berland problem] will bring the issue into their turf, and think the damage will exceed the benefits.”

Mostly, however, they fear his followers will exact retribution on their students, Cheshin said, and “when you speak to them more, they show you this. They’ll show you where it’s written in Jewish law that a man doesn’t need to endanger his life” to combat the wicked.

The threat posed by Berland’s messianism to the broader ultra-Orthodox public is also perceived as negligible among the Haredi rabbis, he said.

“Today, a false messiah won’t so quickly drive Haredi Judaism crazy the way Sabbatai Tzvi did,” he mused. “People today are much more fatigued and don’t really believe in messianic tidings as they did then. And specifically because the community is more realistic and more critical and less innocent than it was, it’s harder to trick.”

Pictures of rabbis are posted on a street pole at the town on Uman on Oct 2 2011. Berland is featured on middle left. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Nonetheless, Cheshin counts the shutting down of open Berland support among the ultra-Orthodox, while not outright condemnation, as a win. While he strives for much more to be done, the fact is that Berland has lost credibility as a religious leader, he said.

“It’s not yet yimach shemo [may his name be blotted out], but it’s no longer ‘Rabbi’ Berland.”

And six years after leaving Shuvu Bonim, he has seen a shift in his own views.

“We certainly understood, after a lot of inquiry, that the desecration of God’s name is precisely the opposite [of the idea that it occurs when negative aspects of the Haredi community are aired]. The desecration of God’s name is when the reputation that emerges is that the Haredim are covering up for sex criminals,” he said. “When you see that within the Haredi community there is a system of internal monitoring, that the Haredim themselves are denouncing their criminals, it creates trust.”

Press 13 to hear Berland ‘moo’

Dial the line for the Kav Breslov news hotline and the flat recorded voices of Berland’s former students will lead you down the warped passages in the archive of his delirium.

“For tapes of Berland’s son, press 1; for tapes of heresy against God, press 2; for tapes [of Berland] against the Torah, press 3; for tapes of insanity and madness, press 4; for tapes of anger and murder, press 5; for tapes of the ‘tzaddik is Hashem,’ press 6; for tapes denigrating the tzaddikim of previous generations, press 7; for Berland violates the Torah, press 8; for tapes of desperation and depression, press 9; for tapes of corruption and cruelty, press 10; for tapes of Berland speaking about the fight against him, press 11; for tapes of Berland singing secular songs, press 12; for tapes of Berland screaming bizarrely, press 13; for Berland endangering life, press 14; for disrespect of people, press 15; for times when the messiah will come, press 16; for tapes of false promises, press 17.”

The outlandish Berland audio clips include him claiming that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav “created the world,” his boasts about eating “delicious” human fetus meat in China, his assertion that the biblical Moses and Aharon shaved the heads of Levites like “Nazis,” and him making bizarre animal sounds, including mooing.

Until the fall of 2016, the broadcasters on the line used voice distortion technology, fearing for their safety. But Berland’s followers figured out who they were anyway, and all the activists returned from Uman after the annual Rosh Hashanah Jewish new year pilgrimage with black eyes, said Cheshin.

Illustrative: An ultra-Orthodox man sits near the pond of Uman while praying before the Jewish new year holiday Rosh Hashana. Sep 27 2011.(Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

In the following days, in the traditional period of repentance before Yom Kippur, the activists convened for a meeting on how to proceed.

They took to their broadcast to “repent.”

“After I was beaten up in Uman, in Ukraine, for speaking out against Berland, I understand that I must do a reckoning and do teshuvah [repentance],” went the recorded message released by each broadcaster, said Cheshin. “So I am doing teshuvah for fighting with my voice distorted. And from now on, I am broadcasting in my own voice.”

“I am not afraid of any of you,” said one of the broadcasters, Yehoshua Gross, in his recording. Not of “any threat, any terror.”

“I am afraid of only one thing: of God, and of the fact that your heinous rabbi is liable to destroy, at the foundation, the wholeness of his Torah.”

They stated their names. They released their addresses. And they challenged Berland’s followers to come murder them.

“These are the laws of the jungle,” said Cheshin. “If you show fear, they’ll attack you. If you show bravery, they’re afraid of you.”

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