Follow the Money - and Those Rabbis

Rabbi Nachman Berland, son of fugitive Shuvu Banim leader Rabbi Elizer Berland, is suspected of transferring funds to colleagues and relatives.

Yair Ettinger
Chaim Levinson
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An unusual-looking tourist arrived two weeks ago in Zimbabwe. The bearded man and his small entourage did not arrive in this southern African nation on business. They came neither to ride an elephant nor to visit the magnificent Victoria Falls. Rabbi Eliezer Berland, suspected of having committed sex crimes in Israel, was forced to leave Morocco, where he had taken refuge in April, when the Jerusalem police called him in for questioning. King Mohammed VI of Morocco refused to let the rabbi and his Bratslav Hasidic community establish a branch in his kingdom. Once expelled from Morocco, Berland journeyed south to Johannesburg and then presumably continued on to Zimbabwe.

But stories of Berland’s alleged sex crimes against wives of his followers are not the first shockwaves to have hit the Shuvu Banim community in Jerusalem in recent years. The various nonprofit associations of the community, which was founded by Berland, have long since descended into financial chaos.

While the authorities pursue their criminal investigations, Shuvu Banim also continues to be embroiled in a leadership battle. Some of Berland’s loyalists have now abandoned the community altogether, while others are split into two camps. One camp remains loyal to him, whereas the other now follows his son, Rabbi Nachman Berland.

Last August, the police and Israel’s Registrar of Nonprofit Associations began investigating the central nonprofit association that funds the community’s activities, the Nechamat Zion Institutions of Breslov. In addition, the registrar submitted to the court reports about the organization’s management with a request for its liquidation. The latest report on the association was filed last Thursday and it raises suspicions that beginning even before the departure of his father, Nachman Berland systematically transferred what amounted to tens of millions of shekels from the association to his own bank account and to cronies.

The complicated relations between Eliezer Berland, his wife Bruria and his son Nachman are one piece in a giant jigsaw puzzle that the police are putting together in the present investigation. The son has set up in Betar Ilit a community rivaling his father’s, and in recent years, dozens of followers have chosen to abandon the father’s Hasidic court in Jerusalem to join it.

Despite the rivalry between them, Nachman Berland has been openly involved in his father’s nonprofit associations in Jerusalem. For years, the son and his trusted followers have actively participated in their management. Moreover, even after the split in Shuvu Banim, they have continued to play a major role in them.

An active member of the community explained the friction between the father and son to Haaretz: “Just ask yourself, how could someone who does not work for a living manage to acquire apartments for all his children? This led to [Rabbi Nachman’s] split with his father.”

Besides the central nonprofit, one understands from the report of the nonprofit watchdog that the younger Berland operated a network of six organizations that funded the community’s various institutions, which include a yeshiva, a kollel ‏(yeshiva for married students‏), a talmud torah ‏(elementary school where the emphasis is on sacred Jewish studies‏), preschools and a charitable body. Some of the organizations were responsible for simply collecting donations, others managed the educational institutions. Although he never filled an official role in the central nonprofit, Nachman is alleged to have managed it together with associates, and withdrawn funds from it.

The total revenues in 2011 of the Nechamat Zion Institutions amounted to 10.5 million shekels ‏($2.98 million‏), of which 1.3 million shekels were allocated by the state; the remainder of the income came from donations.

Most of the donations were made through standing bank orders signed by yeshiva students who are alleged to have been pressured to do so by Nachman for the purpose of funding their community’s educational activities.According to the report, the money was channeled to a bank account registered under the name of Nachman’s adult son, Natan Berland, and, at a later stage, to an account registered to Tehila Berland, the rabbi’s wife. It is alleged that fictitious scholarships to kollel students were granted from these bank accounts and that the checks were cashed by money changers.

In 2013, 4 million shekels in donations were allegedly transferred to Tehila Berland’s private bank account. One of the nonprofits is alleged to have issued checks for the payment of scholarships for yeshiva students for the upcoming 2014-2015 academic year, and that instead, all the checks were cashed without the money ever having been transferred to the students.

It is also alleged that one of the bank accounts, one designated for the maintenance of a synagogue, was used for the making of mortgage payments on behalf of associates of Nachman Berland.

The Registrar of Nonprofit Associations notes: “Each month the sum of 3 million shekels was deposited in these accounts; during this period, the monthly deposit sometimes totaled 4 million shekels. The needs of all the [community’s] educational institutions come to about 1 million shekels [monthly].” Thus, the report alleges, each month 2 million shekels disappeared and went to other, external destinations.

As noted, Natan Berland, Nachman’s son, owns one of the accounts that was the beneficiary of community’s largesse. Despite being a yeshiva student and the father of four small children, he had no less than 1.3 million shekels in his bank account, in addition to an apartment registered in his name in Jerusalem. In his police interrogation, he could not explain where such a large amount of money came from; police suspect it was stolen.

Loans from Hochberg

Nachman Berland is suspected of having used an additional method to extract money from his community’s nonprofit organizations: The illegal transfer of real estate. A key figure in this affair is Eran Hochberg, a newly observant Jew and a chess genius. Hochberg, a Jerusalem businessman, specializes in real estate deals and is well connected in the capital’s political circles.

Hochberg had in the past been one of Eliezer Berland’s devoted followers, donating millions to Berland and taking care of all his financial matters, according to a member of the Jerusalem Bratslav community. However, in 2012, when cracks started to appear in Berland’s Hasidic court, Hochberg parted ways with him. Hochberg claimed that the accusations of sexual assault and sexual harassment led to his disillusionment with the rabbi.

According to the investigation conducted by the Registrar of Nonprofit Associations, after leaving the elder Berland’s court, Hochberg became close with the son, Nachman, and the two began selling off a number of properties in Jerusalem belonging to the Shuvu Banim community. The two claimed that the money given to the Nechamat Zion Institutions by Hochberg was a loan − not a donation − and that they were only paying back the loan through acquisition of these properties.

Hochberg claimed that over the years, he transferred more than $10 million of his own money to Shuvu Banim institutions, in the form of a loan granted at the request and by the authority of Nachman’s father, Eliezer. This claim was supported by Asher Axelrod, a well-known Jerusalem lawyer.

Axelrod has been representing Hochberg for many years. In December 2012, he provided a legal opinion stating the debt must be recorded in the Shuvu Banim institutions’ books: “Ignoring the debt and its non-payment could very likely result in lawsuits and in the nonprofit association’s being required to pay back the loans in accordance with a court order that could be implemented through the bailiff’s court. Such a turn of events would cause grave fiscal harm to the organization and could seriously damage its reputation.”

According to this legal opinion, Axelrod failed to explain how a loan could have been made to Shuvu Banim without the transaction being approved by its board and without any documentation, other than Hochberg’s testimony. The lawyer declined to answer Haaretz’s questions regarding the matter on the grounds that it was sub judice.

After the legal opinion was given, an agreement was signed between Shuvu Banim and Hochberg. There it is stated that over the years loans were received “with the knowledge of the head of the yeshiva [Rabbi Eliezer Berland] and in accordance with his wishes ... The head of the yeshiva was in contact with Hochberg throughout these years, providing him with counsel and praying for his good fortune. Hochberg felt that he was receiving divine assistance in his undertakings ... The funds transferred by Hochberg were used for the public good; for the maintenance of Shuvu Banim Institutions; for the issuing of charitable funds on a large scale, including the funding of flights to Uman [in Ukraine, site of the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav]; for the provision of living allowances to kollel students; for the issuing of large sums of money in the form of charitable assistance to needy families prior to religious holidays; and for the assistance of needy persons in the areas of housing, medical services, employment
and marriage.”

The agreement also states explicitly that Shuvu Banim must return $4 million to Hochberg and that, owing to the organization’s present lack of funds, the loan is to be paid back through the attachment of properties.

To obtain a seal of approval for the agreement, the parties turned to an arbiter, Rabbinical Judge Netanel Linder. After he approved it, the sides applied to the Jerusalem District Court, which upheld Linder’s ruling. It appears that the court registrar, Judge Reuven Shamia, was not sufficiently rigorous in this matter because, despite the lack of documentation attesting to the loan and without questioning the parties at length, he authorized the agreement.

The court has declined to answer questions on this matter, stating only that the “case in question is now being discussed.” Nonetheless, the court did acknowledge that “a request has been submitted [by the state] to the court asking it to abrogate the arbiter’s ruling.”

In August, police arrested Hochberg and Nachman Berland so as to question them on the affair, which is still being investigated. The investigation shows that the existence of this fictitious agreement was well known to all the association’s members. Immediately upon its signing, Hochberg rushed to register the properties under his name and then to sell them. The assets include Eliezer Berland’s apartment on Hahoma Hashlishit Street in Mea She’arim, Jerusalem, a yeshiva on Auerbach Street, the association’s offices on Shivtei Yisrael Street, a property on Ido the Prophet Street, a structure belonging to the yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City and a building in Uman in Ukraine.

Questioned by police, Hochberg did not deny those transactions and said with respect to the hurried sale of the properties: “For the house on Ido the Prophet Street, I received $900,000, and then an additional $30,000. For the house on Hahoma Hashlishit Street, I was paid 700,000 shekels [nearly $20,000]. I also received $200,000 for giving up my rights to use the yard and an annex that were part of a property purchased with cash in the past. For the synagogue on Beit Yisrael Street, the sum of $700,000 was received in cash.” All told, Hochberg pocketed close to 11 million shekels ($3.1 million).

The police have additional evidence on the operation that Nachman Berland and Hochberg are suspected of engineering. In his testimony to the police, one member of Shuvu Banim stated that, “Rabbi Nachman managed the community; he was in charge of everything. If you wanted to register your son for the talmud torah, you had to speak with him. If you wanted funding for children’s programming or for any other kind of activity, everything had to go through him.

“He has decided to liquidate the Shuvu Banim community. The reason for the sale of the [community’s] properties is an imaginary loan that the rabbi seems to owe to Hochberg. Behind the scenes, the two agreed to split the money from the sale of the properties 50-50.”

The blows that have hit Shuvu Banim have led many families to abandon it. Some of them have moved from being followers of Eliezer Berland to his son, Nachman; others have become adherents of rabbis who have set up independent communities that are loosely tied with Shuvu Banim. Some members have abandoned Shuvu Banim altogether. In addition, there are members of this Bratslav Hasidic sect who note a phenomenon emerging on the margins of the community: Young people who have given up on religion completely in the wake of the harsh evidence that has come to light about the sexual offenses allegedly committed by Rabbi Eliezer. Most Shuvu Banim members are in the meantime, however, sitting on the fence, awaiting further developments. Others vigorously express their continuing loyalty to Rabbi Eliezer.

In the meantime, the community, surprisingly enough, is holding its own. Nearly all its educational institutions are still functioning and most of employees are receiving their salaries on time.

People who are in close contact with Nachman Berland flatly deny all of the allegations regarding embezzlement. There are those who say that he all he done is to conduct “financial transactions within the association that are intended to keep it on its feet” in a very uncertain period. To keep the community running, Nachman Berland has created two new nonprofit associations. “The money has not gone into anyone’s pocket,” argue these associates. “Nachman is the only person who is assuming responsibility for Shuvu Banim, despite his complicated relationship with his father. All of the members of our Hasidic sect understand what is happening, even those who are not happy with [Nachman].”

Attorney Ariel Atari, who is representing Nachman, has stated that a careful study of the report compiled by the Registrar of Nonprofit Associations will show that the sections pertaining to his client are based on rumors and suspicions formulated by his sworn enemies − not on solid evidence.

Natan Berland’s legal counsel, attorney Gilad Barone, has said that the “investigation is still in its initial stages. The report in question has not been shown to us; therefore, at this stage, it cannot be addressed properly.”

Eran Hochberg’s response: “I loaned tens of millions of shekels to the Berland family’s educational enterprise, Shuvu Banim. The financial transactions concerning which there are now civil legal proceedings between myself and Shuvu Banim are based on written documents, on checks that I issued, on bank transfers, on properties that Shuvu Banim bought with my money, etc. All of these matters have been looked into by the Israel Police and have been found to be correct. I am very unhappy that in Shuvu Banim’s records there is no documentation regarding these loans. Rabbi Eliezer Berland signed the agreement according to which I am entitled to be repaid for these loans.”

Hochberg’s statement continues: “There has never been any investigation by the Registrar of Nonprofit Associations that has produced any conclusion whatsoever. The sole investigation that is being carried out is by the Israel Police. I realize today that the only flaw in my actions was my decision to loan Shuvu Banim tens of millions of shekels and it is clear that the only way that this flaw can be corrected is through the return of my [stolen] money. In conclusion, ever since 2000, I have fulfilled no role − official or otherwise − in any of Shuvu Banim’s institutions.”  

Rabbi Eliezer Berland. Suspected of committing sexual offenses, he’s currently in South Africa.Credit: Hadar Cohen