A disciple of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who recently ended contact with him, says: "There is the hard core, which does not believe that anything happened. Even if the rabbi were to confess to the actions he's accused of under interrogation, even if you were to show them video documentation of what [is alleged to have] occurred - they would not abandon him. They will say: There is a secret here, it is hard to 'attain' [i.e., understand] the rabbi. Or [members of his community] will say: He did these things intentionally, because harsh 'precepts' [divine punishment] are pending against the people of Israel, and if the rabbi acts contemptibly, he can prevent a future holocaust. There are also those who are convinced that they slipped Ecstasy into the rabbi's medications, without his knowledge. These are excuses that can serve forever."
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Indeed, most members of the Shuvu Banim community, an insular group of newly religious believers belonging to the Bratslav Hasidim, have remained loyal to Berland. Among the hundreds of families in the community, the vast majority have remained with the rabbi and are loyal to the educational institutions of the community. Lately, however, with the growing evidence of sexual assaults - evidence that began to emerge with the filing of complaints by individual women that followed publication of an initial accusation by a disciple who claimed to have witnessed the rabbi having sex with a woman from the community - there has been a change. Some 20 families, hardly a negligible number, decided in recent months to leave the fold. Dozens more have begun to distance themselves from the rabbi, and are gradually moving closer to his son, Rabbi Nachman Berland, who heads a branch of the community in Betar Ilit, just outside of Jerusalem. Nachman has long been considered his father's successor, although rivalry and intrigue are palpable between the two men.
Shuvu Banim, founded in the late 1970s, has a yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Most of the group's members live on a single street on the outskirts of Mea She'arim, or in the branch in Betar Ilit. Rabbi Berland has boasted of his relations with crime families, but over the years police and army officers have also been regular visitors to his chambers.
The community operates on the fringes of Haredi society, and many ultra-Orthodox take exception to Berland's directives to his disciples to take risks (such as driving at excessive speeds to the graves of tzadikim - holy men - or, specifically, to infiltrate Nablus in order to visit Joseph's tomb ), and to undergo purification that involves personal humiliation.
Nonetheless, in recent years Berland has been granted increased legitimacy in certain rabbinic circles. The ultra-Orthodox world, which always treated him with suspicion, also began to embrace him. Berland had the privilege in recent months, for example, of sitting at one of the tables of honor at the main siyum hashas ceremony (marking completion of a full cycle of daily Talmud study ) held by the United Torah Judaism party ), and at the same party's most important election rally.
Nonetheless, the testimony against Berland that is now coming to light has the Haredi world, and in particular the Shuvu Banim community, in an uproar. No less shocking than the criminal aspect of the matter is the fact that sexual asceticism is one of the main spiritual foundations that Berland preaches - and in this case he was apparently caught red-handed.
This scandal comes on the heels of a stormy series of events that has been ongoing since late 2010; indeed, it turns out that allegations of sexual assault by him were already being made back then. Berland previously staged a sort of "coup" against his wife, son and members of his court, when he allowed publication of his claim that they were confining him against his will, seeking to have him committed, and denying him contact with his disciples.
The rabbi, as part of his revolt, managed to elude, with the aid of a handful of loyalists, the security guards keeping watch over his house, and announced that he had escaped from captivity. Meanwhile, video clips came to light in which his son and grandson are documented in conversations acknowledging that they were exploiting him. A while later, the rabbi reconciled with his family, but the community was left traumatized and divided. Many left, the rabbi fell into debt, and about a year ago several of his senior disciples, including businessman Eran Hochberg (a former youth chess champion ) and Binyamin Ze'evi (son of the late politician and government minister Rehavam Ze'evi ), also jumped ship.
The speculation within the community is that the allegations of sexual harassment reached his wife, Tehila Berland, and son Nachman even before they became public knowledge. For that reason, sources say, the pair sought to keep him out of the public eye, as Eliezer Berland himself has charged.