New True Crime Show Explores 'Insane' Story of a Prominent Rabbi, Sexual Assault and a Missing Teen

'It’s a story you hear and dismiss as an urban legend at first,' says creator of Israeli docu series delving into the world of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who served prison time for sexual assault

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Itay Stern
Itay Stern

On the night of January 23, 1986, a 17-year-old yeshiva student disappeared in Jerusalem. Nissim Shitrit was last seen in the area of an ultra-Orthodox community in the Jerusalem Hills. Four months earlier, members of a so-called modesty patrol came to the yeshiva where Shitrit was enrolled. Disguised as yeshiva students, they told the teenager that two well-known rabbis wanted to speak to him about his future. Shitrit went with them to the beach. They began to beat him up, but stopped when a police van drove by.

Shitrit filed a complaint with the police about the attack, telling investigators that his assailants had identified themselves as members of a modesty patrol who told him they came to teach him a lesson for having dared to go out with girls. In his statement, he added that one of his attackers was Shmuel Habany, a known follower of Rabbi Eliezer Berland and a member of the rabbi’s Shuvu Banim Hasidic community in Jerusalem. Habany was arrested, but released after denying a connection to the incident.

Nissim Shitrit
Nissim Shitrit. Was last seen in the area of an ultra-Orthodox community in the Jerusalem Hills.Credit: Kan 11

A few weeks later, Shitrit disappeared and was presumed to have been murdered – although his body was never found. Despite hints that persons affiliated with Shuvu Banim might have been involved, police adopted a different direction in their investigation, on the assumption that members of the modesty patrol would not commit such an act. At one point they questioned a man named Mike Reynolds, but also released him.

On March 1 Berland, who was paroled in 2017 after serving 10 months in prison for sexual assault and other offenses, was charged with fraud and extortion. Prosecutors say he swindled millions from desperate people by posing as a healer who could cure terminal illness.

But we must backtrack here. Three years ago, well before Berland’s name resurfaced in the headlines again, an investigative journalist and filmmaker named Shany Haziza came across the story of Shitrit’s disappearance almost by accident, while working at Israel’s Kan public broadcasting authority.

She had heard about the Shuvu Banim rabbi who had been convicted of sexual assaults against women, and at some point in her work came into possession of evidence about the alleged involvement of his community’s modesty patrols in the Shitrit case.

“It’s a story you hear and dismiss as an urban legend at first because even for Berland it sounds pretty insane,” says Haziza, who, after three years of investigation, made “Rav Hanistar.”

In her documentary, which was broadcast on Israel’s Kan public television February 27, Haziza offers disturbing testimony by former members of Shuvu Banim about Berland’s conduct as the head of their sect. A woman named Yael Hurvitz, for example, relates that Berland declared what’s called a din rodef – in effect, a death sentence – against her husband, a former follower of the rabbi. Other stories Haziza heard suggest that the modesty patrols run by Berland’s followers were responsible for numerous acts of violence during the 1980s – both against Palestinians who lived near their yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, and Jews who failed to meet Berland’s standards.

Investigative journalist and filmmaker Shany Haziza
Investigative journalist and filmmaker Shany HazizaCredit: Meged Gozani

The dramatic climax of the new film centers around Nissim Shitrit’s brother Meir. The information that he himself has gathered, along with the filmmaker’s investigation, add up to a spine-chilling moment in the end in which a convincing picture is presented – suggesting that followers of Berland were indeed behind Shitrit’s disappearance and his presumed murder.

“I heard very difficult testimonies about what apparently happened with Nissim during the final hours of his life, and after them I didn’t sleep for three nights,” Haziza recalls. “When I met Meir, I didn’t reveal all the information I had received. Meir thought that after so many years his brother was probably dead, but there was always a sliver of hope that he might still be alive, because his body was never found. I didn’t have the heart to share that information with him.”

When was the moment you realized that you had a story?

Haziza: “It took me a long time to meet with Meir and to convince him to cooperate. I met with him the first time for a background conversation, and I told him in a very general way what I know about the story. He immediately said: ‘That’s right.’ He began to tell me everything he knows from his own investigation of Nissim’s disappearance, and then there was a moment of ... ‘bingo.’ It took a long time to gather statements and to cross-check everything. When I sat with Meir, suddenly it was ‘bull’s-eye.’ Everything came together. He mentioned names that I had also heard and details that I know. There was also a correlation between the times and also in the statements and the places they took [Nissim] to. That was the moment when I sat down and I realized: There’s a story here. He was the first person who led me to understand, when I spoke with him, that we also have a cross-check our information with materials collected 30 years beforehand. And it provided very strong validation for the research.”

Unlike the makers of so-called true crime documentaries, who often try to maintain an aura of ambiguity, Haziza has certainty regarding the identity of the people responsible for Shitrit’s disappearance. “We have names [that have been withheld for publication] which I cannot disclose for legal reasons, but we know that they were in the modesty patrols and that they were connected to the abduction. These are people who are no longer members of Rabbi Berland’s community. They remained religiously observant, but not in [Shuvu Banim].

“What’s surprising from conversations with people who were active in the modesty patrols is that they’re not psychos. The people who had a role in Nissim’s disappearance didn’t fit the classic profile of the dangerous criminal, but were rather people who came from good homes, very intellectual. Sometimes from actual elites. They’re people who had the option of leading a good life outside. They didn’t become newly pious from a place of misery. They are intelligent people who were searching for answers and Berland impressed them highly.”

Rabbi Eliezer Berland, the head of the 'Shuvu Banim' Hasidic community in Jerusalem. He was paroled in 2017 after serving 10 months in prison for sexual assault and other offenses.
Rabbi Eliezer Berland, the head of the 'Shuvu Banim' Hasidic community in Jerusalem. He was paroled in 2017 after serving 10 months in prison for sexual assault and other offenses.Credit: Ilan Assayag

‘Power trip’

Shuvu Banim was founded in the mid-1970s, during the wave of increased religious observance and identification following the crisis Israeli society experienced after the Yom Kippur War. Berland, raised in a religious-Zionist home, became a rabbi in the Bratslav Hasidic movement – which, it should be noted, denounces him today. Referred to as the tzaddik (righteous man), he became a charismatic figure, attracting large numbers of non-observant Jews. He peddled spiritual and Hasidic wares alongside a vegan approach, later discarded, and the study of texts, taught by his wife, Tehila. Leaders of the sect, including her and the couple’s children and sons-in-law, have long since become an economic empire.

“There are two processes that occurred over the years,” Haziza explains. “At first Berland was a young rabbi, drawing in a small community of followers. The larger it became, the more he began, as in every cult, to be on a kind of power trip. Suddenly you start to believe that you have powers. Maybe you’re a manipulator and maybe you truly believe that you’re doing magic. The second thing that happened is that in the early years the sect was very unpretentious; there wasn’t a lot of money there. Shuvu Banim’s council of sages met and decided to hold lotteries, a practice that’s very common in the Haredi world. Let’s say a car or an apartment is raffled off, the public is called on to buy tickets and the organizers come up with some slip of paper and announce the winner. This brought a lot of money into the yeshiva.

“Another channel for bringing in a lot of money for the yeshiva was via automatic bank payments. There was a joke about Shuvu Banim having more standing orders than the electric company. And of course there are the rabbi’s pidyonot [so-called acts of redemption]: You pay money and the rabbi gives a blessing and cancels the evil decree from on high. As a result of all these measures, a lot of money accumulated and a lot of apartments were purchased, making the whole thing seem very ostentatious, because the followers lived in poverty – at a level where’s nothing to eat – while in the rabbi’s family there is great luxury. Ayelet Aran, a former member of the Shuvu Banim sect, says in the movie: ‘Riches hoarded by the owner to his own detriment’ [Ecclesiastes 5:12]. As soon as a lot of money came in, it disrupted everything. The dizziness of money and power and status apparently affected how things were done very profoundly.”

Members of Berland’s community are people who became religiously observant and are not wanted in their secular home but also are not welcomed in the Haredi community, which often sees them as unmarriageable. To what extent did that situation allow Berland to wield control over consciousness of his followers?

“It’s easier to take these people, who are tabula rasa in terms of religion, and to tell them things that they’ll consider to be absolute truths. From there it’s easier to also arrive at extremism. Often they actually choose a new identity for themselves, changing their names. With Berland there was also this extremism surrounding the laws of modesty, until at the end he was convicted of sex crimes. I think Berland has obsessions surrounding sexual control, and that’s where all the insanity came from. There are testimonies I was exposed to from additional women who didn’t go to court but testified before a rabbinical tribunal.”

A still from the documentary “Rav Hanistar.”
A still from the documentary “Rav Hanistar.”Credit: Kan 11

In the movie and beyond, Berland is portrayed as a dangerous man with great influence over his followers. Perhaps law enforcement isn’t dealing with him and his sect in a reasonable manner, even when he preaches violence.

“I can’t understand it. After all he is a spiritual authority who has great influence. It’s like a riddle. I don’t know why and how it happens. I don’t have answers. To come and say that maybe there’s someone in the police who wants to protect Berland? I find that hard to believe. He is a powerful man with connections to a lot of people, including people from the underworld, who are considered his followers.”

Do you think there’s a connection between underworld figures and the fact that the police seem to be lenient toward him?

“If there is, that would be frightening.”

During your research, did you consider whether there are figures in the police who are protecting Berland at some level?

“There’s a young woman who filed a police complaint against Berland for sexual harassment. A woman I know accompanied her. I know that a few hours after the complaint was submitted, Berland was already at Ben-Gurion International Airport and he left on a trip that lasted three years, until he was extradited [here]. People who left Shuvu Banim told me a few times that they had lost their faith in the police because of the way they were treated. There were so many things that Berland did and said, ostensibly including calls to murder someone, and you don’t understand how he wasn’t arrested.”

New investigation

In the wake of your movie’s findings, the police have launched a new investigation into the disappearance of Nissim Shitrit. Do you believe that this time they will investigate the case with the seriousness that it deserves?

“I shall be very disappointed if the case of Nissim and of Avi Edri is not reopened,” Haziza said, referring to a different unsolved murder, carried out in the Jerusalem Hills in 1990 and attributed to the modesty patrols.“If at the end of the new investigation there are no answers, it will surprise and disappoint me very much.”

It’s possible that you’ll be called in and asked about findings in the case. What will happen if you’re asked to testify in a way that involves reporter’s privilege – the protection of confidential sources?

A still from the documentary “Rav Hanistar”
A still from the documentary “Rav Hanistar”Credit: Kan 11

“I am not willing to disclose or to endanger my sources in any way.”

To a great extent, you operated in this story like a police detective.

“I think the role of an investigative journalist by definition, whether he is investigating a tax case or a criminal case, is to delve into a matter that maybe the police can’t go into. As a journalist, I can sit down with someone and he’ll tell me a story on condition that I not give him away, and I will stand by my word. It doesn’t always work that way with the police.”

Is it possible that today you know the identities of the people who are responsible for Shitrit’s disappearance but you’ll never be able to tell the police due to reporter’s privilege?

“In that respect I actually have no problems with immunity. I could give the police names of people who were accessories to the disappearance of Nissim. From an ethical perspective, I don’t see a problem with that, as long as I don’t reveal my sources.”

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