Upheaval in a Breslav Hasidic Court

The rabbi of the Shuvu Banim community says his family held him captive.

The kind of court revolutions in history books and fables can also occur in the Hasidic courts. This week, a revolution, for all intents and purposes, occurred in the Shuvu Banim community of Breslav Hasidim in Jerusalem. The contender for the throne is the spiritual leader himself, Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who reinstated himself after asserting that he had been exploited for years by the powerful court built around him by his son and grandson.

The 73-year-old rabbi amazed his followers when he told them that for the past decade, while it looked like he had led the community and lived in it, in effect he had been locked up by his son and grandson and deprived of his freedom as a human being and as a rabbi.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland
Eli Schwarz

"I was locked up for 10 years inside the house.... I could hardly do a thing. They didn't let me speak. They imprisoned me. I wasn't able to respond," Berland said.

From a hideout in the north, the rabbi told his followers that a new and dramatic era had begun in his Hasidic community, which numbers hundreds of families.

Yesterday we met his son, Rabbi Nahman Berland, in Hahoma Hashlishit Street in Jerusalem, where the Shuvu Banim community lives. The son, who has been vilified on the Internet, refused to be interviewed. He has resigned from all his communal posts, but it is too to early to predict whether he will leave the community. The grandson, Natan, who was exposed in secret recordings in which he spoke freely about his experiences with sex and drugs, has disappeared, and it is doubtful he will return to the neighborhood.

The case of Shuvu Banim, like the disappearance a few years ago of a kabbalist rabbi, Nir Ben-Artzi, tells an extreme tale about the "courts" that are built around revered rabbis. In both cases, the rabbis brought clear proof they had been exploited by those who outwardly appeared to be the closest to them. In both cases, the rabbis appeared outwardly to have left freely. In both cases, big money and powerful donors are involved. A few years ago, the police learned that underworld figures had developed a dependency on Rabbi Berland after making donations to him for forgiving their "sins."

Shuvu Banim is one of the largest groups among Breslav Hasidim, which has not had an "admor," or great rabbi, for 200 years. It acts as a kind of independent Hasidic group under Berland. At the end of the 1970s, he began gathering around him hozrim betshuva, people who had returned actively to religion. He set up a yeshiva in Bnei Brak and later transferred it to Jerusalem's Old City Muslim Quarter.

The yeshiva was never considered to be at a very high level. Almost all of its students were hozrim betshuva, and many were Mizrahi. However, in recent years, now that the veteran students have grandchildren, the yeshiva has developed a class system. The veterans, known as Community A, have the right to better educational facilities while those in Community B are pushed into separate tracks, from kindergarten through arranged marriage and even after that. A third circle consists of newly arrived hozrim betshuva.

Two weeks ago, Shuvu Banim Hasidim found a disk on their doorstep with a video clip called "Exposure." It referred to those with power: Nahman Berland, considered the director of the religious institutions and the spiritual successor to his father, and Natan, the grandson. Secret recordings showed embarrassing situations, with documents and video shots supposedly exposing a plot to gain control of the community and its funds.

The son and grandson apparently succeeded in keeping the rabbi in a closed world - cut off from his followers. They turned his home and study premises into a well-guarded fortress under round-the-clock camera supervision for complete control of what happened there. The guards, who more than once gave Hasidim a good beating, were supposedly meant to enhance the rabbi's prestige and to bring in money. The right to meet with Rabbi Berland in private would cost a poor Hasid a great deal of money. "When father is closed inside the house, this helps Shuvu Banim," his son Nahman is heard saying, while the grandson says, "Let him die. Let something happen to him. What do I care? Granny is an idiot and so is Grandpa."

It wasn't clear who was behind the film; many people believed it was Nahman Berland, and that the documentation was a fake. A few days later, the rabbi disappeared from his home. He affirmed he had a hand in exposing his son and grandson. On Saturday night, he held a telephone lesson for some 20 of his students from his hiding place. He told them he was in Moshav Amirim in the north; he has since left.

His telephone conversation with his leading pupils was published on Haredi sites on the Internet. The rabbi sounds agitated and shares his feelings. He speaks about his "longings" and his "difficult emotional state." He also tries to calm his students, saying he left Jerusalem of his own free will and intends to return.

"They decided that I am mentally ill. When guards attack people murderously in front of my eyes, my heart bleeds," he said.

Why did he not rise up until now? The rabbi says: "They did not allow me to speak."

Rabbi Berland has appointed a new management for Shuvu Banim institutions as functionaries resigned. And the guards have disappeared from the yeshiva and the rabbi's house.