In 2018, Rabbi Eliezer Berland told his congregation: “The more falsehood there is, the more truth will be revealed in a clearer way.”
So maybe committing fraud on a massive scale was just his way of bringing more truth into the world.
Over the weekend, Jerusalem prosecutors filed a criminal indictment against Berland, accusing him of raking in a handsome profit by promising miracle cures he couldn’t deliver and selling cheap candies — even Mentos — as high-priced “wonder drugs.”
The indictment cites sixteen separate incidents in which Berland extracted massive sums of money from desperate community members, promising in return to cure terminal illnesses, free the imprisoned, find missing persons, and even revive the dead.
According to the indictment:
Berland did this knowing that he did not have the power to bring about the desired result, and that there was no truth in his claims… These deceptions were presented by the accused for years, in a planned, systematic, and regular fashion, as a fraudulent initiative motivated by money.
On top of the fraudulent claims, Berland also stands accused of inciting violence against members of his own community. Prosecutors describe a recorded message broadcast to followers of his Shuvu Banim religious community, calling on them to physically attack a couple who he deemed guilty of some infraction “contrary to Torah law.”
That sort of violent punishment for those who step out of line seems to be characteristic of Berland’s community. Last month, masked figures attacked the home of Rabbi Yom Tov Cheshin, a former compatriot of Berland who testified against him in the unfolding fraud case. (Fortunately, they were unable to break in and no one was hurt.)
News outlets have compared Shuvu Banim to a cult, and it’s not difficult to see where they got the impression. His followers are so deeply devoted to him and his messaging, they’re willing to commit violent assaults on his behalf. He commands incredible devotion from his congregation, the kind often given to cult leaders. Even as his indictment was taking place, a group of his followers gathered outside the courthouse, praying and singing and quoting the Torah in a demonstration calling for his release.
Outside of his own community, though, views are a lot less glowing.
Back in 2018, before the fraud charges were even a factor, a group of rabbis from the Breslov Hasidic movement issued a manifesto calling Berland “one of the evils of the generations, one of the destroyers of Torah and destroyers of the world.”
Certainly he is no stranger to the Israeli criminal justice system. He fled Israel in 2013 after he was accused of sexually assaulting several women in the Shuvu Banim community. Ultimately he returned three years later and took a plea deal for a reduced sentence, most of which he managed to evade handily.
In this case, Berland continues to insist he’s done nothing wrong. He says he offered blessings and healing services to his followers, at fees comparable to the services of any religious leader, and that he never made any spurious claims about healing the ill (or dead) or locating the lost.
As for whether he can free the incarcerated, it looks like we’ll get concrete answers to that question soon enough.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Som for the link)