Jailed rabbi Berland arrested in connection with murders linked to Hasidic cult

Convicted sex offender currently serving time for fraud; he is detained in prison over alleged link to decades-old murder of man and suspected murder of missing teen

Times of Israel/November 1, 2021

Jailed sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland was arrested Monday in connection with decades-old homicide cases linked to his extremist ultra-Orthodox sect, according to multiple Hebrew-language reports.


Berland entered prison last week after he was convicted of fraud in June, in a plea deal that saw him sentenced to 18 months.

He was arrested and questioned at the Nitzan Prison in Ramle.


His wife, Tehillah Berland, was later also detained by police for questioning in Jerusalem.


The rabbi, who has not been formally identified by authorities as the individual arrested on Monday, becomes the 11th person detained recently over the suspected murder of a teenage boy and the unsolved murder of a man in the 1980s and 1990s.


Most details of the investigation are under a gag order that is in place until the end of the year.


The investigation into the disappearance and suspected murder of 17-year-old Nissim Shitrit and the murder of 41-year-old Avi Edri is tied to the Shuvu Bonim sect, run by Berland.


One of those arrested earlier this month was the husband of a woman who has told police she was forced by sect members to lure one of the victims to a specific location. An attorney for the woman has said that her client was a victim of the extremist sect, and is cooperating with police in order to see justice done.


Another suspect is reportedly the son of a former senior government minister.


Police have previously said that some of those arrested were questioned over allegations of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy to commit a crime. Not all are suspected of direct involvement in the killings.


Shitrit was allegedly beaten by the sect’s “religious police” four months before he was last seen in January 1986. In a documentary released by Kan in 2020, one of Berland’s former disciples said that the religious police murdered the boy, dismembered him and buried his body in Eshtaol Forest near Beit Shemesh. His remains were never found and the case was never solved.


Edri was found beaten to death in Ramot Forest in the north of Jerusalem in 1990.


The cult-like Shuvu Bonim offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect has had repeated run-ins with the law, including attacking witnesses.


Berland fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted several female followers. After evading arrest for three years and slipping through various countries, Berland returned to Israel and was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November 2016, on two counts of indecent acts and one case of assault, as part of a plea deal that included seven months of time served. He was freed just five months later, in part due to his ill health.


Berland was arrested for fraud in February 2020, after hundreds of people filed police complaints saying that he had sold prayers and pills to desperate members of his community, promised families of individuals with disabilities that their loved ones would be able to walk, and told families of convicted felons that their relatives would be freed from prison.


The 18-month sentence he is currently serving was set to include the year he spent in jail before being released to house arrest in February of this year.


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