Sunday, March 24, 2013

Since allegations of sexual assault by Bratslav rabbi Eliezer Berland have come to light, some families have left the community!

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."

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.

Haredi world divided over latest sexual harassment scandal - Week's End - Israel News | Haaretz Daily Newspaper

What does it take for a woman to accuse her rabbi of sexual harassment?

It took some time for A. to realize she was being abused. Since then, her world collapsed.

It took A. some time to realize she had been sexually harassed by Rabbi Eliezer Berland - a holy and righteous man in her eyes - and for her to file a police complaint. She is 18, married, her pretty face wrapped tightly in a black kerchief in the so-called Jerusalem fashion. She is going through a crisis, not only as a woman who was sexually harassed, but also as someone who was raised with a unique system of beliefs, at the center of which is the rabbi, the righteous foundation of the world.

Since A. became disillusioned, her world has collapsed. She stopped working, and her life now revolves around both the court case and the rift in her community, which has shunned her since she submitted her complaint to the police.

"I am the daughter of a veteran disciple of the rabbi," she says. "My father still believes in him. I think that if he were to cease believing, he would die from it. Today, now that I am outside, I understand that Shuvu Banim is a false Hasidic sect that is only after money. Everything the rabbi would do was very peculiar, not ordinary. He would yell, would travel around at night to tikkunim [sessions of 'spiritual repair'], and we'd follow after him.

"My husband is a righteous one. Our vart [a Yiddish term for an occasion that proceeds a betrothal] was at the rabbi's. We waited there all night. My husband cried to the guards to let us in to see the rabbi, and only at 5 A.M. did we break a plate. I was pleased. It was a matter of pride between me and my girlfriends that I had a groom who would chase after the rabbi. After the sheva berakhot [the week of nightly meals and blessings after a wedding], my husband continued his pursuit of the rabbi. He would go to Hebron, Amuka [in the Galilee] - wherever the rabbi was, my husband would chase after him. Later I joined in too.

"We thought we were demonstrating our devotion. For a year after our marriage, I did not have a single evening with my husband, because I was busy, in pursuit: We were the rabbi's minions. There was a group of women who pursued the rabbi. The rabbi would excite us, suddenly emerge from the car, do tikkun, and then get in and drive off. I worked from noon until 4 P.M., so that I would have time to sleep in a little in the morning, but many times I would telephone and say that I wasn't feeling well. So I also wasn't receiving a proper salary.

"My father instilled in us at that the rabbi is the essence of spirituality at home. I began going to the rabbi too, because we'd heard you could get a blessing. Once we used to see him from afar, but now we realized that you could get in to see him without paying millions of shekels. We got excited, we started going to him at night.

"The first time I went in to the rabbi, it was with another woman: He gave us a kiss on the forehead. Something gentle, a kiss from the righteous one. At the time I didn't think it was unusual, but from a kiss it developed into holding you, touching, licking. A lot of women don't believe the rabbi touched and kissed [others], because he didn't touch them. These are older Ashkenazi women.

"If he had touched them, they would have done him in. So he did it to us, the innocent disciples. Like that, so we wouldn't feel it, his hands were constantly fluttering about. He would come close and do it quickly without your realizing, with three or four women in the room - caress this one, embrace that one. One day he told my husband, 'Your wife will have the privilege of being in the world of nobility' [a higher realm the soul belongs to, according to kabbala]. It was only afterward that we understood he was preparing him.

"That time I had come with my husband to the rabbi as usual, and he said, 'You stay here and you come with me.' He locked me in his room and went out. When he entered he pointed to the bed. I don't remember what he said to me. He kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth. He held me real tight, my whole body, close to his, and he became dreadfully excited and panted. He told me, 'Now you are in the world of nobility,' and licked my face until it was really sticky. I was fighting with myself not to do anything. To this day I am traumatized by it.

"After that he put his hands under my blouse and felt me up brusquely. And then he opened the door and I ran to my husband and told him excitedly that the rabbi said I was in the world of nobility. We began to fight, because my husband understood."

'I miss kissing you'

A. says Berland frequently preached sexual abstinence. "For nine months he told me and my husband not to touch. From the time we married, we were prushim [abstaining from sexual relations]. It killed us. Sometimes we would touch and then we'd say, 'The rabbi will be mad at us.' My husband and I would go in and I would ask the rabbi, 'When will we be blessed with children?' He would say, 'You are not touching each other? You will be visited.' We were naive. I thought I would have children just because the rabbi promised me we would be visited. But he kept on saying, 'Now go immerse yourself' [in a ritual bath], as though he was ensuring that I would be pure for him. In front of other people he would ask: 'When did you go to immerse yourself?' I whispered in his ear, and he would say in front of the others that I had gone. I would feel embarrassed. The rabbi would call all the time: I love you, miss you, miss kissing you. But he would mix this sort of talk with holy talk. And then all of a sudden he stopped calling me."