A frightening Jewish cult

This man, who has proclaimed himself a manifestation of God, is most recently in trouble for conning some of the most vulnerable members of society. And his followers of worse.

Josh Nass

OpEds Supporters of Rabbi Eliezer Berland at Ben Gurion Airport
Supporters of Rabbi Eliezer Berland at Ben Gurion Airport

The more I learn about Eliezer Berland, the more horrified I become. This man, a “rabbi” in name only, has been accused of misleading a sizable group of hassidim, turning them into a cult, all to support his greed and ego.

I first became aware of Eliezer Berland thanks to some truly extraordinary investigative journalism on the part of a number of Israeli news outlets. While it seemed that many people — especially hassidim outside Berland’s circle — were ignoring Berland, Israeli journalists realized there was a story and followed it, showing the immense value of fearless reporting.

Berland came to notice — again — in the fall when Nurit Ben-Moshe, an Israeli grandmother, sued him for his part in her daughter’s death. This served as a clarion call to journalists and law enforcement, who earlier this month arrested Berland. This man, who has proclaimed himself a manifestation of God, is most recently in trouble for conning some of the most vulnerable members of society.

He allegedly preyed on those with serious, sometimes even terminal, illnesses, such as cancer, and convinced them to give him tens of thousands of shekels in exchange for his blessing and “medicine,” which it turns out was antibiotic drops and Mentos mints. Nurit Ben-Moshe’s daughter, Shoshi, a follower of Berland’s along with her husband, paid Berland a king’s ransom to pray for her and, when Berland told her not to undergo medically recommended chemotherapy, she obeyed. Then she died.

Berland clearly cared nothing for these people. All he cares about is his wallet. Even after some of his followers had died being treated by his blessings, he continued to extort money from their families, claiming that with payment he would ensure they were among the first to be brought back to life when the Messiah comes.

In light of all this, while the investigation continues, I hope Berland will be remanded indefinitely as his trial unfolds, both to protect future victims from him and to prevent him from fleeing. He has fled prosecution before, showing that he has no qualms about breaking Israeli law. Several years ago, he was charged with sexual assault and he went on the lam. After being in hiding for a few years, he finally was put on trial in Israel. Sadly, he served less than a year for his crimes and his adherents remained steadfast regardless.

The actions of which Berland is indicted should make anyone with even a semblance of a moral compass feel sick and angry. Yet his followers stand beside him. They defend him. When police went to arrest Berland, his followers attempted to stop police. They threw themselves in front of police cars and attempted to restrain officers, causing injuries.

When asked about Berland’s crimes, his followers either deny them or, more often, defend his actions as being holy. They twist rabbinic teachings to support Berland. And those who don’t blindly follow Berland? They become marked as enemies. Thanks to Berland’s followers, Nurit Ben-Moshe is no longer allowed to see her grandchildren. Those who have agreed to act as witnesses for law enforcement have been physically assaulted and, according to a film made public recently by, much much worse. The film, linked here in Hebrew and shown on Israel television station Kan 11. is a documentary on Shuvu Banim and contains claims that  a group of his Shuvu Banim followers of murdering  a young man who reported being beaten up by them to the authorities. It is making waves in religious circles in Israel).

Simply put, these people are a cult.

Sadly, Judaism — like any other religion — has its fair share of cultists, people who distort teachings and practices, usually in service of a charismatic and unprincipled person. We have seen this before. While Berland is not a manifestation of God, he may be a manifestation of Shabtai Tzvi syndrome, a Jewish cult leader in the 1600s who misled thousands of Jews.

As Rabbi Elchanan Poupko wrote on Arutz Sheva, the similarities are appalling.

Tzvi claimed to be the Messiah and created his own religion where he was essentially worshipped as a god. He bilked money from his adherents to support his licentious life. Then, when faced with trouble, he quickly turned his back on Judaism, converting to Islam to save his own skin. In response, approximately 300 families who followed him also converted and continued to worship him.

The parallels between Shabtai Tzvi and Berland are clear. Berland is profaning Jewish teachings so that he will be worshiped absolutely.

The lesson in all this is that, just because someone says they are a rabbi and dresses for the part, does not make them so. Berland may call himself a rabbi, but his absolute disregard for Jewish teaching and basic humanity should bar him from the position. He is the opposite of a holy man. He is a snake misleading Jews into sin with him.

Just as Tzvi was excommunicated and banished from several cities, Berland, once the trial is over and if it proves - as seems self evident - that the allegations are true, his actions merit a strong response beyond that of the courts . He must be wholly rejected by the entire Jewish community and banished behind bars for the rest of his life. As for his followers, I hope they can find their way back to true Judaism.

Josh Nass is a public relations executive specializing in media relations, crisis communications and political strategy