Rabbi Eliezer Berland
Rabbi Eliezer BerlandPhoto: Uri Lenz / Flash 90

On Wednesday evening, Tzfat Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu announced that he was banning Rabbi Eliezer Berland from making his annual pilgrimage to the Lag Baomer festivities at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's Tomb in Meron. As Rabbi Eliyahu is Tzfat's Chief Rabbi, the going-ons at the nearby tomb in Meron fall under his purview.

According to Rabbi Eliyahu, the fact that Rabbi Berland had been convicted under a plea bargain agreement to two counts of sexual assault would have made his attendance at the Lag Baomer event into "an abomination."

"Mount Meron is a holy place and thousands of people from across Israel who come do not want to seek impurity on this day," Rabbi Eliyahu told Arutz Sheva. "Such a person who impersonates a hassidic rabbi is an abomination and he should be removed from Meron."

Berland, 81, is the founder of the Shuvu Banim yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem and was a prominent figure in the Breslov community. After the allegations of sexual misconduct came to light in 2012, Rabbi Berland fled the country, traveling Europe and Africa while evading arrest and extradition.

In 2016, after years abroad, Rabbi Berland was arrested in South Africa and extradited to Israel, where he was convicted under a plea bargain agreement to two counts of sexual assault and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

However, five months into his sentence he was released to a hospice to receive regular treatment for serious health problems he has suffered in recent years. Ever since his release, Berland has regained his status as a leader in the Breslov Hassidic sect, something that Rabbi Eliyahu condemned.

"People should keep away from Berland like fire," charged Rabbi Eliyahu."Such a person should be ashamed of himself and hide under the table, not behave like a hassidic rabbi. What he is doing is the opposite of repentance.The fact that he wears a prayer shawl does not make him righteous."

Berland's decision to appear in Meron alongside thousands of his followers was controversial. The Israeli Center for Cult Victims had appealed to police and asked them to prevent Berland from lighting a bonfire in order to prevent him from recruiting new members. "Such an event may cause new people to be exposed to the sect, and those who are later liable to be the next victims," wrote the center.

CEO Rachel Lichtenstein also alleged that Berland would attempt to use the main Lag Baomer event as a way to regain legitimacy from the haredi community: "Berland tries to hold meetings with rabbis in each city and makes sure that his followers will photograph these meetings in order to publish the pictures and try to regain the status of the righteous rabbi. In general, this will lead to blasphemy and contempt for Judaism and the Torah," she wrote.

MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) also said that she would draft a bill forbidding convicted sex offenders to attend events that financed with taxpayer money. "It is inconceivable that Eliezer Berland, who was convicted of sexual offenses and did not express remorse at all, lights a bonfire at an event funded by the State and the Ministry of Religious Services," said Azaria.