The central witness against Rabbi Eliezer Berland, the fugitive head of the Shuvu Banim sect who was finally arrested in Johannesburg, South Africa two months ago, has spoken out on shocking details of the sexual abuse case against Berland.
Berland fled from Israel in 2012 after several women as well as a 15-year-old girl laid charges of sexual assault against him. He evaded capture in the US, Switzerland, Morocco and Zimbabwe and managed to avoid extradition from Holland, before being finally arrested in South Africa in April – now he faces extradition to Israel to stand trial.
Central witness Itay Nachman Shalom, formerly a member of Shuvu Banim, exposed his testimony against Berland to Walla on Wednesday, and spoke about the persecution he faces from the sect.
“They crushed us from all sides,” said Shalom. “We underwent a private Holocaust and our only hope is upturned to He who Dwells on High.
Our tears fell like water but there is no despair. We will fight for the truth – even at the cost of our lives.”
“We will not rest and we will not be silent. Not from threats and not from blows. Whoever harms us – that’s a great mitzvah for us,” he said.
Shalom was one of the charismatic rabbi’s most devoted followers, and was a member of the adoring youths who followed Berland everywhere.
He would wait for the rabbi for hours outside of his home in Beitar Illit, but one night he recalls climbing on top of the drainpipe outside of the house to try and sneak a glimpse of Berland praying and studying Torah.
To his horror, he instead saw the rabbi naked “bending forward over a female student and moving upwards and downwards.”
The sight shook him and brought him to a great crisis of faith. “I told myself either he is the most righteous or he is the most evil,” Shalom said.
Death threats and assault
Rumors of what he saw that night spread like wildfire in the Shuvu Banim sect and through the wider haredi community, and mere days before the police launched an official investigation, Berland succeeded in fleeing Israel, remaining fugitive and at large for three years.
The police have four complaints by female members of the community accusing Berland of sexually abusing them. The police also have two additional files accusing the rabbi of using violence against members of his sect.
Shalom nearly paid with his life for exposing the scandal.
He receive death threats and incessant harassment, and in two cases was physically assaulted. He was forced to move with his family from Jerusalem to Tzfat (Safed), where he is far from the headquarters of the sect.
Shalom recalls that when he visited Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s grave in Ukraine’s Uman for Rosh Hashanah, a group of Shuvu Banim members struck and assaulted him.
As noted Berland was finally captured two months ago in Johannesburg. After a month-and-a-half in jail he signed off on extradition orders to Israel, although the process is being delayed.
Sources close to Berland say the process was held up at the last minute after South Africa’s justice minister refused to sign the extradition order for some unknown reason, and the rabbi then decided to oppose the extradition again and petition it in court. However, it is not clear if his opposition will make any difference now that he has signed off on being extradited.