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2015’s top newsmaker opens up - UPDATED

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UPDATED WEDNESDAY: It is not often that a community media platform gets to write 63 stand-alone stories on one individual’s activities over 20 months. Therefore, for consistently making fresh, controversial news, there can only be one choice for Jewish Report Online’s Religious Newsmaker of the Year. Rabbi Eliezer Berland, the man who in 2014 decided he wanted to settle in SA and in 2015, despite Israel (and Interpol) issuing arrest warrants for him and courts in the Netherlands deeming him due for extradition, has returned to SA and, he believes, to stay.
by ANT KATZ | Jan 04, 2016

It is possible that, as long as the money keeps coming in, Rabbi Eliezer Berland may indeed have his wish. He has several hundred followers here with him. The authorities are making no noticeable moves against him - in fact he enjoys some measure of “diplomatic immunity” according to his Dutch lawyer, Louis de Leon, and the charismatic rabbi already has a school, shul and accommodation built between Johannesburg and Pretoria where at least 200 followers stay. He is said to be planning and building for thousands.

Dubbed the "Rabbinical Pimpernel" by Jewish Report’s senior sub-editor, which is certainly nicer (and possibly more accurate) than the world media’s “Rabbi on the run” or “Sex-pest rabbi” – Jewish Report has "owned" this story for the past 20 months.

Berland 16 4 Jan


RIGHT: Rav Berland in SA this morning, picture from Rabbi Berland blog

 SA Jewish Report Online has been more widely quoted and referenced on this story than on any other in its history. The newspaper has colluded and co-operated with Jewish and mainstream media in more than a dozen countries on separate investigations that have resulted in the 63 individual stories – each of which could stand on its own legs as a news story.

The need for these collusions, which have included several Israeli publishers, has been the media-shy nature of Rabbi Berland and his Shuvu Banim Breslov Chassidic sect. It took many months of hard work and honest relationship-building to break through.

A Google-search of “Rabbi Berland” brings up an advert, Wikipedia, the Rabbi’s own website and then SAJR. This is followed by several hareidi media and then Israeli mainstreamers Haaretz, Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post. Add his first name, Eliezer, to the search and SAJR has three of the top seven spots, and is quoted in two others.

STORY CONTINUES BELOW PICTURE

berland 16 FULL
Rav Eliezer Berland doing havdala last weekend - Picture courtesy RABBI ELIEZER BLOG




From the day Rabbi Berland arrived in SA with a band of followers in mid-April 2014, SAJR Online began building a contact base of those around the media-shy "Rabbinical Pimpernel" – which allowed us to be one step ahead of the pack. There wasn’t a single Israeli mainstream newspaper that wasn’t following us daily to pick up the news.

Berlov Geoff2Prior to coming to SA, Rabbi Berland had spent time in Zimbabwe and in Morocco.


LEFT: Some of the Berlanders in Pick n Pay in Johannesburg in 2014

It is this that has kept our readership and those globally, in reading the unfolding stories, seeing the hundreds of photos we have published and dozens of on-site linked content material.

To date this story has generated over two hundred thousand words of copy on this website alone, tens of thousands of words in comments and other items of interest such as phone and video interviews, insider information sessions.

When the charismatic Rabbi Berland wanted his followers in South Africa, Israel and around the world to say a prayer for Israel during the Gaza incursion which he had penned on July 23,  2014, he managed to get his handwritten copy to the Jewish Report newsroom for us to publish while it was being printed and physically distributed locally and in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Berland’s colourful followers divided the largely homogenous Litvak Ashkenazi Jewish community of Johannesburg – and also caused a rift between SA Jewry and Israeli (particularly Sephardi) residents. During the winter of 2014 there were concerns and arguments about whether the followers should have been allowed to sleep in a freezing cold park in Glenhazel.

Berland in custodyIn the end, Israel managed to get SA to issue an arrest warrant for the rabbi (seemingly on spurious grounds) and, after botched attempts by the Hawks to issue a warrant first by the Hawks and then by the SAPS, to apprehend him, Rabbi Berland left SA for Holland – flying out of OR Tambo international airport on a commercial KLM flight.


RIGHT: Jewish Report Online's headline picture in 2014 when the website was the first to report on the rabbi's journey

The Israelis had him arrested on his landing at Schiphol Airport.

He appeared before an extradition hearing but the Israelis could not produce an arrest warrant.

He was released on his own recognisance, his passport withheld and told to stay within the Schengen borders in Europe. On December 1, 2014 the Dutch court again announced it would refuse Israel’s request for the Shuvu Banim leader’s extradition.

Berland free.pngImmediately after Berland’s arrest, a prominent Israeli lawyer, Sharon Nahari, was sent by his Shuvu Banim followers to Amsterdam where he recruited local Dutch lawyers, Louis de Leon and Herman Levenstein – the latter was deeply involved in preventing Holland’s parliament from outlawing shechita in 2012.


LEFT: JR Online followed the story for our users every step of the way

 

Jewish Report spoke to the rabbi’s lawyers in Holland and to the leadership of his Jerusalem yeshiva. We spoke to him through his closest confidants. After his first conditional release In September, Rabbi Berland said: "I'm done with Israel - It is the State of Hamas not of the Jews!" He also said that the “(Dutch) police said all the complaints about me are 'bubba maisas', there is nothing there.”

Eventually, however, the Israelis were able to put together an arrest warrant, get Interpol to issue an international Red Notice and Rabbi Berland’s extradition was ordered by the Dutch court and upheld on an appeal by a higher court.

Berland 16 compoundThe rabbi was not in attendance at the appeal hearing. He was under treatment in hospital, the court was told.


LEFT: Was this birthday picture posted on Rabbi Berland's blog yesterday taken inside the compound? Clearly there are piles of bricks in plain sight



It was initially reported in mainstream media in The Netherlands that after the appeal had been turned down, the authorities went to the hospital only to find that Rav Berland wasn't there. The bird had flown.

This account of events has, however, been questioned since the initial publication of this story and a reliable source from within the Shuvu Banim Breslov movement has disclosed, for the first time, a more correct time-line of the events leading up to the rabbi's disappearance.

 



Updated info

Although the above account was always given after initially being published in top-circulation Dutch daily newspaper "De Telegraaf" at the time. However, after the publication of this story on January 4, a reliable source in daily contact with Rabbi Berland told JR Online "the real story".

After the appeal had been declined, he explained, there were still some legal processes that required finalisation before his extradition – which would have taken a month at least. "(Rabbi Berland's) lawyer wanted to take the case to the high court and could have stretched it out for another year or two," the source told Jewish Report on the record  but on condition that his name was not published "and possibly set him free".

Berland had ignored the advice, says the source: "The rav chose to be in SA nevertheless.”


But the rabbi-on-the-run was at it again. Nobody knows exactly when he came to SA, but he remained under the radar. After the Netherlands also had an Interpol Red Ticket issued, authorities worldwide searched for him.

For several months there was no news from him. Then, out of the blue, In August 2015, the elusive rabbi was found, claimed the largest Dutch daily newspaper, De Telegraaf. Berland was reportedly on a Caribbean island which has no extradition treaty with Israel. Petit Tobacco Island is so small that it does not appear on Google Maps. Telegraaf reported that to reach the small island in the Tobago Cays from the Netherlands, one would have to fly to London, Barbados, St Vincent and finally travel by boat. All at a cost of R50 000 per person!

Whether Rabbi Berland was or wasn’t on Petit Tobacco Island, remains a mystery. What is known, however, is that by October 11, enough empirical evidence had been gathered for Jewish Report Online to run: Rabbinical Pimpernel back in SA. He was indeed back in South Africa, and had been for some time.

And this time, Rabbi Berland, his followers and his local supporters and financiers were determined that he was here to stay. They came back to a purpose-built facility ahead of the High Holidays and armed with a plan to safeguard the rabbi diplomatically.

The interview with the rabbi’s Dutch lawyer published in December, clearly indicated that he was somehow diplomatically untouchable and was in South Africa to stay.



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As long as his financiers can pay for his followers to go back and forth every three months to renew their tourist visas and do not seek work in South Africa, they are probably able to remain legal. Rabbi Berland’s followers staunchly believe he is a once in a millennia rabbi whose insights have saved Israel and Jewry considerable grief. That it is his burden, as it was for every tzadik (notable holy teacher) who came before him, to suffer so that others can benefit.

They are peace-loving people, say the Shuvu Bonim. But they would kill for their rabbi, and they would die for him.

Whatever the outcome may be, Berland lacks the support of the local Beth Din  and is therefore not allowed to practise as a rabbi in South Africa. Marriages he has conducted are only recognised by the Shuvu Banim themselves. So, too, britt milot, barmitzvot and any other religious requirements.

However, and for whatever reason, Rabbi Eliezer Berland has felt confident enough since early December to post pictures of himself in South Africa daily, and, last week, even to celebrate his 79th birthday with visitors from his Jerusalem yeshiva in public.


The name of the sect was changed from Shuvu Bonim to Shuvu Banim when the yeshiva became international – hence different spellings in earlier and later stories.

 



Follow the story on SAJR.co.za


Berland 16 4 Jan full

Rav Eliezer Berland with followers this morning, Picture courtesy RABBI ELIEZER BLOG - the arrow pointing at Rabbi Berland was inserted by Jewish Report Online. 

Is this what the residential compound looks like or is it taken elsewhere?

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