I remember the Shitrit family. Very devout new immigrants from Morocco, they lived in the building next to mine in Sanhedria Murchevet, the dusty Northern Jerusalem neighborhood designated for religious olim, or immigrants, by the Jewish Agency in the 1970s. On January 23, 1986, their son Nissim, a 16-year-old yeshiva student, disappeared without a trace. Now, 35 years later, that tragic mystery seems on its way to being solved, bringing with it a new reminder of the dangers posed by mindless worship of a charismatic rebbe, as well as the inadequacy of the response of Israeli police and the justice system in coping with criminals posing as holy men.
Four months before he disappeared, Nissim had made a police complaint against men connected to a self-styled “modesty patrol”—associated with a yeshiva—who had put him in the hospital for the “crime” of going out with girls. He named the yeshiva as Rabbi Eliezer Berland’s Shuvu Banim, a place with a reputation for catering to newly religious men with long rap sheets. Nissim also named some of his attackers, all men connected to Shuvu Banim. Inexplicably, after he disappeared, police never investigated Berland, his yeshiva or the named disciples. Instead, they dropped the case, leaving the devastated family in limbo for decades.
Perhaps this had something to do with Berland having all the right credentials—he’d been a study partner of the renowned Rav Chaim Kanievsky, a top authority for many in the haredi world. Berland was certainly idolized by his followers—that is, until 2012, when one of them shimmied up the side of Berland’s building, peered through his window and, to his profound shock, witnessed Berland involved in a sexual act with a young married woman from the community. Soon after, two women filed complaints of rape and sexual assault against Berland, who fled the country and spent the next four years on a frenzied odyssey through the United States, Italy, Switzerland, Morocco (from which he was expelled by King Mohammed VI himself), Egypt, and finally South Africa and Zimbabwe, where a wealthy follower provided a private plane and luxury accommodations.
Eventually, a devout follower convinced him to hire lawyers and return to Israel. He did. Duly convicted of sexual assault and indecent behavior, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and paroled after only three. That was in 2017. In 2020, he faced new charges of fraud and extortion for milking millions of shekels from desperately ill people with promises of miracle cures—which were actually just over-the-counter medications and candy. A plea deal arranged another slap-on-the-wrist 18-month sentence.
Meanwhile, however, fate intervened: Investigative reporter Shany Haziza of Israel’s Kan broadcasting authority came across the Nissim Shitrit case. She aired her findings on Israeli television in 2019 in the documentary Rav Hanistar (“The Hidden Rabbi”). The report, which shocked the nation, alleged that under orders from Berland, Nissim was kidnapped by two of Berland’s followers, Benjamin Ze’evi (son of a late government minister) and Baruch Sharvit. Taking Nissim to the thick forests outside of Beit Shemesh, the two allegedly met up with others from Shuvu Banim, who joined in mercilessly beating the teenager to death and burying him in the area. The documentary went on to allege that four years later, Berland ordered his followers to commit a second murder, also for “immodest behavior”—of haredi teacher Avi Edri, whose brutalized, lifeless body was found in the forests of Ramot.
Haziza’s documentary embarrassed Israeli police into dusting off these files. In December, both Ze’evi and Sharvit were indicted for Nissim’s murder. Berland, who had been serving his fraud sentence, was rearrested, but no additional charges have yet been brought. He was given early release in mid-December for medical reasons. In the Edri case, the person who allegedly drove the victim to the murder site is currently the elected mayor of a haredi township, and his name cannot be published because of a court order. He was taken into custody, only to be released on the grounds that he was a minor at the time and that the statute of limitations on kidnapping had now expired. He is now back in city hall conducting business as usual.
Like the child-abusing cult of Elior Chen, on which I based my novel Devil in Jerusalem, and the cult of Lev Tahor, here is one more frightening example of the horrifying results of Hasidic-like cults and the failure of the Israeli police and the justice system to provide adequate intervention and punishment. Israel would do well to examine why in this case, and many others involving rabbinical misconduct, authorities are often reluctant to get involved, perhaps hampered by their own religious beliefs, leaving black-clad psychopaths with long beards free to destroy more innocent lives.
Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright living in Zichron Yaakov, Israel.
Opening image: Nissim Shitrit, who disappeared in 1986. (Screenshot: Kan 11)
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