The leader of a powerful Chasidic sect in Jerusalem has been accused of extorting money from the families of terminally ill patients in exchange for a rabbinical blessing.
Rabbi Eliezer Berland, 81, who heads the Shuvu Banim sect of Breslov Chasidim in Jerusalem, allegedly offered his services in exchange for 20,000 shekels (£4,250) to the relatives of patients in a vegetative state in Israeli hospitals.
He previously served jail time after being convicted of indecent acts and assault.
During the hospital visits, which were recorded on security cameras and obtained by Israel’s Channel 12, Rabbi Berland is heard demanding the money for pidyon nefesh (“redemption of the soul”).
In their desperation, some families reportedly accepted.
His representatives have denied the allegations, but videos have previously been published of him online blessing patients alongside a phone number to call.
Rabbi Berland fled Israel in 2012 after police began investigating accusations that he sexually assaulting women in the Shuvu Banim Sect.
After spending several years on the run in Morocco, Zimbabwe, the Netherlands and South Africam he was finally extradited in 2016 to Israel, where he convicted on two counts of indecent acts and one of assault and sentenced to eighteen months in prison.
But the sentence was cut short after only six months because Rabbi Breslov was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Some Breslov sect rabbis signed petitions calling for his followers to shun him, but other Strictly Orthodox have continued to back him.
Despite his diagnosis, Rabbi Berland still retains thousands of followers and remains influential in Charedi politics.
In 2017, he was visited in prison by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.
Since his release, he has held meetings with United Torah Judaism’s Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush and senior representatives of Shas, including Rabbi Shimon Baadani, a member of its Council of Torah Sages.
In the recent local elections in Jerusalem, Rabbi Berland openly supported Moshe Leon, the candidate of Shas and Degel Ha’Torah, who went on to win in the second round.
Following the Channel 12 revelations, the Health Ministry said the promises and payments were a matter for the police.
Yaakov Litzman, the deputy minister, denied having any knowledge of them and said it was the hospitals managements duty to report them.
Rabbi Berland’s representatives said “it is well known that tzedakah can save from death and people pledge to give tzedakah”, but denied he asked for money from what they said were “hundreds and thousands who have been saved by the rabbis’ blessings.”