From HaAretz – To read the entire article click here.
New True Crime Show Explores ‘Insane’ Story of a Prominent Rabbi, Sexual Assault and a Missing Teen
‘It’s a story you hear and dismiss as an urban legend at first,’ says creator of Israeli docu series delving into the world of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who served prison time for sexual assault
On the night of January 23, 1986, a 17-year-old yeshiva student disappeared in Jerusalem. Nissim Shitrit was last seen in the area of an ultra-Orthodox community in the Jerusalem Hills. Four months earlier, members of a so-called modesty patrol came to the yeshiva where Shitrit was enrolled. Disguised as yeshiva students, they told the teenager that two well-known rabbis wanted to speak to him about his future. Shitrit went with them to the beach. They began to beat him up, but stopped when a police van drove by.
Shitrit filed a complaint with the police about the attack, telling investigators that his assailants had identified themselves as members of a modesty patrol who told him they came to teach him a lesson for having dared to go out with girls. In his statement, he added that one of his attackers was Shmuel Habany, a known follower of Rabbi Eliezer Berland and a member of the rabbi’s Shuvu Banim Hasidic community in Jerusalem. Habany was arrested, but released after denying a connection to the incident.
Members of Berland’s community are people who became religiously observant and are not wanted in their secular home but also are not welcomed in the Haredi community, which often sees them as unmarriageable. To what extent did that situation allow Berland to wield control over consciousness of his followers?
“It’s easier to take these people, who are tabula rasa in terms of religion, and to tell them things that they’ll consider to be absolute truths. From there it’s easier to also arrive at extremism. Often they actually choose a new identity for themselves, changing their names. With Berland there was also this extremism surrounding the laws of modesty, until at the end he was convicted of sex crimes. I think Berland has obsessions surrounding sexual control, and that’s where all the insanity came from. There are testimonies I was exposed to from additional women who didn’t go to court but testified before a rabbinical tribunal.”
In the movie and beyond, Berland is portrayed as a dangerous man with great influence over his followers. Perhaps law enforcement isn’t dealing with him and his sect in a reasonable manner, even when he preaches violence.
“I can’t understand it. After all he is a spiritual authority who has great influence. It’s like a riddle. I don’t know why and how it happens. I don’t have answers. To come and say that maybe there’s someone in the police who wants to protect Berland? I find that hard to believe. He is a powerful man with connections to a lot of people, including people from the underworld, who are considered his followers.”
Do you think there’s a connection between underworld figures and the fact that the police seem to be lenient toward him?
“If there is, that would be frightening.”
During your research, did you consider whether there are figures in the police who are protecting Berland at some level?
“There’s a young woman who filed a police complaint against Berland for sexual harassment. A woman I know accompanied her. I know that a few hours after the complaint was submitted, Berland was already at Ben-Gurion International Airport and he left on a trip that lasted three years, until he was extradited [here]. People who left Shuvu Banim told me a few times that they had lost their faith in the police because of the way they were treated. There were so many things that Berland did and said, ostensibly including calls to murder someone, and you don’t understand how he wasn’t arrested.”
In the wake of your movie’s findings, the police have launched a new investigation into the disappearance of Nissim Shitrit. Do you believe that this time they will investigate the case with the seriousness that it deserves?
“I shall be very disappointed if the case of Nissim and of Avi Edri is not reopened,” Haziza said, referring to a different unsolved murder, carried out in the Jerusalem Hills in 1990 and attributed to the modesty patrols.“If at the end of the new investigation there are no answers, it will surprise and disappoint me very much.”
It’s possible that you’ll be called in and asked about findings in the case. What will happen if you’re asked to testify in a way that involves reporter’s privilege – the protection of confidential sources?
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