(photo credit: JTA)
Fugitive Israeli ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Eliezer Berland may be in hiding in South Africa, several Jewish news websites have reported.
The 78-year-old, who is wanted in Israel on charges of child molestation, had last been in South Africa in early 2014.
A member of an offshoot of the Breslov hassidic sect, he left Israel after several women, including a 15-year-old girl, complained that he had sexually abused them.
Last year, he was arrested in Amsterdam due to an international warrant against him.
While the Netherlands’s top court in June ruled in favor of Berland’s extradition to Israel, he apparently fled before it could be carried out.
Prior to arriving in the Netherlands, Berland’s travels took him to Miami, Zurich, Morocco, Zimbabwe and South Africa, all the while accompanied by a small coterie of dedicated followers. His exit from Morocco was the result of a government-ordered deportation.
According to reports, King Mohammed VI personally ordered him kicked out of the country in November 2013, after reading the accusations against him in a local newspaper.
Zimbabwe’s Chronicle newspaper reported that Berland, whom it described as a “megarich cleric,” then flew into the country on the private jet of a supporter and was living in one of the country’s more expensive hotels, together with “dozens” of followers. He was questioned by local police in April 2014, before also being forced out. When the group arrived in South Africa after Berland’s deportation from Zimbabwe, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein sent an email to his colleagues throughout the country, warning them not to provide any assistance to the group.
According to the Yeshiva World News, Berland has returned to South Africa and his followers are currently working to set up their own Jewish school, separate from that of the local Jewish community.
According to the South African Jewish Report, “The elusive rabbi is said to have quietly returned to South Africa with several hundred followers and supposedly with a custom- built compound which can accommodate many hundreds more.”
Around two hundred such followers are currently in South Africa, the local newspaper continued, citing “local rabbis” who have said that some of their congregants have begun praying with the hassidim.