Friday, January 07, 2011

Leading rabbi domestically abused?

An absolutely bizarre story rumbling on in Jerusalem right now.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland is the elderly leader of the Shuvu Bonim community, affiliated with Braslav. Or at least, he was. It recently emerged that he had been held captive for 10 years (!) by his son and grandson, who controlled his every move, charged his followers exorbitant sums to visit him (presumably under their supervision), and took control of the institutions which Rabbi Berland supposedly headed.

A few weeks ago Rabbi Berland staged his own kidnapping and fled to the north, where he revealed to his closest followers the torment he had been through. The Jerusalem Post reported at the time:

“I was locked at home for 10 years,” he said. “They wanted to admit me to an insane asylum. Over the course of the last year, I’ve been admitted to hospitals every two weeks, because of the duress I was subject to,” he said.

The senior Berland said he’d return only on the condition that he would regain control over the community, and the security personnel surrounding him at his son and grandson’s demand be removed, thus enabling direct contact between him and his hassidim.
Why am I bringing this up now? Because the rabbi's attempts to re-take control of his community are encountering some resistance, led by his son, grandson and his own wife. In the last few days, the rabbi wrote a letter "firing" the followers he himself appointed to run the community. In an effort to prove that the rabbi is being mentally pressured by his wife, his followers bought into the public domain evidence: a "punishment note" written by the rabbi, repeating 200 times the line "I will not use the phone and cellphone without permission from my wife".

The note is here. If authentic, it is quite harrowing to look at - because it seems to be evidence of a horrible case of abuse of the elderly. And not only by his son and grandson (as one might have originally understood), but apparently by his own wife. If the facts are as presented, this seems to be domestic abuse - no less - and he needs help extricating himself from an abusive environment.

I do wonder though about his followers' behaviour. On the one hand you can read their determination to return him to his rightful place at the head of the community as an expression of love, devotion, and belief in the rabbi. On the other, it may just be part of their own power struggle, an opportunity to get rid of the rabbis' son and grandson, who are clearly nasty pieces of work. I particularly wonder at their decision to publicise the "punishment note", which may make their point, but seems disrespectful. Perhaps there are elements of both.

I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But the truth is that no matter how much they love him and want him back at their head, what Rabbi Berland needs right now cannot possibly be the responsibility and pressures of leadership. He needs to get away from his awful family. He needs to recover from abuse. He needs practical and emotional support and possibly therapy. I hope they can get him what he really needs, not what they need from him.

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