Johannesburg - As the Passover holiday gets under way, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein has urged South African rabbis to take in destitute followers of the Israeli rabbi who is hiding in South Africa.

Orthodox Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who has been on the run for more than a year, fled his country after several women accused him of sexual abuse.

He arrived in South Africa last week with about 200 followers, sparking a protest by the South African Jewish community in Sandringham, Joburg, on Sunday.

Although Goldstein originally sent a message warning colleagues against taking in Berland or his followers, he had a change of heart on Monday, according to an e-mail sent on behalf of Goldstein to The Star.

Many of the families who travelled with Berland were without food or shelter during the Passover holiday, Goldstein said.

“Given the dire circumstances, those who are able to help these destitute people over the course of Pesach should do so on the following condition: that after Pesach, the entire group of these followers must agree to return to Israel immediately,” he wrote.

But Berland himself should return to Israel immediately to face the criminal justice system there, Goldstein said.

He warned his colleagues it would be “untenable and unconscionable” to harbour a fugitive.

Goldstein wrote in his e-mail that his sentiments were decided in talks with the chief rabbi of Israel and Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag of the Johannesburg Beth Din, a Jewish ecclesiastical court.

Berland was recently spotted in Zimbabwe.

According to The Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper, Berland was accused of sexual abuse by a number of his female followers, including a 15-year-old girl.

Previously, Berland has hidden in the US, Switzerland and Morocco.

In Sandringham on Sunday, protest organiser Wendy Hendler said the SA Jewish Board of Deputies was in talks with several government departments to arrange for Berland to be deported.

Passover, which began on Monday night, will last until next Tuesday.

As soon as the holiday ends, Berland’s followers must return home immediately, Goldstein said.

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The Star