“An Israeli judge rules the Lev Tahor community of ultra-Orthodox Jews who live in the Guatemalan jungle are a ‘dangerous cult.’ …‘Based on the conduct of the sect toward minors, it’s sufficient to call this group a dangerous cult that severely damages the physical and emotional well-being of the children of this community,’ Judge Rivka Makayes of the Petah Tikva Magistrate’s Court says in her ruling. The ruling comes in response to a petition filed to the court by the attorney general and several family members of sect members. … Its [Lev Tahor’s] adherents do not believe the State of Israel to be religiously legitimate. The 500-strong sect has left Israel, Canada and the United States in recent years amid child abuse allegations.” (The Times of Israel, 04/25/17) [8.3]
Shlomo Helbrans, Lev Tahor cult leader, drowns in river
“According to multiple media reports, Shlomo Helbrans, the leader of the Lev Tahor cult, drowned on Friday in Mexico … after he was swept away by high currents…” as he was toiviling [the process of immersing dishes in a ritual bath so they can be used in a kosher kitchen]. “He was 55. … About three and a half years ago, Canadian authorities blocked the group from transferring underage members to Guatemala after Canadian courts issued a decree requiring some children to be transferred to foster families after being found to have been severely abused. … In September 2016, at the request of Israeli authorities, Guatemalan law enforcement raided the Lev Tahor compound and arrested its leaders on suspicion of child abuse. The raid prompted its members to leave the site to a new location in eastern Guatemala, and [to] complain that they were being persecuted due to their faith. … The high-profile case drew much attention in the U.S., and gained further attention when Helbrans successfully convinced New York prison authorities to waive their requirement that all prisoners be shaved for a photograph upon entering prison, and to accept a computer-generated image of what he [Helbrans] would have looked like clean-shaven instead. After the State Parole Board decided in November 1996 to release Helbrans after two years in prison, the case rose to near scandal with suspicions that the Pataki administration was providing him special treatment.” (Yeshiva World News, 07/08/17) [8.3]
Ultra-orthodox Lev Tahor raided in Guatemala over suspected child abuse
“According to local media reports, the raid lasted several hours at the homes where a 200-odd strong community live. Authorities in Guatemala raided the homes of a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Guatemala City on Wednesday amid accusations of child abuse. The same Lev Tahor community have been forced to abandon Israel, the United States, and Canada, where the Lev Tahor group’s strict religious ways had clashed with authorities in those countries… An unidentified member of the Lev Tahor community dismissed the allegations and said the Lev Tahor were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. He also said they rejected the state of Israel because it views the Jews as a people in exile. ‘It’s a disgrace that authorities here in Guatemala let the government of Israel in (he means that the government of Israel is persecuting them) just like the Poles who sold their people to the Germans, such as the Hungarians and all those countries who sold their people to people who want to persecute others,’ said the bearded man, who like other men in the Lev Tahor, which means ‘Pure Heart’ in Hebrew, has his head shaved and wears sidelocks beneath a black hat. Eschewing technological trappings such as television and computers, daily life among the Lev Tahor, whose women wear body cloaks similar to a burqa, is steeped in religion.” (Jerusalem Post Israel News, Reuters, 09/15/16 [IT 8.1]
Lev Tahor Raid in Guatemala Yields No New Evidence
“For Uriel Goldman, it’s deja vu all over again. Just as had been the case in Canada, Lev Tahor, the ultra-observant Orthodox sect has been the subject of intense scrutiny in Guatemala by police and child care workers. And just as had been the case in Canada, investigation of the community has failed to turn up any evidence of child abuse or of any sort of law-breaking. Goldman, a spokesperson for the group, said … that Guatemalan police raided two adjacent apartment buildings on the outskirts of Guatemala City, where the 350-member community resided… Goldman, a native of Israel, suggested the ‘very secular’ Israeli sister of one Lev Tahor member is behind many of the allegations… The Guatemala raid was the latest result of allegations stemming from Israel, Goldman suggested.” (Canadian Jewish News, 10/05/16) [IT 8.1]
Report:Lev Tahor children’s best interests not respected by public system
A QuebecHuman Rights Commission report concluded that youth-protection officials tookfar too long to intervene on behalf of 127 children in the Lev Tahor community in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts. In November 2013, about250 members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect fled from Quebec to avoid ahearing in youth court concerning allegations of child abuse and neglect.Charges included corporal punishment in school, underage marriage, sexual abuseof minors and squalid living conditions.
It took17 months for youth protection officials to seize the children, and 15 monthsto get proper schooling for the children in the community, whose education hadbeen strictly religious and who spoke neither English nor French. The presidentof the human rights commission, however, acknowledged that even quick actionmight not have been able to prevent the group’s flight.
The LevTahor members left for Chatham-Kent. There, Ontario courts ruled against aQuebec court order to place 14 of the children in foster care. Child servicesin Chatham-Kent also refused an order to remove all 127 children from thecommunity. The report recommended that Quebec act swiftly to come to anagreement with Ontario so that youth court cases can be applied in thatprovince, as well. The report also recommended that the province develop aguide for best clinical and administrative practices for youth-protectioninterventions within sects or “closed communities,” and that the guide bewidely distributed to all those involved. (Montreal Gazette,7/9/15) [IT 6.3 2015]
Human-Rights Commission to Study Handling of Lev Tahor Case
The Quebec Human Rights Commission will study what went wrong in the case of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor last November after approximately two hundred members fled the Laurentians town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts and relocated in the Ontario city of Chatham-Kent to avoid a hearing in Quebec’s youth court. Sect members had been due in court to respond to allegations of child abuse and neglect made by Quebec’s Department of Youth Protection.
After several hearings, the Ontario courts have ruled it would not be in the best interests of the children to execute a youth-court order to return 14 children to the province and place them in foster care. Chatham-Kent’s Children’s Services has also refused to execute a still-outstanding warrant the Quebec court also issued in November to remove all 127 children from the community.
The commission will examine whether police, youth-protection officials, the school board, the health sector, and the legal system in Quebec had the proper tools to deal with the situation, and if they used them properly. “We’re not going to make a judgment about the Lev Tahor intervention, but rather to examine whether we’re well-equipped” to deal with youth-protection cases as they relate to sects and different cultures, said Camil Picard, the commission’s vice-president who deals with youth-protection matters. “The commission has to assure that all young people in Quebec in all communities see their rights respected. We want to know that the actors have what they need to intervene in assuring children’s rights are protected.” He added that the study, to be completed by the end of the year, will rely on testimony from police officers, officials at the department of youth protection, and their counterparts in Ontario. The study also will look into other high-profile cases, such as the murder of four members of the Montreal-based Shafia family by their parents and brother in 2009. (The Gazette, 5/14/14) [IT 5.3]
The radical Jewish group Lev Tahor, led by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, allegedly exerts strict control over members’ liberty and finances while raising children in wretched conditions. According to financial filings, the group accumulated more than six million dollars in assets while operating as a charitable organization based in a secluded community in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, north of Montreal. Lev Tahor says it receives donations from its own charities and from supporters in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel. An Israeli source says community members survive mainly on government welfare payments that are given to the leadership, which then rations it among the forty or so resident families.
Fourteen children from two families who fled Lev Tahor in November 2013 were ordered into foster care after child-welfare workers found evidence of neglect, poor hygiene, and psychological abuse during visits to the community. Arnold Markowitz, a social worker and psychotherapist with New York’s Jewish Board of Family and Children’s services, says Lev Tahor members come from the orthodox Jewish community. (Toronto Star, 12/7/13) [IT 5.2]
Leaders and members of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community Lev Tahor continue to deny allegations of child abuse after members left Quebec in advance of the court hearing in November 2013 that resulted in the temporary removal of 14 children from the community. Lev Tahor continues to rebuild in Chatham, Ontario. In February, an Ontario court upheld the Quebec ruling for the temporary removal of 13 of the 14 children from the sect. Lev Tahor plans to appeal the decision. If that appeal fails, one of the leaders, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, says members are prepared to leave Canada to protect their way of life. Lev Tahor’s particular interpretation of Judaism permeates every aspect of their lives, from their diet to their Yiddish language. Curriculum for both boys and girls focuses on religious scripture and Jewish law; girls also study some math and English, and learn household management skills. “We try to learn practical things, what they can use in life. We also had a class of sewing, a class of cooking.” Lev Tahor is similar to other ultra-orthodox groups in some ways, but orthodox Rabbi Reuben Poupko believes the group takes things to an extreme and displays strong cult-like tendencies. Members argue they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs, and leader Uriel Goldman says accusations that the group is a cult are “ridiculous.”
Denis Baraby with Quebec’s Youth Protection has concerns about the group beyond education. “We discovered houses that were dirty, garbage all around. The children, they slept 4 or 5 in each bedroom, some [on] mattresses that were full of urine.” He and his organization say the children were growing up in extreme isolation, and most had no toys or the chance to play.
Concerns over the Lev Tahor allegations have sparked debate in Israel, where the group has been highly criticized (Lev Tahor believes the Torah prohibits the existence of a Jewish State). The Knesset (Israel’s legislature) is holding hearings into Lev Tahor, while family members urge their members of Parliament in Quebec to work with Canadian officials to intervene. Israeli families say their loved ones have been brainwashed into joining Lev Tahor and are unable to escape.
Fearing a backlash from Lev Tahor, former members interviewed by Global News’ 16×9 refused to go on camera with their comments. (Global News, 2/20/2014) [IT 5.2]
An investigation by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s (CBC’s) the fifth estate raises concerns with the refugee claim of Lev Tahor’s Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, including worries with the testimony of a former member and an allegation that testimony from a former kidnapping victim, Shai Fima, was bought for $5,000.
The decision to grant refugee status to Helbrans, leader of the controversial ultraorthodox sect, was based in part on testimony the sect paid for, according to what Fima told investigators. In the investigative report, the boy says he was paid $5,000 in 2003 to appear on the videotape, in which he denied he had been kidnapped and said the leader was being unfairly persecuted. The 2003 video was part of Helbrans’ successful refugee application that claimed he was being targeted in Israel for his anti-Zionist beliefs. Fima, who did not want to appear on camera, now says it was a lie and that he was indeed kidnapped.
The documentary supports other allegations reported previously that include “underage marriage, the use of physical discipline, and forced medication,” which Quebec social workers also have detailed in court. (Toronto Star, 2/28/14) [IT 5.2]
On March 8, six of the 14 children included in the 2013 Ontario, Canada court order (upheld in February) for removal to foster care from the controversial Lev Tahor sect to foster care were apprehended peacefully from a hotel on the outskirts of Panajachel, Guatemala. In this latest action, the children and their parents were taken to a court in Panajachel for a hearing with a Guatemala judge. An official from the country’s attorney general’s office said it is up to Canada to file the appropriate paperwork for the children’s return.
In early March, three adults and six children from the sect had fled to Trinidad and Tobago, while a second group travelled to Guatemala. The February ruling in which a Provincial Court judge upheld the Ontario court order had prompted the latest departure of those members, who were under strict conditions not to leave the Chatham Kent area.
Yoil Weingarten, a member of the Jewish sect who travelled with the family from Canada, expressed sadness at the fact that police apprehended the family on Friday evening, the beginning of Sabbath, a sacred day in the Jewish faith. And the father of the children also spoke to the Toronto Star, requesting ”…please that you close the case.”
Mayer Rosner, one of the directors of the Lev Tahor community, says he had been in frequent contact with the members since they fled to Guatemala and described them as “calm” when police arrived, saying they were not surprised when the authorities showed up at their hotel. He added the group had not been trying to avoid police since landing in the country. “They have nothing to hide,” he said.
A source in Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the group had applied for refugee status. Officials at the Ministry of Immigration said they had no record of the application, but if there was one it would be confidential. Weingarten refused to talk about any matters related to the group’s immigration status in Guatemala and did not confirm or deny the refugee application. (Toronto Star, 3/14/14) [IT 5.2]
Superior Court judge Lynda Templeton has ruled that Judge Stephen Fuerth erred in his original February 3, 2014, decision to uphold a Quebec court order requiring 14 Lev Tahor children to leave Ontario and return to Quebec. Judge Templeton directed the Ontario Court of Justice to address the question of what will happen with the seven children, who are currently in foster care as the result of an impromptu flight that saw some of the 14 children removed from the country ahead of the first appeal hearing. Eight of those children were apprehended and seven were placed in foster care with Jewish families in Toronto.
The Ontario Court of Justice is the court with the jurisdiction to decide whether they should remain in foster care. The court has already ordered 8 hours of weekly visits by the parents of the children and directed Chatham-Kent Children’s Services to pay a portion of the travel costs.
Guidy Mamann, lawyer for the group, says the orders apply to all children in the sect. It’s unclear if, or when, they will be brought before an Ontario court. The appeal decision instructs Chatham-Kent Children’s Services to continue investigating the community, which it has been doing since the group’s arrival in November. (Toronto Star, 4/14/14) [IT 5.2]