Shlomo Erez Helbrans (born in 1962 as Erez Shlomo Elbarnes) is an Anti-Zionist, the leader of the Lev Tahor community, convicted in the United States for kidnapping, and designated as a refugee in Canada.
Originally having established his community in Israel, which he claims to have modeled after the Satmar Hasidic movement, he and his non-Zionist community went to the United States where he was convicted for kidnapping in 1994, and served a two-year prison term. During this time he was accused by several former community members of child abuse, serving medicine and psychological pills and using various punishments on the people in the community. He was deported to Israel, and then fled to Canada receiving the status of a refugee. His community settled in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, for 12 years. In November 2013, amid clashes with the education authorities most members of the group (claiming religious persecution) left for Ontario.
A native of Jerusalem′s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood. He was born to Pinchas and Yocheved Elbarnes, secular Jews. Around his 13th birthday he became a religious boy and then studied at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
In 1988 he was part of the 'Arachim' movement, who preach and advocate Jewish religious studies for secular Jews. After several years, he established an independent Yeshiva named Lev Tahor.
In 1990 Helbrans moved his community to the United States, which he claims was due to his anti Zionist views, and opened a small Lev Tahor yeshiva in Brooklyn where he gave Jewish study lessons to young students.
In 1994 he was accused that due to religious conflict he had assisted a 13 year-old child named Shay Fima (or Shay Reuven) to go into hiding from his mother, a secular woman, who had brought him to study at the yeshiva for his Bar Mitzva, and who later had become emotionally and religiously attached to the Rabbi. Helbrans denied any involvement. He was arrested, but released due to political reasons, with the district attorney wishing not to clash with the Ultra Orthodox community of New York before the elections. Two years later he was arrested again, after being implicated during a wired interview with the father, in cooperation with the FBI. During the trial, Shay Fima Reuven took the stand as a witness, described his running and hiding, and completely denied the involvement of Helbrans, but rather claimed that he had ran from his mother who beat him. Halberance was found guilty, convicted and imprisoned for two years. He was originally sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, but in June 1996 an appeals court, while not accepting his innocence, reduced the sentence to two to six years due to good faith. Three days later, he was placed in the work release program. After protests, since Helbrans lost his permanent resident status and was not allowed to work in the US, he was moved back to prison until the end of his two years term.
Accusations of child abuse and other atrocities committed inside his community with cult-like features, were prevalent in the media dealing with the story. The high-profile case drew much attention in Israel and 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, a violation of strict Jewish law in his opinion, and to accept a computer-generated image of what he would have looked like clean-shaven instead.
In November 1996, following the State Parole Board decision 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.
After his release from prison, Helbrans ran a yeshiva in Monsey, New York, and following the loss of status, was deported to Israel in 2000, where he was to be sentenced for various accusations by people whose family members had joined the sect.
He fled to Canada, where in 2003 he was granted refugee status, claiming that he will be persecuted in Israel due to his religious political beliefs. Some members of his community fled to Guatemala.
Helbrans' community, Lev Tahor, is considered extreme by other Jewish groups. In Israel, it is nicknamed “Jewish Taliban” and “the Taliban sect.” The group has followers in Israel, particularly in the city of Bet Shemesh, in Europe, in the U.S, in Canada and in Guatemala.
Another convicted rabbi, Eliur Chen, had found refuge in the Lev Tahor community while fleeing the authorities.
During November 2013, Quebec authorities summoned Lev Tehor members to court on allegations that their homeschooling was not compliant with Quebec's education standards. The community also court case calling them to release the 14 children of one of Halberans' sons from the community, after he had previously left the sect. A few days later, community members fled to Ontario, settling in the municipality of Chatham-Kent. On November 27, 2013, a youth court judge in Quebec ordered that 14 children from the sect be placed temporarily in foster care, undergo medical exams and receive psychological support. The hearing, in the St. Jérôme courthouse, took place in the absence of the Lev Tahor parents. The families sent a lawyer instead. The order was not immediately enforced because the parents, one of which was Helbrans' son who had previously left the sect, were residents of Ontario, triggering a long legal battle. However on February 3, 2014, an Ontario Judge decided to send back the 14 children to Quebec. While pending an appeal, the parents and children left Canada to Guatemala and other locations. Some were returned, triggering another legal battle, still pending.
- Oz Rosenberg (5 October 2011). "Court to rule on legality of Israeli ultra-Orthodox 'Taliban sect'". Haaretz. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
- Rabbi of the pure hearts Inside Lev Tahor, CBC documentary.
- Joseph P. Fried (23 November 1994). "Rabbi Given Prison Term In Kidnapping Of Teen-Ager". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
- Eric J. Greenberg (1 May 1998). "Pataki’s Con-Tacts?". The Jewish Week. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
- Clifford J. Levy (26 April 1998). "U.S. Asks Whether Leniency for Rabbi Had Link to a Pataki Backer". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
- George James (29 December 2004). "Computer Replaces Razor For Rabbi's Prison Picture". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
- "Rabbi Is Deported 5 Years After Conviction, Lawyer Says". The New York Times. 12 May 2000. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
- Sheldon Gordon (3 September 2004). "Convicted of Kidnapping, Rabbi Faces Deportation". The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
- Part II of Haaretz documentary article about Lev Tahor (Haaretz newspaper)
- Benjamin Shingler (24 November 2013). "Authorities monitor Jewish sect under investigation for alleged child neglect". The Gazette. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
- "Judge orders 14 Lev Tahor children placed in foster care". Canada MSN News date=27 November 2013. Retrieved 27 November 2013.
- Under the veil of Lev Tahor: Jewish sect accused of abuse (Canadian Global News website)
- Articles about the kidnapping trial in The New York Times
- Stephen J. Dubner, The Vanishing. New York Magazine
- Jacob Zick and Dr. Bernard Fryshman, Is justice and liberty for all? offering different approach about Rabbi Helbrans' conviction.
- Shay Fogelman, Article about Lev Tahor and Shlomo Helbrans: Part I: Pure as the driven snow, or hearts of darkness? 9 March 2012
Part II: When you’re on the path of truth, you don’t care what others say. 16 March 2012. Haaretz.
- Hannah Katsman, What Lev Tahor admits? December 18, 2013. The Times of Israel.