|Regions with significant populations|
|Israel (1988–1990, 2000–2003), United States (1990–2000), Canada (2003–2014), Guatemala (2014), Mexico (2014–present)|
Lev Tahor (Hebrew: לֵב טָהוֹר, lit., "pure heart") is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect of approximately 200 members, which follows an austere form of Jewish practice. The group, founded by Shlomo Helbrans, follows a strict version of halakha, including its own unique practices such as lengthy prayer sessions, arranged marriages between teenagers, and black, head-to-toe coverings for females beginning at age three. The group has faced allegations of kidnapping, sexual abuse, and child abuse, and has been referred to as a cult.
The group has moved frequently, with the majority of its members most recently fleeing the Guatemalan town of San Juan La Laguna in August 2014, prior to which they had fled government child welfare agencies in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, Canada. As of 2017, members of Lev Tahor were living in Chiapas, Mexico.
The group was formed in the 1980s by Shlomo Helbrans, an Israeli citizen. Helbrans moved to the United States in the early 1990s, and settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While there, Helbrans was convicted and served time in prison for kidnapping a 13-year-old Israeli boy who was sent to study with him in preparation for the boy's Bar Mitzvah. Helbrans was released after serving two years, allegedly after receiving preferential treatment by the administration of New York governor George Pataki. He then ran a yeshiva in Monsey, New York, and was eventually deported back to Israel. Soon afterwards, Helbrans moved to Canada, where he received political asylum under Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, to which he claimed he was entitled due to perceived persecution by Israeli authorities for his anti-Zionist teachings. Helbrans may have used false evidence to obtain refugee status, paying the kidnapped boy to testify on his behalf.
Helbrans and his followers settled in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, but in November 2013, the members of the group with children left Quebec for Chatham-Kent, in southwestern Ontario, amid allegations of child neglect. Quebec child-protection authorities sought to place the children in the care of Jewish-Quebecer foster-care families, and had been taking steps to prevent the 127 children from leaving Canada.
On March 5, 2014, after the Ontario Superior Court of Justice effectuated a ruling of the Superior Court of Quebec as to the disposition of their children under Quebec child-protection law, nine members of the group, including six children, left for Trinidad and Tobago in an attempt to flee to Guatemala. They were returned to Canada days later. The six children were taken into foster care, four of them were later returned to the group, while the hearing for the other two children was scheduled for May 27, 2014. A majority of the group's members subsequently settled in the tourist town San Juan La Laguna on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. The group refused to send their children to local schools or participate in the community, according to a local resident. In August 2014, a group of elders of the indigenous population issued an edict stating that the group was not welcome to stay, citing a need to protect the local culture, which is protected under the Constitution of Guatemala. A spokesman for the indigenous council said, "We act in self-defence and to respect our rights as indigenous people".
In July 2017, Mexican media outlets reported that Helbrans had drowned in a river while participating in a ritual immersion. A Mexican Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that an official from the Israeli consulate in Mexico headed to the southern state of Chiapas to confirm the death and to identify Helbrans's body. Control of Lev Tahor was left in the hands of Helbrans' son Nachman. Nachman Helbrans and four other leaders of Lev Tahor were arrested in Mexico in December 2018 in a joint operation between Interpol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The community claims to live within the boundaries of the halakha and Jewish tradition, and asserts that their lifestyle is not new or unusual. In the Lev Tahor community, prayers are twice as long as is the norm among other Haredim, and adherents pronounce each word loudly, slowly, and with great emphasis. They have a strict diet that is based on the familiar laws of kashrut. However, their interpretation of these laws is much stricter, limiting certain foods that their Haredi peers allow. Most of their food, including their bread, is therefore homemade. The religious beliefs of the Lev Tahor include a rejection of Zionism. According to Ontario Superior Court Judge Lynda Templeton, the traditional way of life of members of the Lev Tahor community is not
"merely a matter of personal preference, but one of deep religious conviction, shared by an organized group, and intimately related to daily living... Religion is not simply a matter of theocratic belief, but pervades and determines their entire way of life, regulating it with detail through strictly enforced rules of the community... The adoption and practice of the Torah to the extent perceived by members of Lev Tahor as desirable or necessary in their daily lives include the type of clothing to be worn at all times; their food preparation and consumption; their language; their moral and social conduct; and their education. All members of Lev Tahor, regardless of age or gender, adhere to the practices and tenets of their faith-based beliefs."
Lev Tahor has been accused by its critics (including former followers, estranged families of followers, religious scholars, and law enforcement officials) of child abuse, brainwashing, drug use, and forced marriages of teenage girls to men as many as 20 years their senior. The group has been referred to as "Jewish Taliban" by the Israeli, Jewish, and international press.
In an interview with Blackburn Radio on March 31, 2014, Dave Van Kesteren, MP for Chatham-Kent—Essex, Ontario, described the Lev Tahor saga as a "political issue". He added that the issue had been brought up within the Southwest Ontario Caucus, but noted those talks were confidential.
Child protection investigation
In 2011, the Lev Tahor group came into conflict with the local school board, which took issue with the fact that the children of the group had not been registered in the local schools, and the children were not educated in accordance with the curriculum required by Quebec law. In April 2013, the leaders of the Lev Tahor community developed a contingency plan in the event that the authorities would initiate action and seek to apprehend the children. That August, 21 child services workers began knocking on doors. According to Denis Baraby, director of youth protection services in the area, they discovered some houses that were dirty, had 4-5 children sleeping in one bedroom, some mattresses soaked in urine, and children with fungus on their feet. They began weekly visits.
Quebec police issued search warrants in relation to allegations that members of Lev Tahor sect inflicted psychological and physical abuse on teenage girls. The abuses allegedly involved girls as young as 13 who were imprisoned in basements, and girls aged 14–15 who were married to older men in the group. One woman said she was struck with a belt and a coat hanger, and a pregnant 17-year-old girl said she was beaten by her brother, sexually abused by her father, and married by force to a 30-year-old man when she was 15. On November 27, 2013, a Quebec court ruled that 14 children of the group must be placed in foster care, and arrangements were made for the children to be placed in Yiddish-speaking foster homes. On February 21, a Quebec court ruled the group did not have the right to appeal the previous ruling of a Quebec court, because they failed to file the appeal within a 30-day period, and soon, Canadian authorities began to seek custody of children of Lev Tahor members.
On March 3, 2014, about 15 members of the group took a flight to Guatemala. A group of nine people was intercepted at Trinidad and Tobago. The following day, at least two adults and six children from the group arrived in Guatemala. On March 6, an Ontarian judge ordered that the 14 children of the two families that fled be placed in foster homes in Ontario, while they waited for the appeal to be heard in court. Two days later, six children of Lev Tahor from two families, their parents, and another adult, were repatriated in Canada after fleeing to Trinidad and Tobago. The following day, a mother less than 18 years old tried to flee to Guatemala with part of her family. She was arrested in Calgary and brought back to Ontario with her baby. On March 14, three adults and six children who fled to Guatemala appeared before a judge in Panajachel. The judge decided to leave the children with their family. On March 17, a judge in Guatemala ruled that six children who had fled would be allowed to remain in Guatemala, provided that they check in with the Canadian Embassy within three days. This requirement was later overturned on appeal on March 26, allowing the group to stay without conditions for up to three months.
On April 2, 2014, seven Lev Tahor members were arrested in a raid performed by Canadian border security. Three of those members were ordered to be deported to their native Israel, but were given the option to appeal and apply for a stay during the appeal process. On April 27, the young mother was re-united with her baby in foster care. Ten days later, four other children were re-united with their parents.
In December 2018, U.S. authorities charged a Brooklyn, New York, man with kidnapping two grandchildren of Shlomo Helbrans, whose mother had fled the community after she was ostracized for objecting to her 13-year-old daughter being married to an older man. An FBI agent stated in a court document that two children, a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy, were kidnapped from Woodridge, New York, and transported to Scranton, Pennsylvania. They were then flown to Mexico City, in the charge of Lev Tahor members.
Lev Tahor has been investigated in a number of documentaries:
- Israeli programme True Face ran a two-part documentary on Lev Tahor in November 2012.
- Global News ran a documentary on Lev Tahor in February 2014 as part of 16 x 9.
- The Fifth Estate covered Lev Tahor in an hour-long program.
- Mishpacha magazine has run a 15-page cover story on Lev Tahor.
- Ami magazine ran on its Passover 2014 edition a 32-page cover story on Lev Tahor.
- Foreign Policy ran an 8-page story about Lev Tahor in its January/February 2016 issue.
- Channel 2 in Israel ran a documentary on Lev Tahor in October 2016.
- Lev Tahor website[dead link]
- International Rescue Committee to Save the Families of the Lev Tahor Community[dead link]
- Fogelman, Shay (9 March 2012). "Lev Tahor: Pure as the driven snow, or hearts of darkness?". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 2014-05-17. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- Kroth, Maya (January 2016). "A Tale of the Pure at Heart". Foreign Policy (216): 58–65.
- "Lev Tahor". Cult Education Institute. Trenton, New Jersey. Archived from the original on 2016-04-09. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
- Kaplan Sommer, Allison (14 July 2017). "Young Boy From 'Jewish Taliban' Reveals Psychical, Sexual Abuse: 'Hell Is Real, I Live There'". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 2018-12-10. Retrieved 2018-12-10.
- Gross, Charles (8 December 2018). "Two Escapees From Lev Tahor Kidnapped in the Catskills on Shabbos". Yeshiva World News. Archived from the original on 2018-12-10. Retrieved 2018-12-10.
- Kroth, Maya (7 July 2018). "A year since leader's death, ultra-Orthodox 'cult' hibernates in Central America". The Times of Israel. Archived from the original on 2018-12-10. Retrieved 2018-12-10.
- Gonen, Yoav (19 December 2018). "Mom goes to war against father's Jewish 'cult' to protect her children". New York Post. Archived from the original on 2018-12-21. Retrieved 2018-12-20.
- Jewish group Lev Tahor expelled from Guatemala sanctuary Archived 2017-08-03 at the Wayback Machine thestar.com Canada, August 29, 2014
- Hamilton, Graeme (11 July 2017). "Drowning of Lev Tahor leader raises fears over ultra-Orthodox sect's future". The National Post. Montreal.
- Fried, Joseph P. (November 23, 1994). "Rabbi Given Prison Term in Kidnapping of Teen-Ager". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- Greenberg, Eric J. (1 May 1998). "Pataki's Con-Tacts?". The Jewish Week. Archived from the original on 2013-12-03. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- Powell, Michael (12 June 2012). "Charles Hynes Appeared to Block 1994 Kidnapping Case". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 March 2014.
- Fionda, Francesca; Rowney, Megan (17 July 2014). "Under the veil of Lev Tahor, Jewish sect accused of abuse". 16 x 9. Global News.
- "Documentary: Lev Tahor leader lied in refugee application to Canada". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 2 March 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-07-25. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Rabbi of the Pure Hearts: Inside Lev Tahor". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 28 February 2014. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Quebec officials want to prevent remaining Lev Tahor children from leaving Canada". CTV Windsor. 7 March 2014. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- Jewish Telegraphic Agency (9 March 2014). "Fleeing Lev Tahor sect members returned to Canada". Archived from the original on 2014-03-13. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Lev Tahor family reunited with 4 children in foster care". Sun News Network. 7 May 2014. Archived from the original on 19 May 2014. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- Cosgrove, Richard (31 August 2014). "Orthodox Jewish Community Leaves Guatemala Village". Archived from the original on 2018-05-06. Retrieved 2018-05-06.
- "Leader of ultra-Orthodox sect 'Lev Tahor' reportedly drowns in Mexico". Archived from the original on 2018-05-06. Retrieved 2018-05-06.
- Sommer, Allison Kaplan (10 July 2017). "Analysis: Will the 'Jewish Taliban' Survive the Death of Their Spiritual Leader?". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 2017-07-10. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- Bollag, Uri (20 December 2018). "Five 'Lev Tahor' Leaders Arrested in FBI Raid in Mexico". The Jerusalem Post. Archived from the original on 2018-12-21. Retrieved 2018-12-20.
- Oster, Marcy (20 December 2018). "Five leaders of extreme Jewish religious sect Lev Tahor arrested in Mexico". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Archived from the original on 2018-12-21. Retrieved 2018-12-20.
- "Chatham-Kent Children's Services v. J.S., 2014 ONSC 2352". CanLII. 14 April 2014. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- Fogelman, Shay (16 March 2012). "'When You're on the Path of Truth, You Don't Care What Others Say'". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 2018-12-11. Retrieved 2018-12-10.
- "Fleeing 'Jewish Taliban' Sect Members Sent Back to Canada". Haaretz. 10 March 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-06-25. Retrieved 2014-08-29.
- Marcus, Lori Lowenthal. "'Jewish Taliban' Ordered to Return to Quebec". Archived from the original on 2015-03-25. Retrieved 2014-08-29.
- "Secretive sect, referred to as the 'Jewish Taliban', flees Quebec for Ontario amid child neglect investigation". 23 November 2013. Archived from the original on 2014-09-06. Retrieved 2014-08-29.
- Mezzofiore, Gianluca (17 February 2014). "'Jewish Taliban' Lev Tahor Sect who Kept Girls in Basement Charged with Sexual Abuse". Archived from the original on 2015-02-04. Retrieved 2014-08-29.
- Patis, Ashton (31 March 2014). "Lev Tahor: A Political Issue". Blackburn News. Archived from the original on 2014-05-20. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Full Episode: Lev Tahor". Global News. 22 February 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-05-31. Retrieved 29 May 2014 – via YouTube.
- "Lev Tahor". Top Documentary Films. February 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-05-31. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Lev Tahor : six arrestations en Ontario" [Lev Tahor: Six Arrests in Ontario]. Radio-Canada (in French). 2 April 2014. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Lev Tahor sect denied right to appeal child-removal order". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 21 February 2014. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Canadian authorities to seek custody of 127 'Jewish Taliban' children". Haaretz. 7 March 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-05-12. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Lev Tahor members may remain in Guatemala, judge rules". Haaretz. 18 March 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-05-17. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Lev Tahor members in Guatemala can stay up to 3 months". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 26 March 2014. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "7 Lev Tahor sect members arrested in raid". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 2 April 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-04-08. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Lev Tahor members ordered deported to Israel". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 6 April 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-04-10. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- "Lev Tahor Mother Reunited with Infant". CTV Windsor. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
- Brean, Joseph (28 December 2018). "Brooklyn man charged after grandchildren of late Lev Tahor founder kidnapped to Mexico". National Post.
- "Lev Tahor". True Face. November 2012. Archived from the original on 2015-07-26. Retrieved 9 May 2018 – via YouTube.