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Lev Tahor (Hebrew: לב טהור - pure heart) is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, headed by Shlomo Helbrans, known to follow an unusually austere form of Jewish practice in addition to being anti-Zionist. The group generally follows a strict version of halakha, or Orthodox Jewish law, in addition to its own unique practices, such as lengthy prayer sessions, arranged marriages between teenagers, and black, head-to-toe coverings for women. The group has moved frequently, with the majority of its members most recently being forced to leave in August 2014 from the Guatemala town San Juan La Laguna after fleeing trouble with government authorities in both the Provinces of Ontario, and Quebec, Canada.
While living in Brooklyn, Helbrans was convicted and served time in prison for kidnapping a boy. The boy had been sent to study with him in preparation for his Bar Mitzva but the boy was personally convinced to reject his family therefore he became intensely religious. Helbrans was released after serving two years, reportedly due to pressure from the local Hasidic community. He then ran a yeshiva in Monsey, New York and was eventually deported back to Israel. Soon afterwards he moved to Canada, which allowed him political asylum based on a refugee claim he had made, under Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, that he would be persecuted or killed by Israeli authorities for his anti-Zionist teachings and his teachings about the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Helbrans may have used false evidence to obtain refugee status, paying the kidnapped boy to testify on his behalf.
The group settled in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, but in November 2013, the members of the group without children (Quebec child-protection authorities had been seeking to place the children in the care of Jewish-Quebecer foster-care families) left Quebec for Chatham-Kent, in southwestern Ontario. Quebec authorities have 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 members of the group subsequently reconstituted in the tourist town San Juan La Laguna on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. The group had refused to send their children to local schools and 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".
Terminology and practices
According to Ontario Superior Court Judge Lynda Templeton, "The religious beliefs of the Lev Tahor include but are not limited to (a) a rejection of the concept of Zionism; (b) a belief that God is present in everything and controls everything; (c) a rejection of Darwinism because it is based on a concept of randomness and mutation that suggests a lack of direction by a higher power; and (d) an acceptance of science generally but an interpretation of scientific principles that accords with their religious beliefs".
The main requirement is ongoing, dedicated, worship and service to God. The community claims the way they live is within the boundaries of the halakha and Jewish tradition. They assert that their lifestyle is not new or different.
According to Judge 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".
Many of the community's customs are also practiced by other Hasidim, but far less stringently. In the Lev Tahor community, prayers are twice as long as the norm 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 more strict, limiting certain foods that their Haredi peers allow. Most of their food, including their bread and wine, is therefore homemade.
Lev Tahor believes that the state of Israel, as it now exists, has no spiritual validity. The group is sometimes called the "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, described the Lev Tahor saga as a "political issue". He added that the issue has been brought up within the Southwest Ontario Caucus, but noted those talks are confidential.
Child protection investigation
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In 2011, the Lev Tahor group came into conflict with the local school board with respect to the education of their children. The school board 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. The group unsuccessfully attempted to work with the school board to resolve their concerns. 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.
August 6, 2013 is the day the community calls "the raid". On that day, 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 old 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 February 3, 2014, an Ontarian judge decide to upheld the order of Quebec court to remove 13 children from the religious group Lev Tahor, but gave them 30 days to appeal the decision. On February 21, a Quebec court ruled the group did not have the right to appeal the previous ruling of Quebec court, because they failed to file the appeal within a 30-day period. In March 2014, the Canadian authorities sought to remove all 127 children from the care of the 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. A day later, 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, on March 8, 2014, six children of Lev Tahor from two families, their parents and another adult, were repatriated in Canada after fleeing to Trinidad and Tobago.
On March 9, 2014, a mother, not of age[clarification needed], with part of her family, tried to flee to Guatemala. She was arrested in [Calgary] and brought back to Ontario with her baby. On March 14, three adults and six children that 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 given the option to appeal and apply for a stay during the appeal process. On April 27, the young mother was reunited with her baby in foster care. Ten days later, on May 7, 2014, four other children were reunited with their parents.
- Global News TV has run a documentary on Lev Tahor, Feb 28, 2014.
- The TV programs 16 x 9 and The Fifth Estate have each covered hourlong documentaries on Lev Tahor, exposing their existence and way of life to the public.
- 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 Magazine ran an 8 page story about Lev Tahor in the Jan/Feb 2016 Issue.
- Chanel Israel 2 has run a documentary on Lev Tahor on October 2016.
Community response to media
Helbrans and the community say that all media coverage about them is unfair, and that reporters (both secular and religious newspapers) are quoting rumors and derogatory statements about them rather than attempting to learn the truth.
On September 2016, a committee called "The International Rescue Committee to save the Jewish families of Lev Tahor" was launched. The committee's board consists of Jewish and non-Jewish individuals. The website address is www.rescuecommittee.org
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- Jewish group Lev Tahor expelled from Guatemala sanctuary thestar.com Canada, August 29, 2014
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