Erez Shlomo Elbarnes
5 November 1962
|Died||7 July 2017 (aged 54)|
|Parents||Pinhas and Yocheved Elbarnes|
Originally having established his community in Israel, which he claimed to have modeled after the Satmar Hasidic movement, Helbrans moved his non-Zionist community to the United States, where he was convicted in 1994 for kidnapping, for which he served two years in prison. During this time he was accused by a few former community members of child abuse, serving medicine and psychological pills, and using various punishments on his followers. He was deported back to Israel, but in 2001 he fled to Canada, where he reestablished his community in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, applying for and attaining refugee status for himself two years later. In November 2013, amid clashes with the education authorities, most members of the group left for Ontario, again claiming religious persecution.
A native of Jerusalem′s Kiryat HaYovel neighborhood, Helbrans was born as Erez Shlomo Elbarnes to Pinhas and Yocheved Elbarnes, secular Jews. Around his 13th birthday he became religious, 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 claimed 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, Helbrans was accused of assisting a 13-year-old boy 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. The subsequent religious conflict that ensued led to Fima's becoming emotionally attached to Helbrans, who denied any involvement in the boy's disappearance. He was arrested but released, allegedly 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 Federal Bureau of Investigation. 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 run from his mother who beat him. Helbrans 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 a work release program. After protests, since Rabbi 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-year 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. Following the loss of status in 2000[further explanation needed] Helbrans was deported to Israel, where he was to be sentenced for various accusations by people whose family members had joined the community Lev Tahor.
Helbrans subsequently fled to Canada, where in 2003 he was granted refugee status, claiming that he would be persecuted in Israel due to his religious and political beliefs. Some members of his community fled to Guatemala.
Helbrans' 200-person community, Lev Tahor, is considered extreme and radical 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 addition to Europe, the U.S., Canada, and 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 Tahor members to court on allegations that their homeschooling was not compliant with Quebec's education standards. The court case also called for the community to release the 14 children of one of Helbrans' sons due to his previously having left the community. 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 community 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, who sent a lawyer instead. The order was not immediately enforced because the parents, one of whom was Helbrans' son who had previously left the community, 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.
On Friday July 7, 2017, Helbrans was found drowned in a river in the Mexican state of Chiapas. His body was pulled from the river by rescue forces on Friday afternoon after he was swept away by strong currents while performing the Mikve Mitzva before Shabbat. He was 54 years old.
- "Shlomo Helbrans, Lev Tahor Cult Leader Drowns In River While 'Toiveling' On Friday - Yeshiva World News". Yeshiva World News. 2017-07-08. Archived from the original on 2017-08-06. Retrieved 2017-07-09.
- "Ultra-Orthodox cult leader drowns in Mexico". Ynetnews. Archived from the original on 2017-07-08. Retrieved 2017-07-09.
- Oz Rosenberg (5 October 2011). "Court to rule on legality of Israeli ultra-Orthodox 'Taliban sect'". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 2011-10-07. 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. Archived from the original on 2013-12-03. 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. Archived from the original on 2012-08-17. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
- "Rabbi Is Deported 5 Years After Conviction, Lawyer Says". The New York Times. 12 May 2000. Archived from the original on 2014-04-08. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
- Sheldon Gordon (3 September 2004). "Convicted of Kidnapping, Rabbi Faces Deportation". The Jewish Daily Forward. Archived from the original on 2011-08-07. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-09-02. Retrieved 2014-08-30.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- Part II of Haaretz documentary article about Lev Tahor Archived 2012-03-29 at the Wayback Machine (Haaretz newspaper)
- Benjamin Shingler (24 November 2013). "Authorities monitor Jewish sect under investigation for alleged child neglect". The Gazette. Archived from the original on 2013-12-02. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
- "Judge orders 14 Lev Tahor children placed in foster care". Canada MSN News. 27 November 2013. Archived from the original on 2013-12-03. Retrieved 27 November 2013.
- Under the veil of Lev Tahor: Jewish sect accused of abuse (Canadian Global News website)
- "Ultra-Orthodox cult leader drowns in Mexico (Ynet News July 7, 2017)". Archived from the original on 2017-07-08. Retrieved 2017-07-08.
- 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.