Lev Tahor: 5 questions answered on the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect fleeing Canada

Lev Tahor: 5 questions answered on the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect fleeing Canada

CBC News/March 6, 2014

Community of about 200 led by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, who entered Canada as a refugee

Some members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect appear to have fled Canada amid a child abuse scandal that has followed the roughly 40 families from their former home in Quebec to their new community in Chatham-Kent, Ont., and now to Trinidad and Tobago.

1. What is Lev Tahor?

Lev Tahor, which means pure heart, is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect from Quebec made up of about 200 people. The group is led by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans.

The roughly 40 families lived in the Laurentians in Quebec's Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts until November 2013. The families, including about 120 children, left their homes in the middle of one night that month and moved to Chatham-Kent, Ont.

The sudden move came soon after a child welfare agency started a court case against some of the families.

On Wednesday, some of the families were stopped in Trinidad and Tobago, apparently on their way to Guatemala. Immigration officials stopped the sect members after some inconsistencies in their responses. Although a sect spokesman is negotiating to have the travellers be allowed to continue to Guatemala, Trinidad's Ministry of National Security has advised its immigration services to have the group return to Toronto.

The Guatemala trip was scheduled on the same day as two of the community's families had a court date to hear the result of their appeal of an earlier court decision that their children return to Quebec to be placed in foster care. The families could not be found at their Chatham homes, but it is still unclear if they were among the members in Trinidad and Tobego.

2. Who is Shlomo Helbrans?

Shlomo Helbrans, the leader of Lev Tahor, grew up in Jerusalem in a secular household. He didn't discover religion until his teenage years, when he became engrossed in the teachings of Jewish mystics.

At 22, Helbrans declared himself a rabbi and claimed to have unique insights. In the late 1980s, Helbrans started recruiting followers in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods for his new religious community: Lev Tahor.

CBC's the fifth estate spoke with various people who said Helbrans has a magnetic personality and is very persuasive.

In 1990, Helbrans and his followers suddenly left Israel for New York. Helbrans took up residence in Brooklyn's Boro Park, which houses various ultra-Orthodox communities. There, he found financial support for his ideas and opened a religious school.

At the school, Helbrans started working with a young boy, Shai Fhima, before his bar mitzvah. He told the boy and his father that Fhima had special talents and a grand destiny.

Fhima started spending more and more time at the school. One day, he did not return home. Helbrans denied kidnapping the boy.

In 1994, Helbrans, however, was convicted of kidnapping Fhima. He served two years in prison after an appeal resulted in a reduced sentence from an original four years. On his release, Helbrans was deported to Israel.

Six weeks later, he arrived in Canada to re-establish his religious community in Quebec.

In 2003, he applied to be admitted to Canada as a refugee, arguing before a refugee board that as an anti-Zionist Rabbi he was a threat to Israel. His application was granted, but the fifth estate's investigation found he may have used misleading or false evidence at his hearing.

Helbrans denies the accusation.

3. What are Lev Tahor's beliefs?

"We want to go backwards, exactly like original Judaism is," spokesman Uriel Goldman told CBC's the fifth estate in its documentary Rabbi of the Pure Hearts: Inside Lev Tahor.

In Chatham, Ont., the group seemed to seek an isolated place where they could practice Judaism in their particular form and raise their children.

Their beliefs include:

    Anti-Zionism, believing that a Jewish state can only be declared by God and would require the return of God.
    Men and women dress conservatively. Both cover their heads. Social workers told a Quebec court that women must adhere to a strict dress code and are forbidden from taking off their socks.
    Boys are educated to become scholars, spending long days praying and studying religious texts.
    Girls are taught the practical skills to become successful wives and mothers. All girls take a sewing class twice a week and attend cooking classes.
    Girls must marry at the earliest age they can, however local laws must be followed.
    Weddings are arranged by the sect's leader, Helbrans.

4. Why are police involved?

Before the Lev Tahor community moved overnight from Quebec to southern Ontario, it was under investigation by Quebec youth protection officials, who were preparing to have some of the children removed from their homes.

Quebec's Youth Protection Services was concerned about many issues, including the children's health, education and discipline.

In court, social services alleged the children were:

    Medicated with melatonin to help control their behaviour.
    Not learning the Quebec curriculum, leaving them unable to do basic math.
    Forced to marry as early as at 14 to much older men. (Other testimony contradicted the marital age, indicating it was actually 16.)

CBC's the fifth estate spoke with Adam Brudzwesky, 28, who married the daughter of one of Lev Tahor's founding members, spokesman Uriel Goldman, and spent two years living in the community.

Rabbis encouraged sect members to spy on family and friends, he said. Physical abuse was a regular punishment in the community, said Brudzwesky, who helped out at the community school. He said he was told to hit boys with a wire hanger if they disobeyed.

Goldman denies Brudzwesky's claims.

The fifth estate heard from the family of a woman who married into Lev Tahor that she was punished by being internally banished. This meant her children were placed with other families in the community for three years, and she was not allowed to contact them, her brother said.

Other punishments in the community include being denied sleep at night and not being permitted to eat for three days a week, he said.

The woman denied her children were ever removed from her care.

After the sect fled to Ontario, a Quebec court ordered that some of the children from a couple of families be returned and placed in foster care. An Ontario judge upheld the ruling in February, ordering 13 children back to Quebec.

The families were granted a 30-day term to keep the children and appeal the ruling.

However, after the families could not be found at their homes on Wednesday, their court date, a lawyer for the Chatham-Kent Children’s Services brought an emergency motion in the case. An Ontario judge ordered that the children be apprehended immediately and placed in Ontario foster care, subject to appeal.

The Lev Tahor community has repeatedly denied allegations of child abuse.

5. What do Jewish leaders think of Lev Tahor?

In Israel, a parliamentary committee on the rights of the child has been gathering evidence on Lev Tahor, which is viewed as bizarre even among the ultra Orthodox of Israel.

Israeli families with children living among Lev Tahor are pressuring their government to act, and a government representative is calling on Canada to shut down Helbrans's operations.

In January 2014, a rabbinical council in New York, which had previously publicly criticized the sect, reissued a statement of concern.

"We have confirmed that all their behaviours are repulsive, and are clearly against the ways and the teaching of the Torah, and the teaching and guidance of our great rabbis and forefathers. The families, especially the young children, are in a horrifying situation," an English translation of the letter said.

The council members called on fellow Jews to not support the sect financially or otherwise, and labelled Helbrans as "one who pursues another with evil intent."

Several months earlier, speaking to the Jewish Tribune, the Jewish human rights organization B’nai Brith Canada called Lev Tahor "cult-like" and "a perversion of Judaism."

Helbrans has firmly maintained that any disapproval is rooted in anti-Semitism.

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