As the group leaves Guatemalan town, its members also vanish from Chatham-Kent

Chatham Daily News, Canada/August 30, 2014

By Jane Sims, Vicki Gough

From New York to Quebec to Chatham-Kent to Guatemala, the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor is on the move again.

Members of the group that quietly left Chatham-Kent this year, after clashes with child protection authorities in two provinces, have been forced out of the remote Guatemalan village where they had tried to establish a community.

The group confirmed Friday it has left San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala, for what it says was “intolerance of the city council.”

“I don’t understand why they don’t want us. We’re doing nothing bad here,” community spokesperson Uriel Goldman wrote in an e-mail.

The latest chapter of the Lev Tahor saga is being told by Lev Tahor officials in the familiar themes of persecution and intolerance.

An ultimatum was sent to the sect by San Juan’s elders, who threatened to cut off water and electricity if the sect didn’t leave, Goldman said. “They also warned us they would remove us from the village by force.”

Goldman insisted most of the Guatemalan villagers were friendly toward the black-clad men, women and children but they were pushed out by an aggressive minority motivated by local politics.

Miguel Vasquez Cholotio, a member of the community’s elders’ council, said the villagers decided to expel the group because of its refusal to greet or have physical contact with the community.

“We felt intimidated by them in the streets,’’ he said. ‘‘We thought they wanted to change our religion and customs.’’

Lev Tahor members follow a strict form of Judaism. They wear traditional black garments. The women wear long cloaks similar to burqas. Men do not shake hands with people outside their group.

Their education follows strict religious teachings.

They deny allegations of child abuse, neglect, poor educational standards and underage marriage of girls.

About 60 members of the group left San Juan during the night and the rest of the 200 set to follow.

They hope to find land elsewhere in Guatemala to build 30 homes and resettle the community.

News of the latest moves comes just as Chatham-Kent Children’s Services confirmed the last members of the group have left Spurgeon’s Villa, the quiet rural enclave of duplexes north of Chatham.

“We went on a routine visit Thursday morning and discovered no one from Lev Tahor in any of the units they had rented,” said Stephen Doig, the child protection agency’s executive director.

Doig said their departure was unexpected.

“They left personal possessions and furniture behind,” he said.

Doig said his agency is beginning to close any files the agency may have on the families.

“Some of the family members stated that they wished to join their fellow religious community in Guatemala, but we have no means of confirming whether they left Canada,” he said.

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