With cramped homes, many children in each family, and the fact that few of its members work (because they speak neither English nor French), you wouldn’t expect the 250-member ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect of Lev Tahor to be awash in cash.
Yet last November, when three buses pulled in to Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, community leader Mayer Rosner paid for the $9,650 trip to southern Ontario in cash, according to testimony related to police, and released to the public last month. The community left the neighbourhood it called home for more than a decade ahead of a date in St-Jérôme youth court to address allegations of extreme neglect, child abuse and not providing the children with proper education. The sect was, and continues to be, the subject of a Sûreté du Québec investigation on allegations of human trafficking, producing false documents and kidnapping.
Documents issued in court by police to obtain warrants allege girls as young as 13 and 14 are routinely married off to men who are much older. The minimum legal age for marriage in Canada is 16. The documents also allege sexual and physical abuse of children within the sect. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
The community lives in extreme isolation, and men and women are not permitted to see each other, except for immediate family. Women are dressed in full chador-type black robes, with their faces covered, hair shaved, and they are always wearing socks, stockings and shoes, even when indoors. Men have shaved heads, and extra-long sideburns and beards. Children are home-schooled, and only taught in Hebrew and Yiddish in order to understand the teachings of the group’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans. Helbrans has said he encourages children to marry at a young age, but has denied allegations that he married children who were under the legal age.
After leaving Ste-Agathe, the community shelled out money for temporary accommodations in a motel, and then spent more money to relocate in a number of townhouses in Chatham-Kent, Ont., near Windsor. The community also paid lawyers to attend several custody hearings. When it seemed the community’s finances might have been stretched to the limit, most members inexplicably flew off and relocated once again to Guatemala, where the bulk of the community has been since June. In Guatemala, the sect has already moved once. After a clash with the local tribe in the village of San Juan La Laguna, they boarded buses and headed to Guatemala City in August.
The community is said to be planning another move from the converted office tower it currently occupies, to a nearby town, where they intend to settle around an abandoned school.
With four cities to call home in the span of a year, and legal expenses piling up, Lev Tahor should logically be running out of cash, so where does all its money come from?
Partly from its members, say sources close to the sect.
The search warrants detail testimony from former members of the community who said they were forced to turn over much of their savings to the community when they joined. Members who have children turn over their child support payments to the community’s leaders. The police documents say members turn over all sources of revenue to Rosner, said to be the group’s treasurer, as members are told they don’t have the wherewithal to manage their finances.
The community’s food needs are provided by its leaders, but not for free. One member told youth protection workers that the community’s leader, Helbrans, provides coupons that community members use to purchase their necessities.
A Toronto-based advocate for one of the families in Israel, George Berger, said he has heard that the rabbi convinced a couple who were new members of the community to sign over their apartment in Jerusalem and their factory to the sect. The properties were sold and the sect pocketed the money. Helbrans had apparently been asking this family for donations for many years, and then finally convinced the couple and their three children to leave Israel and join the sect in Ste-Agathe.
A source close to that family (who can’t be identified because of youth protection laws) said the husband was taking psychotropic drugs while living in the sect. They stayed only for six months, and then the woman and her three children returned to Israel homeless and broke. The man was in a terrible psychological state for several years after he left the sect, the source said.
'Collecting money from around the world'
Berger said Lev Tahor advocates are collecting money all around the world going around to ultra-Orthodox synagogues during prayer services, and relating false stories about children suffering cancer, or other terrible afflictions to solicit donations. He said one Lev Tahor member had been heard bragging that he raises $3,000 per day for the sect in this fashion.
The former member confirmed that this is how the community collects some of its money.
“They went to synagogues, they went to houses. They even came to my house, collecting $1, or 50 cents,” said Alex Werzberger, a spokesperson for the Hassidic Community in Montreal. “It adds up, but it can’t be all that group has. They seem to have millions.”
He said most of the people collecting money for the group were not members of Lev Tahor, but were recruited by the community’s leadership.
Werzberger, who said he gave some small amounts to Lev Tahor collectors on a few occasions, explained that most ultra-Orthodox Jews will give money to people who ask for help feeding their families, because they believe there is a religious obligation to help out people in need.
“When it comes to (a request for food), we don’t check (if the claim is valid),” he said.
Meyer Feig, another member of Montreal’s Hassidic community, said he didn’t give money to Lev Tahor collectors when he saw them in synagogue.
“There are people collecting money every day for different charities,” he said. “We’re a very generous and charitable community.”
Disagree with sect's guiding principles
Both Werzberger and Feig are concerned that Lev Tahor is giving other ultra-Orthodox communities a bad name, and they disagree vehemently with many of the sect’s guiding principles, including young marriage and extreme isolation.
“A lot of people are concerned that people will generalize and think that this is how we live our own life,” Feig said. “We don’t want to be associated with them. There should be a differentiation between them and us. It’s like heaven and earth.”
Aside from paying for plane trips, lawyers and relocation costs, Lev Tahor has also used its money to buy new members.
Search warrant information mentions that a 14-year-old girl had been bought, and further details were redacted by a court order.
The brother of a Lev Tahor member — whose children are currently the subject of a youth court battle, so they can’t be identified — said his sister was sold into the group by a matchmaker.
As a newly religious member of the ultra-Orthodox community, she was hired as an au pair by another ultra-Orthodox family in Brooklyn. She was encouraged by that family to marry a man who was part of the Lev Tahor sect. Her brother said he found out recently the marriage had been arranged by a matchmaker hired by the sect because there was a shortage of women. The family that encouraged his sister to marry was given $5,000 by the matchmaker to help assure the match. The matchmaker was also paid.
The man added that after she joined the sect, she would routinely ask her family for money.
The man said the family stopped sending money recently because they realized it all went straight to Lev Tahor leadership, and that it was the community leaders that were telling his sister to ask for money.
“Most of the families in Israel have stopped giving money, especially since the group relocated to Guatemala,” he said. “They know it goes directly to (community leader Mayer) Rosner.”
However, some families in Israel continue to funnel money to the sect. One family recently gave $3,000, he said.
Appears to have amassed millions
While in Canada, the group appears to have amassed millions. Reports from the Canadian Revenue Agency show one tax-exempt religious charity registered to Lev Tahor, Congregation Riminov, claimed assets of $5.6 million in 2007. Lev Tahor also received a $4.3 million donation in 2011. Rosner, whose name is registered as one of the officers of Congregation Riminov, explained to the Toronto Star last year the money was for a real estate development that didn’t work out.
Now in Guatemala City, the group is living in a converted office building. Family members in Israel have heard of squalid conditions, with no access to running water, a makeshift kitchen in a parking lot, cramped quarters and an outbreak of typhus. The community is said to be looking into building showers and kitchenettes in its current quarters.
With no Jewish community nearby, and without access to their Canadian child support payments, some have suggested Lev Tahor’s funding will probably dry up the longer the community stays in Guatemala. The family member in Israel, however, believes the community still has deep pockets, and enough financial means to survive for at least a decade or two.
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