Mother, children flee ultra-Orthodox sect in Guatemala

The Washington Post/April 4, 2019

By Kyle Swenson

Six weeks after fleeing Guatemala to America with their mother, 14-year-old Yante Teller and her brother Chaim Teller, 12, stepped away from the house where they were staying in Woodridge, a small Catskill Mountains hamlet about 130 kilometres northwest of New York City.

It was just before 3am on December 8, 2018. A car was waiting to hurry them away.

Two days later, the New York State Police issued an alert about the missing children, noting that the Tellers were "not believed to be in any imminent danger" and were "believed to have travelled to New York City."

But according to a series of federal indictments, the Tellers were actually headed for a much farther final destination: Mexico, where they'd be back inside the tight embrace of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect their mother had tried to escape.

Within the cloistered group, Yante was already the wife of an older man.

Formed in Israel in the late 1980s, the Lev Tahor group sits on the extreme edge of the Jewish tradition; the 200 or so members have a white-knuckled embrace on an uncompromising interpretation of religious doctrine, one that allegedly includes child marriage.

Their strict practices have put them in conflict with authorities in four countries, prompting the members to hop the globe for safe haven.

Recent court documents allege children in the group have been the targets of "physical, sexual and emotional abuse."

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the country's press has dubbed Lev Tahor the "Jewish Taliban."

Three weeks after their disappearance, the children were discovered outside Mexico City by local authorities working with American law enforcement.

According to a news release from the Justice Department, three male members of Lev Tahor - Nachman Helbrans, Mayer Rosner, and Jacob Rosner - were also arrested at the house and transported back to the United States.

A fourth man, Aron Rosner, was arrested in New York City. All four were charged with kidnapping.

But Lev Tahor's efforts to reclaim the children did not stop, according to allegations outlined in a new federal complaint filed last week.

Federal authorities now say that a second plot to reclaim the children unfolded while members were behind bars.

Last week, a fifth member of Lev Tahor, Matityau Moshe Malka, was arrested and charged with conspiracy to kidnap.

Court documents allege the relentless pursuit of the children is tied to a dynastic struggle over the control of the sect. None of the defendants have publicly commented on the case or entered a plea in court.

The Lev Tahor - which translates as "pure heart" and stems from a passage from Psalms - was created by founder Shlomo Helbrans in the late 1980s in Jerusalem.

Born to secular Jews, he eventually embraced a strict interpretation of Orthodox faith that, according to Haaretz, "aspires to attain the utmost purity by shedding the corrupting influences that, [Helbrans] says, pollute mainstream ultra-Orthodox groups, let alone other forms of Judaism."

The strain of religion Helbrans preached covered everything from an extreme take on kosher food (no chicken, no vegetable skins, lettuce only on Passover), prayer (longer and louder than traditional services), and dress (women in the Lev Tahor group are required to wear black robes from head to feet).

Lev Tahor also adapted a strident anti-Zionism that put the group at odds with Israeli officials. Haaretz reported that in the late-1980s, Helbrans began "preaching the destruction of the evil State of Israel, based on biblical prophesies."

In 1990, he moved his followers to Brooklyn.

But in 1993, Helbrans was arrested by New York authorities on a kidnapping charge.

The case came after the parents of a teenager studying for his bar mitzvah with the sect accused Helbrans of brainwashing their son.

According to the New York Times, in 1996 the Lev Tahor leader was convicted. He served two years in state prison, and was deported back to Israel in 2000.

From there, Helbrans and Lev Tahor relocated to Canada. Again, the group was plagued by legal problems after allegations of child abuse and child marriage were levelled against the followers.

Helbrans was a vocal advocate of early marriage but denied breaking any laws.

"Of course I support marriage at as early an age as possible," he told a Haaretz reporter in 2012 when Lev Tahor was located in Canada.

"According to the Halakha [Jewish law], if the two young people are ready, they can marry as early as age 13. If I could have, I would have married a number of couples at this age who I thought were ready. But this is against the law in Canada. Here the minimum age is 16 and we adhere to that."

According to the Globe and Mail, in 2013 Quebec's youth protection services opened an investigation into whether children in the group were being neglected and whether marriages were being arranged between underage girls and older men in the community.

In November 2013, a Canadian judge ordered that 14 Lev Tahor minors were to be taken into foster care. As the Globe and Mail reported, before authorities could act, the sect fled overnight.

By early 2014, the 200 followers had relocated to Guatemala.

In April 2017, the Israeli attorney general and family members of Lev Tahor members petitioned an Israeli court to investigate the group.

The ruling, technically unenforceable because sect members were living overseas, slammed the group as a "dangerous cult," the Times of Israel reported.

"Based on the conduct of the sect toward minors, it's sufficient to call this group a dangerous cult that severely damages the physical and emotional well-being of the children of this community," Judge Rivka Makayes wrote in her ruling issued in April 2017.

Three months later, however, Lev Tahor was hit with the loss of their leader: Helbrans, then 55, drowned during a ritual immersion ceremony in a river in Chiapas, Mexico, not far from the border with Guatemala, in July 2017.

"There is now a power vacuum," Marci Hamilton, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania who studied Lev Tahor, told Canada's National Post.

"The attachment to a charismatic leader in a very isolated group that engages in illegal practices is so strong."

The hole left by the leader's death in part sparked the December kidnapping, prosecutors say.

According to court documents, the Teller children's mother, who isn't named in any court filings, was Helbrans's daughter.

Following the founder's death, her brother, Nachman Helbrans, took over leadership. The brother "is more extreme than her father had been," court documents state.

"Prior to her escape, the Mother spoke out against the growing extremism within Lev Tahor," a Justice Department news release explained.

"The Mother indicated that it was not safe to keep her children there." As a result of the deepening extremism, the mother fled to New York with her children, including Yante and Chaim.

According to prosecutors, members of Lev Tahor - including Jacob Rosner, who "is considered within Lev Tahor to be the husband of the 14-year old" girl Yante - began plotting to bring Yante and Chaim back into the fold.

The men allegedly sent a gift to Yante; included in the package was honey, coffee, and a cellphone to communicate with the plotters.

Nachman Helbrans allegedly was spotted with the children on the day of the kidnapping at an airport in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

According to the indictment, the three were wearing secular clothes to blend in with other passengers.

Mayer Rosner and Jacob Rosner are accused of helping to plan the kidnapping. Aron Rosner is accused of helping to fund the kidnapping plot, including the plane tickets and lodging in Mexico - where authorities finally caught up with the children.

The second plot allegedly unfolded after those four had already been arrested and charged. According to the complaint filed last week against Malka, the fifth Lev Tahor member is accused of smuggling at least four cellphones to the 14-year-old girl last month.

Using the phones, the teenager spoke again with Lev Tahor leaders back in Guatemala about organising another scheme to return to the group.

When the girl's mother learned about the phones, she confiscated them and then later spoke with a man identified as a "boss" within the sect living in Guatemala. The conversation was recorded.

According to the complaint, the leader was insistent that Lev Tahor would not stop until her children were back with the sect.

"I am not afraid of you, I am not afraid of anyone," the "boss" told the mother, federal authorities say.

"We planned to help every Jew, we plan to help [Yante], we plan to help [Chaim]. I . . . will take them out from under your hands and will take them back to their father with God's help."

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