‘I escaped a Jewish cult that wanted me to marry my 12-year-old cousin’

New York Post/January 18, 2022

By Michael Kaplan

When Mendy Levy was 15 years old, he had never thrown a baseball, seen a stuffed animal, watched television or held a cellphone.

Born into the extreme fundamentalist Jewish sect of Lev Tahor, he was, he told The Post, raised to distrust outsiders and to believe that Children’s Protective Services wanted to take Jewish children from their families and have them brought up as gentiles.

But the teenager reached his breaking point in September 2018. Lev Tahor’s leader, Nachman Helbrans (whose late father, Shlomo Helbrans, founded the group), allegedly commanded Levy to marry his 12-year-old first cousin.

“I knew it was wrong. After a Friday night service, Nachman [gathered us] to make an engagement,” Levy, now 18, told The Post. His young cousin’s face was covered — as is the Lev Tahor tradition for females, who wear long, black robes. “She was crying loud, and I didn’t want to do it. Finally, at 7 o’clock in the morning, we agreed — verbally, but not emotionally. The rabbi dipped a piece of bread in borscht, gave it to me and said, ‘Mazel tov, you are engaged.’”

Levy didn’t feel he could say no. “I feared, I would be charim [Yiddish for ostracized],” he said. “I feared that they could lock me up and beat me.”

According to sources, Lev Tahor was formed in Israel during the 1980s with the intention of practicing Judaism as it was 5,000 years ago.

Levy was far from the only member who claims he was forced into or threatened with marriage at a young age.

This past November, a federal jury in New York convicted Nachman Helbrans and co-leader Mayer Rosner on charges including conspiracy to transport a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. They are awaiting sentencing. The Department of Justice alleges that Helbrans arranged for his 13-year-old niece from Woodridge, NY, to marry a 19-year-old man and begin a sexual relationship with him for the purpose of procreating. Young mothers in Lev Tahor, according to the DOJ, were made to deliver babies in private homes so as to hide their ages.

Nachman Helbrans’ attorney declined to comment for this story. Lev Tahor’s leaders have previously denied accusations of wrongdoing or mistreatment of its members.

One Brooklyn-based source who has worked to free followers from Lev Tahor told The Post that the group has “a convoluted interpretation of Judaica, which believes that when a boy or girl hits maturity, at 12 or 13 years old, they have an obligation to get married.

“Nothing about this cult is unique or creative. But it became more archaic and problematic when Nachman took over. He is a complete sociopath,” said the source, who asked not to be named because he fears it will hinder his rescue work. “One of their big things is extortion: telling people, for example, that if they want to talk to their children before Yom Kippur, they have to donate money.”

It all began with just six members — including Levy’s grandparents, who were followers of Shlomo Helbrans — who moved from Israel to the United States around 1990. Four years later, Shlomo was convicted in the US and served two years in prison for kidnapping a 13-year-old boy. Shlomo later fled to Canada and regrouped Lev Tahor in the mountains north of Montreal, where Levy was born in 2003.

“You’d get up in the morning and be taught religious lessons until 8 o’clock at night. Your mom filled out a form, which we brought to school each day and gave to the rabbi,” Levy recalled. “If you had prayed and behaved, she made a check. If you did something wrong, she made an X. If there were X’s on your form, the teachers hit you … They enjoyed it. If I laughed during class, I got smacked in the face. Then you might be made to stand in front of the class with a pacifier in your mouth. They humiliated you.

“They said that for doing the wrong things, you would go to hell. And the sins were removed when they hit you.”

In 2014, questions from Quebec authorities over the group’s lack of secular schooling, according to Levy, led the 300 members to orchestrate a nighttime move to Ontario.

“I was so excited,” said Levy, who traveled in one of three buses full of congregants. “It was the first time I saw highways and farm animals. We booked two floors of a hotel in Toronto. The TVs were unplugged and cables taken out. I knew that televisions were not Jewish — that they showed things I shouldn’t see.”

After a year, the group relocated to Guatemala, where, Levy said, they believed they could practice more freely.

They traveled via plane, with the kids wearing modern-style clothing for the first time, in an effort to blend in. “We were told to not tell anyone anything about being hit,” said Levy, who recalled being instructed to tuck his payess curls under a cap. “I was beginning to understand the outside world.”

In Guatemala, they occupied tents on a tree-less swath of land purchased by Lev Tahor. “It was horrible,” said Levy. “There were pregnant 14-year-olds walking around and armed security guards. I killed some snakes with rocks.”

Life there was difficult for Levy, especially after his father died from a disease in 2016 — it was so secretive that Levy doesn’t know the exact cause, but attributes his father’s passing to the group’s aversion to hospitals. At that point, he said, he and nine of his 10 siblings, excluding an infant, were made to live with other families in the camp. “They said that my mother would not be able to discipline us in a religious way,” he recalled.

Then he was called to meet with the group’s leaders, along with his cousin.

Levy said that he was told: “You do not need to marry her here. First we will send you to Canada. Then we will send her. You will live a beautiful life there.”

After being handed a travel document supposedly signed by his mother, giving him permission to travel alone — “It was done so quickly that they had me [listed] as a girl” — Levy spent a night in “an empty house with no windows and security guards outside, so I could not leave.”

He saw his mother one last time. “She was crying and did not know what they would do with me. But she and I did not hug. You are not allowed to hug your mother.”

Levy was then taken to a hotel and given a phone that he was shown how to answer, “so they could call me in the event of an emergency,” he said.

A leader checked him into a room. “Before leaving me,” Levy said, “he told me that I cannot go out of the room. And I’m sure he thought that I never would.” The teen was afraid of being beaten, locked away or worse if he tried to escape: “I had a fear that they would maybe kill me.”

But, alone with a phone for the first time, the 15-year-old finally opened the device. “There were some contacts [programmed] inside,” he said. “I pressed one and there was no answer. The second number, a guy answered. He told me he used to donate money to Lev Tahor. He was in another country. I told him who I am, what my situation was, and that I need to get out.”

The man asked Levy for his location. But Levy, who now believes that the phone contained old contacts yet to be deleted, had no clue. The man promised to find somebody who could help.

A few minutes later, a former Lev Tahor sympathizer called. “He wanted to pick me up but needed my address; I didn’t have it; he told me to go to the front desk. I was so scared. My heart was thumping,” Levy recalled. “I slowly opened the door to see if anyone was in the hallway. I was afraid that somebody from Lev Tahor would be there.”

Looking over his shoulder, he made his way downstairs and handed the phone to a front-desk clerk, who gave the address to the man on the other end of the line. Shortly after, Levy said, “A taxi pulled up and I jumped inside.”

The car took Levy to the man’s house, where the teen stayed for a few months. It took a while to adjust, though. “I was afraid to eat [the rescuer’s] food. It was kosher, but I thought it wasn’t kosher enough; I was brainwashed,” he said. Once in the house, Levy added, “I was afraid to be outside.”

Finally, it was arranged for the Canadian embassy to send him to Quebec. “If not for the Orthodox community, I never would have gotten the help to move on,” Levy said of his rescuers. “The Hasidic community has nothing to do with Lev Tahor.”

Levy is now finishing high school in Quebec and lives with a foster family that follows the tenets of Chabad-Orthodox Judaism. He DJs, takes photos and plays keyboards. He’s developed a love of pizza, has been on dates with secular Jewish girls and regularly posts motivational videos that encourage positivity on Instagram. He’s also cut off his payess.

These days, Levy attends synagogue voluntarily: “I go for fun. I have friends there and I live a secular, open-minded life.”

As to what happened to his first cousin, Levy has no idea. “There’s been no contact at all,” he said of his family, including his mother. “Lev Tahor once told me that I could speak with her if I send $200. It was all the money I had and I sent it. Then they told me, no, I can’t talk to my mom.”

Nine of his siblings remain in Guatemala with Lev Tahor, while his older brother managed to escape to Israel. Recently the two “met in Guatemala to give testimony to legal authorities about what goes on there with Lev Tahor,” Levy said.

At home in Quebec, Levy is planning to attend college and perhaps major in psychology. “I went through a lot,” he said. “I think I can help people.”

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