New York — A co-conspirator in a sprawling kidnapping case against the Jewish Lev Tahor cult was sentenced to home imprisonment in a US federal court on Friday.
The case has led to the group’s unraveling, seen most its leadership hauled away to prison and scattered its members across several countries.
Aron Rosner was sentenced to time served plus one year of supervised release, with the first nine months in home confinement, for his role in the abduction of two children from their mother’s New York home in 2018.
He was arrested shortly after the crime in 2018 and spent 34 days in jail.
Judge Nelson S. Roman of New York’s Southern District court at Rosner’s sentencing on Friday called the kidnapping “a horrific crime” and a “serious criminal scheme.”
“You had two minors that were removed from their mother. The children went through this horrific odyssey,” Roman said.
Rosner received a relatively light sentence due to his guilty plea, cooperation with investigators, expressions of remorse and family obligations, which include caring for twin boys who have down syndrome.
“I stand before you a very sorry and ashamed man,” Rosner told the court. “Words alone cannot express my sorrow in getting involved in those things I did.
“I want to be productive and a good member of society and always obey the law. Please give me a chance to continue to be the best father and husband I can be,” he said.
Other defendants in the case, including members of Rosner’s family, have received much stiffer sentences, ranging from several years in prison to 12 years for cult leader Nachman Helbrans. Two other members of the cult are in custody in New York after being extradited from Guatemala last year.
Unlike the other defendants, Rosner was not a member of the cult, members of which lived in Guatemala at the time of the crime. As a resident of New York, Rosner assisted the kidnappers by hosting planning sessions in his office; lending them a vehicle to buy disguises; telling them how to contact the abductees; pressuring them to deceive law enforcement; buying them burner phones; facilitating group communication during the kidnapping; and sending them $3,500.
Rosner had been eligible for several years in prison, but prosecutors sought 12 months and a day, saying he had cooperated with investigators, but not fully. He pleaded guilty to one count of international parental kidnapping last year.
“This was a terrible, terrible crime,” prosecutors said. “The defendant’s role in this crime was essential.”
They also argued that, since he was not a member of the cult, he could not say he had been brainwashed, as other defendants have.
“He knew exactly what he was doing,” prosecutors told the court.
Cult members kidnapped a 14-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy from their mother in the village of Woodridge, in upstate New York. They smuggled the children across the US border into Mexico to reunite the girl with her adult “husband,” Jacob Rosner, one of Aron Rosner’s relatives, whom she had been wed to in a religious ceremony a year prior.
Jacob Rosner married the girl who was kidnapped when she was 13 and he was 18. The marriage in Guatemala was illegal and never officially recognized.
The girl’s mother fled from the cult to New York with her three children after the marriage for their safety. US prosecutors have said Lev Tahor regularly arranged illegal marriages between young girls and adult men.
The group’s leadership “required young brides to have sex with their husbands, to tell people outside Lev Tahor that they were not married, to pretend to be older, and to deliver babies inside their homes instead of at a hospital, to conceal the mothers’ young ages from the public,” prosecutors have said.
Some of the defendants have claimed the mother wrongfully removed the children from the Lev Tahor community, that they were attempting to rescue them, and that they are facing religious persecution.
The extremist ultra-Orthodox sect was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem in the 1980s. The group fled to Canada and then to Guatemala in 2014, after coming under intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities for alleged child abuse and child marriage.
Nachman Helbrans, the founder’s son, took over the group in 2017 when his father drowned in Mexico under mysterious circumstances.
The kidnapping case and its ensuing legal fallout has thrown the cult into disarray. The group is believed to be spread out with most of its members in Latin America, Europe and the US. In July, two of its representatives went to Morocco to look into moving there.
A couple of dozen members were arrested in Mexico late last year, but a number escaped, and others were released due to lack of evidence.
An opposition group, Lev Tahor Survivors, has put the cult’s membership at 300 to 350 people.
A member of the opposition group told The Times of Israel that he believes Lev Tahor is headed by around 15-20 “abusers,” and the rest are being held mostly against their will. Many of the opposition activists come from religious Jewish communities, which have also taken in some Lev Tahor members who fled from the group.
Lev Tahor’s moves, machinations and plans are all murky. Several dozen members of the group were moving around the Balkans last year. Some members of the anti-Zionist group applied for political asylum in Iran in 2018 and swore allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The group has been described as the “Jewish Taliban,” because women and girls older than three-years-old are required to dress in long black robes covering their entire body, including their faces in most cases.
The men spend most of their days in prayer and studying specific portions of the Torah. The group also adheres to an extreme, idiosyncratic reading of kosher dietary laws.
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