Brothers testify in Lev Tahor kidnapping trial

Lower Hudson, Rockland/Westchester Journal News/March 27, 2024

By Jonathan Bandler and Asher Stockler

A former Monsey resident who joined a fringe sect of ultra Orthodox Judaism and is accused of kidnapping two children to return them to the group in Guatemala testified at his federal trial that he was convinced the children were being abused so he needed to help free them.

Shmiel Weingarten took the witness stand Friday in U.S. District Court in White Plains and finished Monday. His brother Yakev, took the witness stand Monday. The brothers defended not just themselves, but the lifestyle of the group, Lev Tahor, and counter testimony and widespread beliefs that it is a cult-like sect with abusive practices that include forcing minor girls to get married and have sex. Both brothers said they were teenagers when they married 15-year-old girls.

Summations in the case were expected Tuesday.

While Shmiel acknowledged participating in the December 2018 removal of the siblings, identified in court as 14-year-old Jane Doe and 12-year-old John Doe, from a home in Woodridge, New York, Yakev Weingarten insisted he played no role and was not the leader of Lev Tahor that prosecutors and their witnesses made him out to be.

Surveillance video image of Shmiel Weingarten at the Super 8 Motel in Monticello, NY on Dec. 8, 2018, the morning he allegedly participated in the kidnapping of two children in Woodridge, NY in order to return them to the Lev Tahor community.
The Weingartens, along with their brother Yoil, each represented themselves and are the last of nine Lev Tahor members accused in the plot, facing charges including conspiracy to transport a minor for sex and international parental kidnapping. Four of the others were convicted in a pair of trials and three others pleaded guilty.

Yoil Weingarten opted not to testify.

What the Weingarten brothers were asked
The Weingartens answered questions they approved that were posed by their standby counsel, Daniel Hochheiser for Shmiel and Francis O'Reilly for Yakev. Then on cross examination, they frequently objected, on relevancy grounds, that questions had been asked and answered, even that the prosecutor was badgering the witness.

Yakev Weingarten, one of three brothers on trial in the kidnapping plot to return two children to the ultra Orthodox Lev Tahor sect
U.S. District Judge Nelson Roman repeatedly chastised the brothers to stop trying to undermine the validity of a Brooklyn Family Court order that granted the mother, Sara Helbrans, custody of the two children and her other four, and an order of protection barring their father, a Lev Tahor leader, from contacting them.

The mother had broken with the community earlier that year when leaders insisted on her daughter's marriage at the age of 13.

The youngest brother, Shmiel, was in Sullivan County early on the Sabbath morning, December 8, 2018, when the children were led out of the home, driven to a motel to change into secular clothes and dropped off at the airport in Scranton, Pennsylvania with their uncle, Lev Tahor's leader Nachman Helbrans, who accompanied them on three domestic flights and then a cab ride across the border to Mexico.

Shmiel Weingarten insisted the secular clothing he and the others wore was not to conceal a kidnapping but to hide the fact they were seemingly violating the Sabbath. He justified the removal of the children by insisting he believed Jane Doe was being abused and she belonged with her 19-year-old husband and community.

The children were recovered in Mexico and returned to Brooklyn.

What was the contact like between the brothers and others?

Shmiel detailed his efforts in November and early December to fight the court order, claiming he was in regular contact with Jane and she was despondent away from the community and forced into a psychiatric hospital where she was under suicide watch.

There are no allegations that Yakev Weingarten, now 33, was in the United States at the time of the kidnapping. But prosecutors have used witness testimony from former Lev Tahor members to portray him as a leader of the group who provided logistical support to the kidnappers. And they are relying on a taped phone conversation in which he warned one of the kidnappers to get out of the country when he learned law enforcement authorities may have been trying to find the man.

Yakev insisted he had no role in the children's removal from the country and that his subsequent communication with Jane three months later was not to kidnap her but to help get her legal help to free her from the custody order.

He acknowledged speaking harshly with Sara Helbrans at the time and giving her an ultimatum that included allowing Jane to have a phone and wear the long robe and head covering required by Lev Tahor. If those weren't done he claimed he would pursue a criminal case with Guatemalan authorities that she had kidnapped the children there. He admitted saying he would fight until the last drop of blood, but insisted that was not a violent threat but a promise to not rest until Jane was legally emancipated.

He acknowledged a communal prayer for Jane in Guatemala after the mother had left and taken the children to New York. "We knew they were in a terrible situation," he testified.

He insisted he knew nothing of the plan to retrieve the children from their mother. He claimed that when he heard "rumors" that something was up, he contacted Helbrans in Mexico on Dec. 10 or 11 and warned him not to get in trouble. Helbrans told him the deed was done, that the children were with him, Weingarten said.

He claimed he was no leader, only a teacher and coordinator of the various divisions that made up the management structure of Lev Tahor.

Insistence the group isn't ultra Orthodox

Yakev insisted the group should not be called ultra Orthodox, just Orthodox, because ultra means beyond and they strove to live within Jewish law not reinterpret it with new meanings. He said he fully supported the marriage of girls as young as 12 because he believed it was taught in the Torah.

But he said the community was wrongly portrayed for its views on young marriages when the essence of Lev Tahor was about study and prayer.

Prosecutors have portrayed the claims that Jane was abused as a red herring designed to justify her kidnapping. Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Adelsberg began his cross examination of Yakev Weingarten by referencing an affidavit he signed in 2009 to a federal judge in Brooklyn. The details of that affidavit were not shared with the jury but it was part of a sentencing for his father, Israel Weingarten, who had been convicted of sexually abusing a daughter.

Yakev Weingarten, as well as Shmiel and Yoil, submitted nearly identical typed affidavits supporting their father and alleging that their mother and sister had sexually abused them. The judge in their father's case did not believe them.

"That's what you do, you make false allegations of abuse," Adelsberg said.

"Never," Weingarten replied.

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