Within the last month, about 200 members, of a reclusive ultra-orthodox Jewish sect called Lev Tahor, which included 130 children, headed west to the “promised land” of Chatham, Ontario to escape the persecution of the Quebec government. In doing so, in the middle of the night, they boarded buses abandoning their homes for the past twelve years in Sainte-Agathe des-Monts, to escape from what they call a lack of religious and educational freedom in Quebec.
Being closer to the truth, their reason for moving to Ontario may be the fact that they are the subject of a child-protection probe being carried out by Quebec’s ministry responsible for education and family services. Since moving, the Quebec government issued a summons for Lev Tahor members to appear before a Quebec youth court on allegations of child abuse.
According to Quebec’s ministry responsible for child services, accusations include unkempt houses surrounded by garbage where children slept on beds with urine-soaked sheets, cases of children being forcibly removed from their homes and made to live with other families, poor dental hygiene and substandard health care, and a home-schooling regime that failed to meet provincial standards.
A little bit about Lev Tahor. The Israeli media has labeled them as the Jewish Taliban since women are known for wearing dark clothing covering every part of the body except for the face. They are led by self pro-proclaimed spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes or Helbrans who does not have any proof of his rabbinical ordination. The group opposes Zionism and the state of Israel, claiming that the Torah instructs Jews to remain in exile until the coming of the Messiah.
Helbrans made news when he was convicted in 1994 of kidnapping thirteen year old Shai Fhima, a New Jersey boy who came to study with him before his Bar Mitzvah, two years earlier. After serving his prison sentence, Helbrans was deported to Israel in 2000 but relocated to Canada three years later, claiming his life was being threatened in Israel.
In Canada, Helbrans was granted refugee status. The following was the ruling of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board.
 As mentioned by the Board, the evidence revealed that the respondent believes and teaches that the existence of the State of Israel is an insult to the teachings of the Torah (the Bible); that the State must cease to exist because it should not have become a nation before the coming of the Messiah; that Arab domination of the land must be accepted by Jews and that they must leave Israel or perish.
 Given the State relation with Arabic citizens and given the fact that the respondent preached that the Arab domination must be accepted, I understand why the Board concluded that state protection would not be available. After carefully looking at the evidence adduced, I cannot conclude that the Board committed a patently unreasonable error in concluding that even though Israel is a democratic country that the Israeli government would not have offered protection to the respondent. His religious belief and opinion are against the mere existence of Israel as an independent country.
One has to question the merits and reasoning of the Immigration and Refugee Board ruling in light of the thousands of Ultra Orthodox and anti-Zionist Jews residing in Israel, and receiving the myriad of social benefits as all other Israeli citizens. Based on his 1994 criminal conviction for kidnapping, why was Helbrans admitted under Canada’s Immigration Act?
Is Lev Tahor a cult, or is it just an eccentric sect of Orthodox Judaism? To answer this question one has to analyze Lev Tahor in relation to the characteristics exhibited by other cults.
Janja Lalich and Michael D. Langone have identified the common characteristics which are indigenous to cults. These characteristics are applied to Lev Tahor.
Firstly, as in all cults, Helbrans disciples display excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to him and regard his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, and as law? He claims to be on a special mission to save humanity or at least Judaism. They consult with him on just about everything and always accede to his authority.
Generally speaking, in all cults, as with Lev Tahor, the leader dictates in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel. Members must get permission to date, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth.
Helbrans is no different. There have been reports of Helbrans and his assistants using violence, physical and mental manipulation to control his followers, which include forced marriages and divorces between community members, arranged marriages between minors as young as fourteen and children being subjected to ruthless beatings.
Marriages are arranged by Helbrans at age twelve or thirteen and because of the young age at which marriages are performed they are not legally registered with the Canadian government until the age of eighteen. Refusing an arranged marriage is a serious offense and according to one source, a fourteen year old girl who refused her “intended” was punished for an extended time with in a basement where temperatures hovered at twenty below zero.
You ask how can this be since marriages of those under 18 years are illegal in Canada? Some couples comprised of minors are sometimes sent to Missouri, in the United States, where marriage is permitted from the age of 15, with parental consent and consent of a judge.
Other harsh punishments used to enforce compliance include forcing people to wear shoes that are too small, separating parents from their children at the age of just six months and the forced use of psychiatric drugs. Babies are only allowed to have their diapers changed twice a day. If this does not constitute child abuse and neglect, what does?
Women are only permitted to leave the complex to give birth and even then they are accompanied by a female community member who ensures that no extraneous conversation takes place with medical personnel. Helbrans names every baby in the community and has been known to change the names of adult members as well.
According to reports, both parents and teachers are known to routinely punish children by striking them with their hands, belts and even wire hangers.
The truth be known, in 2008 the Israeli female leader of the cult, Bruria Keren was sentenced to four years in prison for beating her mentally retarded son. Some of the punishments included dripping water on the children to forcefully wake them up in the morning, beatings with belts, sticks and electric wires, and cutting the girls’ hair as retribution for bad behavior. Keren reportedly tied up one of her children, stomped on another’s foot and put out a match on another child’s chest.
As with all cults, questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished. Malka Helbrans, the wife of Shlomo Helbrans was forced to flee back to Israel after she was beaten to near death by her husband’s followers for voicing her opposition to the treatment of children. She stated:
“I heard men violently knocking on the door of the women’s synagogue,” … I saw eight to ten men with plastic white chairs charge at me and they all started beating me with the chairs. I thought I was dying. I screamed. I did not understand what was happening. I did not understand why. They chased me home. They threw snow at me. The knocked down my door and beat me and beat me, and beat me… They accused me of closing the door to the women’s section… The main reason for my sufferings is the fact that I dared to voice opposition to the punishments that are being used in the village.”
In all cults, subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group. Lev Tahor is no different.
Physical abuse is characteristic of Lev Tahor. A serious allegation leveled at Lev Tahor in the past had to do with the use of corporal punishment. Publications of the Va’ad Shomrei Mishmarot Hakodesh in New York said that in his yeshiva quoted students as saying:
“Helbrans gave beatings to Hasidim who are his servants, causing them to pass out and to shed blood and more.”
A 2004 article in the Haredi newspaper Besha’a Tova, reported that:
“Helbrans himself goes to the extreme, adopting this way in all areas of life. Especially in the area of repentance for sins… on every day of the year, he adopts the custom that was practiced by Shlomei Emunei Yisrael on Yom Kippur Eve, to receive lashings, as a means of repentance. The community practices this throughout the year, and their daily prayers are also similar to that of the High Holy Days and more. His disciples regularly fall to the ground to absorb whippings, in order to repent for their sins”.
Cults also prey on the weak-minded. With respect to Lev Tahor, many members are baal teshuva, secular Jews who are looking to return to Orthodox Judaism and acceptance within a religious environment. Others come from difficult situations and the charismatic Helbrans showers them with warmth and attention until they sever all ties with their families and only then does Helbrans warn them that they will lose their share in the next world and suffer all the curses described in the Torah should they choose to leave the fold.
Nutrition is another issue at Lev Tahor. Helbrans has deemed chicken and eggs to be unkosher, due to the genetic engineering where chickens have been altered to such an extent that they no longer can be considered chickens and are therefore are not kosher. Only peeled vegetables may be eaten out of a fear that perhaps the peel may have touched something not kosher. Recently, Helbrans decided that both corn and soybeans were kosher.
No doubt, the reaction of the Quebec government to a concern for the cult-like behaviour of Lev Tahor, as well as issues including hygiene, children’s health, and allegations that the children weren’t learning the Quebec curriculum, could not do basic mathematics, and other physical abuses led to summons being issued to 14 parents in the group to appear before a Quebec youth court. Instead a lawyer appeared on their behalf, and the judge ordered that the 14 children be placed temporarily in foster care, undergo medical exams and receive psychological support. Also the order compelled the children’s parents to turn over their passports.
All things being said, a strong case can be made that Lev Tahor is a dangerous cult of lunatics and fanatics. Helbrans even told his group that Hitler and Stalin were good teachers. How revolting!
The vast spectrum of Judaism views this organization as extremist. Be they ultra-orthodox, orthodox, conservative, reform or anti-Zionist, all have consciously disassociated themselves from this cult. Even the Ultra-Orthodox Anti-Zionist Satmar sect issued a flyer stating that Helbrans is:
“ the biggest scoundrel in Jewish history. Let us put an end to the darkness. This same man who was born in impurity in the kibbutz of the Zionists shall preach no more. Please help before it’s too late!”
I have heard that the Orthodox family of a rabbi in Toronto had an encounter years ago with Lev Tahor. The result was the re-kidnapping of three members of the family from the clutches of this cult, and countless months of deprogramming to counter the effect of Lev Tahor brainwashing.
Lev Tahor has now left Quebec in search of religious freedom.
The problem is now of a jurisdictional issue since the Quebec courts ruled that the 14 children be placed in foster care, after they had left the province and are now residents of Ontario. The courts in Ontario will now how to rule if the verdict of another province is binding in Ontario, or will it require its own ruling on the children.
Also will Ontario allow them to not teach their children the sciences which include evolution and an old earth and the Big Bang? Will they ensure that their children are able to understand or be understood in the community around them?
The standards in Ontario for home schooling are lax.
I just hope the Ontario government can do, and does something to help the children even if it means breaching “so called” religious freedom. At stake, is the need to protect the most vulnerable in society – women and children. This is the rationale for government, and is a matter that should override any issue of religious freedom.
Hopefully, local family welfare officials in the Chatham area are monitoring Lev Tahor, to ensure the welfare of the children.