An investigation by Canadian authorities into an isolated Jewish sect has led to renewed calls for action in Israel.
Authorities in Quebec have leveled allegations of child abuse and neglect against multiple families in the Lev Tahor sect. In response, 200 of the 240 people living in the sect moved suddenly to Ontario. A Quebec judge has ordered them to return.
Nachman Helbrans, son of the community’s leader Shlomo Helbrans, told the Canadian paper The Star that two families facing charges would return to Quebec. The rest of the families apparently plan to stay in Ontario in order to avoid educational requirements in the Quebec district, where children are expected to learn secular subjects.
According to Canadian media, one of the charges against the families was that their children – who are homeschooled - did not know basic math, and in several cases, could not speak either English or French. The group teaches children in Yiddish (a European Jewish dialect), and restricts education for girls to domestic tasks such as sewing and cooking.
Child protection officials also leveled serious accusations that included extremely poor hygiene in homes, substandard healthcare, and cases in which children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed with other families.
Beatings, child marriage, and 'reeducation'
In a meeting Tuesday of the Knesset’s Rights of the Child Committee, relatives of Israeli Jews who have moved to Canada to join the cult revealed additional serious charges, including serious physical abuse against children, a bizarre ideology that rejects parental affection, deliberate child neglect, underage marriage, and harsh punishment of adults who question Helbrans’ leadership.
MKs said Israel must get involved, as most of those involved are Israeli citizens who left or fled the country in order to live by Helbrans’s rules. “We have a responsibility and an obligation to Israeli children,” declared committee head MK Orly Levi-Abekasis (Likud).
She accused state prosecutors of “dragging their feet” and “failing to initiate cooperation with social services” regarding the case.
MK Yaakov Margi of the hareidi-religious Shas party testified that among the strict rules observed by Lev Tahor members is a prohibition against changing diapers more than twice a day. “It’s a sadistic cult,” he declared.
Esther Katzovshvili, whose daughter and grandchildren live with Lev Tahor, termed Helbrans a “criminal.” The families in Lev Tahor “are kept under control through ostracizing, fasts, ritual immersion in freezing water, rape of underage girls by adult men, and beatings,” she said.
“They see demonstrating affection for children as a non-Jewish invention,” she charged.
Tzofia Nahon, who has worked with families that have left Lev Tahor, reported, “The community has a group called ‘Family Aid’ that takes children from families whose faith in the leader has been shaken and gives them to other families for reeducation for about two years.”
Orit Cohen, whose brother belongs to Lev Tahor, backed Nahon’s report, and in addition, testified to beatings and imprisonment within the cult, as well as cases in which parents pressured underage girls into marriage and forced children to take psychological drugs.
When one of the leader’s sons rebelled by allowing his children to listen to music, she said, his children were taken for “reeducation” and he was beaten so badly he suffered broken bones.
Prosecutors: Hard to make a case
Motti Levy of the Jerusalem Police confirmed that there is evidence confirming the charges and indicating very serious crimes. However, attorney Galit Greenberg of the Justice Ministry said it would be hard to make a case. “There’s an inherent difficulty gathering evidence against a cult. Even [the members] themselves don’t complain when their children are kidnapped from them,” she noted.
Israel is working with Canadian authorities to address the issue, she said.
Lev Tahor charges 'persecution'
A representative from Lev Tahor was at the meeting as well. He denied the charges.
“The children in the community are calm and happy, and there is no psychological treatment,” he said. “It’s true that social workers took five children from the community, but that is because the father – who is separated from the mother – hit them.”
There was one case in which a 16-year-old girl married, he said, but there were no other marriages between underage teen girls and older men. “Israel is persecuting Rabbi Helbrans because of his opinions,” he concluded.