Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans
MONTREAL - It was a radical move by a sect of orthodox Jews that has been branded the Jewish Taliban for its strict interpretation of the faith.
Under the Monday morning moonlight, at about 1 a.m., 40 families numbering nearly 200 people boarded a convoy of buses to flee their homes and what they considered the imminent threat of Quebec’s child protection authorities.
The exodus of the Lev Tahor (“Pure Heart”) community led them west along Highway 401 to salvation in Chatham-Kent. It may not be the promised land — most families are lodged in two dozen rooms at the local Super 8 motel — but the southwestern Ontario town of 108,000 is now home.
Nacham Helbrans, the son of Shlomo Helbrans, the group’s leader and a self-proclaimed rabbi, told the Star they were forced out of Quebec over a clash with education authorities regarding the secular curriculum they were being ordered to teach their home-schooled children.
Failure to comply could have led to children being placed in foster care — an unthinkable outcome for the isolationist group, Nacham Helbrans said.
With that threat over their heads for the last six months, they evaluated moves to various provinces across Canada but opted finally for Ontario, whose relative liberty for faith-based schooling has been a lure for other religious communities in Quebec, including Mennonites.
In Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, the Laurentian town north of Montreal, the group has left behind their houses, their furniture, their spiritual leader and the other childless adults. In short, everything not at risk of being lost owing to a thick file compiled by a team of child protection workers that has turned up alleged incidents of neglect, psychological abuse, poor nutrition and health problems among the 130 children over the past three months, according to Denis Baraby, the director of youth protection for the region at the Centre Jeunesse Laurentides.
Those accusations include unkempt houses where children slept on beds with urine-soaked sheets, surrounded by garbage; 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, said Baraby.
“The schooling was one of the problems, but that was more to do with the development of the children,” he said. “All the other problems for me were more important than the schooling problem.”
Nacham Helbrans, however, said there are no issues with the children’s treatment and that this was a conflict over the curriculum.
The group also denies allegations that it is a mind-controlling cult, where all bow before Shlomo Helbrans.
“Just to say that my father has some power in his mouth and that whenever he speaks, people accept all that he says . . . is simply not true,” Nacham Helbrans said.
Rans founded his anti-Zionist movement in the 1980s and reportedly drew the attention of the national security authorities for his collaboration with hardline Israeli Arabs.
After the first Gulf War, Helbrans moved his community to New York, where he was convicted of second-degree kidnapping after a young follower fled from his parents.
Upon his release from prison, he eventually re-established his community in Canada.
The members have spent the last 13 years in a hermetic existence, sealed off from the chalet owners and tourists who flock to the slopes of nearby Mont-Tremblant.
The men and boys are indistinguishable from other orthodox Jews, but the odd and exceedingly rare sight are the women and girls who, from the age of 3, are shrouded head to toe in black robes, showing only their faces.
The resemblance to the group’s conservative Muslim counterparts is what inspired the “Jewish Taliban” tag, but it is not one that the adherents of Lev Tahor shy away from.
“We are not ashamed of this name,” said Nacham Helbrans, 31. “Just as orthodox is a name for non-Jews beating up on the Jewish path of religion, they do the same thing today with the Taliban.”
The only problem, he conceded, is that the Taliban brand is shifted from fundamentalist faith to the terrorist fight in Afghanistan.
“This is the only reason we are not happy with this name,” said the father of eight children, who range in age from 3 months to 12 years.
For a group that shuns outsiders, however, the current limelight can hardly be a comfort.
The problems began when another of Shlomo Helbrans’ five children, Nathan, reportedly fled the community after a dispute in which he was forcibly separated from his children and the brood was farmed out to live with other families, according to the Times of Israel.
Nathan complained to Quebec’s child protection services.
“To go to the Director of Youth Protection against your own wife, against your own children, just to show that you are the stronger one is not welcomed in our community,” Nacham Helbrans said.
Baraby said his investigators were “never really able to gather any information about corporal punishment” of children in the community.
Chatham-Kent Children’s Services confirmed they have visited members of the community already, but wouldn’t comment on what future actions it might take.
Baraby said his office has forwarded all the evidence that has been collected to their Ontario counterparts.
“There are some very young children in there, some that were in need of some medical services,” he said. “So, yes, I am worried about the children.”