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Monday, November 25, 2013

Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans “Jewish Taliban” settles in Chatham

Most of the 200 members of a fundamentalist Jewish group – described by critics as cult-like and sometimes referred to as the “Jewish Taliban” – are living in Windsor and Chatham after leaving Quebec amid a high-profile child protection investigation.

The group, called Lev Tahor, left their homes in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que. last week on three rented buses in the middle of the night.

A youth protection official for the Laurentians region said Friday workers have been actively involved with the group since August – trying to help children suffering from poor hygiene, inadequate housing and unsatisfactory schooling.

But in a crowded motel room near Windsor Airport Sunday, where more than a dozen group members gathered, Nachman Helbrans explained they did not run away, but rather felt it was the best move for the community because staying in Quebec would mean compromising their religious beliefs.

“The education system in Quebec does not comply with our views because in Quebec it says each child should receive equivalent education, otherwise, they will call youth protection services,” said Helbrans. 

“We cannot just accept the curriculum, including evolution and many other issues we cannot teach our children.”

Helbrans said youth protection services began an in-depth investigation of the community several months ago, which he said the community co-operated with fully.

“We just asked them not to mix up the issue of education because it is our religion, and we cannot, and should not, change our religion,” said Helbrans. “The Charter of Rights promises freedom of religion and freedom of education.”

Helbrans said the group’s homes were thoroughly investigated and every child was spoken to at least once in private.

“We were working with them, but then it became disturbing because they would come twice a week to the same family, even after explicitly saying that everything is good,” said Helbrans. “And they would call on the same children five times a week, even after saying everything was good. It was all a bit disturbing.”

The Quebec youth protection investigation revealed that children were suffering from poor dental health and skin problems, they were not bathing on a regular basis, they were not being schooled according to any Canadian curriculum and only spoke Yiddish and Hebrew.

And concerns about forced marriages and teen pregnancies were passed along to provincial police, according a youth protection official who worked their case.

But Helbrans said youth protection services in Quebec repeatedly reported no neglect or abuse was found, and that the only issue was the the group’s challenging of the education system.

The group had been looking into moving to Ontario for months, said Helbrans, and their departure Sunday was not sneaky. He said they left in the middle of the night so that the children could sleep through the long journey.

Helbrans said they chose to move to Ontario because the province is more lenient with their education regulations, which will allow their community to have an easier time home schooling.

Helbrans is the oldest son of Lev Tahor leader Shlomo Helbrans, who was convicted in 1994 of kidnapping a teenaged boy who had been brought to his Brooklyn yeshiva for bar mitzvah instruction.

After serving his prison sentence in 2000, Shlomo was deported to Israel. A year later he arrived in Sainte-Agathe on a temporary visa and soon his followers joined him.

In 2004, Shlomo Helbrans was granted refugee status in Canada on the grounds that he would face persecution in Israel for his anti-Zionist views.

Nachman Helbrans said critics in Israel, who he says are enemies to the group, spread lies and rumours about the Lev Tahor community because they have opposing views about the state of Israel. Helbrans said their community believes Jewish people should be in exile and not have power or control in Israel.

Some critics refer to Lev Tahor as the Jewish Taliban because the women wear burqa-like robes like Taliban women in Afghanistan, said Nachman Helbrans, and some critics say the women are confined to household tasks.

Nachman Helbrans said two families are currently staying at the Ramada Limited Windsor, while dozens of other families are staying at motels in Chatham. Several families are already renting apartments or leasing houses in Chatham, which is where the community plans to permanently settle, he said.

The two families staying in Windsor are not with the rest of the group in Chatham because they needed to be close to the airport for when they travelled back to Montreal this week for court hearings, said Nachman Helbrans. He said the hearings were not to remove the children from custody, but rather to ensure continued child-protection access.

“We didn’t leave because of the youth protection investigation,” said Mayer Rosner, one of Lev Tahor’s directors Sunday. “We are smart enough to know that the files will be transferred, so that’s not a reason to leave. The only reason is the regulation of education, which changes from province to province.”

Chatham-Kent Children’s Services have received files that have been transferred from Quebec on the group, and Nachman Helbrans said they have already met with representatives from the Windsor-Essex Children’s Aid Society.

“We are more than happy for the investigation because we know our own innocence,” said Nachman Helbrans.

Nachman Helbrans said last month five children were removed from the community amid a custody dispute between their mother and father. The father had abandoned the sect and moved to Israel, and had reported his children were suffering neglect.

Nachman Helbrans said many lies are spread about his community, such as neglect and abuse and forced teen marriage.

“Some speak about us beating with an iron stick and about corporal punishment, but our community is not built on punishment, it’s built on explanation and to educate your children to love,” said Nachman Helbrans. “You can’t make love by punishment.”

As for forced teen marriage, Rosner said the females of the group marry by choice, but it is an “organized” marriage.

“You have to understand all the Jewish Hasidic communities have organized marriages, which means the girl is meeting with the boy and for sure it is with her own will and there is no such thing as forced marriages,” said Rosner. “And we do the marriages when the girl is over 16 years of age.”

Rosner said the organized marriage is always between two members within the community.

The group is also not a cult, like it is sometimes referred to, said Rosner.

“People in our group are people who love our style and tradition. Our community is a group that if anyone wants to go, they can go,” said Rosner. “One of the things of a cult is you cannot get out, but our group is a group that only has people who are happy to stay here, not people who are forced to stay. The people are happy and excited to live here together.”

Both Rosner and Helbrans said they have their eye on buying a group of houses on St. Clair Road in Chatham where the community can live together. Rosner said the community already feels more welcome here than they ever did in Quebec.

“We are very happy with how they’ve received us here because in Quebec, all the time when we would walk in the streets, people were always cursing us,” said Rosner. “Over here, we feel so welcome, and we appreciate that.”

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