Long dogged by accusations of severe child abuse and neglect, the 40 families of insular hassidic group Lev Tahor fled their homes Tuesday in Ste. Agathe, Quebec, fearing imminent removal of the children by Canadian welfare authorities.
According to Oded Twik, an Israeli whose sister and eight children have lived with Lev Tahor for the last eight years, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and police worked through the night Tuesday to get information about the safety of the children.
About 200 people traveled in three hired buses to Ontario, where they rented a small number of hotel rooms. “The Canadian police have confirmed that the group planned to go to Iran,” said Twik.
Lev Tahor is led by charismatic convicted kidnapper Shlomo Helbrans. The group, mainly native Israelis and their Canadian-born children, lived in the resort town of Ste. Agathe-du-Mont, Quebec. Only five members have legal status in Canada and the children do not hold passports.
Born to a secular family as Erez Albaranes, the Lev Tahor leader currently calls himself Shlomo Helbrans, the Admor (hasidic rebbe) of Riminov.
He studied in Jerusalem yeshivas in his youth. In the mid-1980s, despite lacking rabbinic ordination, he opened the Lev Tahor yeshiva in Jerusalem at age 23.
In 1990, after an Israeli investigation for ties with what was then the Islamic Movement in Israel, Helbrans fled to the United States with about 20 followers.
In 1994 Helbrans was imprisoned for two years in the US for kidnapping Shai Fima, whose secular parents had sent him to Helbrans for bar mitzvah lessons.
Post-release, Helbrans and his followers moved to Ste. Agathe, about 100 kilometers north of Montreal. There, Helbrans successfully petitioned the Canadian government for refugee status, claiming persecution in Israel for his anti-Zionist opinions.
Oded Twik has urged the Canadian authorities to remove all 137 children from the community. Dozens of family members and supporters attended a demonstration outside the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv on October 14. Many family members have not communicated with their relatives for eight years.
In a similar case, earlier this year, Canadian Child and Family Services removed all 40 children of a Mennonite community in Manitoba from their homes in response to allegations of corporal punishment, withholding food, and moving children between families. The parents are cooperating with authorities and a few children have since been returned to their homes.
Reports of the neglect and abuse of the Lev Tahor children have circulated for years. The Israeli Center for Victims of Cults regularly sends testimony to the Canadian authorities.
Members who have left the group described a diet of dough, goose eggs and goat’s milk, but no fruits and vegetable.
There are regular beatings, long prayers, and for the girls, dark clothing covering all but the face, and household servitude. Children, including babies and toddlers, are removed from their parents to live with other families, often repeatedly. Girls are routinely married off at 14, in some cases to men more than twice their age.
In October, 2011, two girls aged 13 and 15 from Beit Shemesh attempted to travel to join the Lev Tahor community via Jordan. The girls’ aunt, Orit Cohen, filed a petition via the family court, and the girls were intercepted at the Montreal airport and returned to Israel.
According to Twik, children in Lev Tahor get moved from family to family as punishment for their parents’ violation of Helbrans’s rules.
Tahor’s written regulations describe women as disgusting and deserving of isolation and a subsistence diet. A husband may hit his wife for disobeying the “rebbe’s” teachings.
According to Cohen, “Women who have grown up in Lev Tahor believe that constant humiliation and punishment is necessary for their own education. Even those who have left see themselves, their thoughts, and opinions as worthless.”
The girls get the barest minimum of education.
Helbrans’s son Nathan recently fled Lev Tahor after a dispute with his father, leaving his wife and children behind.
According to Twik and others familiar with the case, Nathan’s split with the group began as a small child when he witnessed his father’s disciples beating up Nathan’s mother, Malka, in her bedroom.
In January, 2012, Nathan bought a tape of Hasidic music for one of his sons who had trouble falling asleep. As punishment, Helbrans ordered that Nathan’s four children be housed with other families. The children would live with twenty different families over the course of two years.
When Nathan refused to accept this decision, Helbrans ordered him beaten up by two disciples who threw him into the snow and twisted his legs until they broke. Nathan lay in bed for four months, remaining loyal to Lev Tahor. He lied to the hospital about the cause of his injuries and refused an operation, for fear it would lead to an investigation.
But in April 2012, Nathan left the community and returned to Israel in June after death threats by Helbrans and his followers. He returned to Montreal and reported the abuse of his children to Canadian authorities with the support of Ometz (“Bravery” in Hebrew), a Montreal Jewish social services agency.
In early October, the Canadian authorities, accompanied by the police, removed the five children including an infant born while Nathan was in Israel. The children were placed in the Montreal home of an Orthodox social worker and his wife.
The Canadian Director of Youth Protection has since ruled that the children would not be returned to Lev Tahor. Lev Tahor appealed, claiming the evidence heard by the court is not reliable.
The situation of the children remaining in the group is complex.
“Before intervening, the authorities need proof that the children are at risk,” says Michael Kropveld, executive director of Info-Secte, a Canadian organization that works with victims of fringe groups. Then they have to ensure that a plan is in place that will benefit the children, with the added difficulty of finding the families to house them.
“Ideally, says Kropveld, “the authorities will work with the parents to improve the conditions so that the children can stay in the home.”
According to Kropveld, the worst-case scenario is a poorly planned removal. Not only could people get hurt, a failed attempt could ultimately make the leader stronger.
“People who have doubts will see a failed attempt as further proof of the leader’s powers,” he says.