Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans
MONTREAL - Lev Tahor, the radical Jewish group accused of raising their children in squalid conditions, has operated for more than a decade as a religious charity with millions of dollars flowing through its accounts, the Toronto Star has learned.
The group that is alleged to exert strict control over its members' liberty, health and finances amassed nearly $6 million in assets at its peak and regularly pulled in annual revenues of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the operation of its reclusive community in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, north of Montreal.
Financial filings show Lev Tahor's two charitable guises — Congregation Riminov and the Society for Spiritual Development — are run by the group's spiritual leader Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans and an eight-person inner circle.
Congregation Riminov was registered as a tax-exempt religious charity in 2001, shortly after Helbrans moved from Israel to Canada, where he would later be granted political asylum (the rabbi was deported to Israel after serving prison time in New York for the second-degree kidnapping of a young religious recruit).
The charity had a rapid rise in its financial performance under its stated goal: "the operation of a synagogue and provision of assistance to those in need."
From a draw of $114,865 in its first year, Congregation Riminov brought in more than $1.9-million in 2005 and claimed land and property assets of $5.6 million in 2006. It is unclear what became of those assets and those donations when Congregation Riminov lost its charitable status in 2007 for not filing mandatory information with the Canada Revenue Agency.
It took some time before Lev Tahor's other charitable organization, the Society for Spiritual Development, picked up the slack. It was registered as a charity in 2004, aiming "to create a centre for meditation and prayer, (to) establish schools, to develop spiritual and religious ideals (and) provide assistance to needy people," according to its annual filings with the federal tax agency.
"We do a lot of stuff. We do our schooling, synagogue, our kosher (food) stuff. There's also the books we are printing," said Mayer Rosner, a Lev Tahor leader in Chatham-Kent, Ont., who served as vice-president of Congregation Riminov from 2003 to 2007.
The Society for Spiritual Development's financial success had been more modest until recently. Annual revenues between 2004 and 2010 ranged from $20,000 to $36,000 while the organization spent between $15,000 to $89,500 carrying out its operations.
But in 2011, the community received a donation from another, unnamed, registered charity to the tune of $4.3 million, CRA filings show. That was the same year that Lev Tahor came onto the radar as a potentially dangerous group.
Media in Canada and in Israel took notice when an Israeli judge ordered two teenaged girls returned to their homes after they were sent to Quebec to live with the group. According to news reports at the time, family members feared the girls would have their property taken and would be forced into marrying members of the sect.
In 2012, the Society for Spiritual Development transferred $3.3 million to another Jewish charity in Quebec, the Canadian Friends of Holy Land Institutions.
Israel Lowen, president of the Canadian Friends group, said Lev Tahor's charity had received a sum of money with the expectation it would develop a project for the community's use. When those plans fell through, the money was passed on to his group.
Lev Tahor's Rosner refused to say who provided the $4.3 million but confirmed it was for an unspecified development that "didn't work out."
Rosner did say that the Lev Tahor charities receive donations from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, as well as backers in Israel.
An Israeli source with knowledge of the Lev Tahor group said community members survive mainly on government welfare payments that are given to the group's leadership. The money is allegedly then rationed out to the 40-odd families, which has been described as a method of exerting control over members.
"Already the payments to families in Quebec are generous. It's what, $1,700, $2,000 for a family that has five or six children?" said the source in Israel who has assisted former Lev Tahor members.
"But the money doesn't go to the families. The money goes to the sect's leadership."
"That's full of baloney and you don't find that anywhere in any records because it's not true," Rosner said when asked about the claim. "There's no proof of that and you won't find any proof because it doesn't happen. It doesn't exist. That's all I can tell you."
Fourteen children from two Lev Tahor families who fled last month to Chatham-Kent were ordered into foster care on Nov. 27 after Quebec child-welfare workers found evidence of neglect , poor hygiene and psychological abuse during visits to their homes in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts.
Investigators documented 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, as well as poor health- and dental-care and a home-schooling regime that failed to meet provincial standards.
Children's Aid officials in Ontario have not commented on the case and have so far failed to act on the Quebec judge's order .
Other details about the investigation, as well as testimony from a former Lev Tahor member who escaped the group's clutches, are protected by a publication ban issued by Judge Pierre Hamel, who cited a "serious risk of harm" to the 14 children ordered to foster care as well as the larger community.
Arnold Markowitz, a social worker and psychotherapist with New York's Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services who has experience working with cult members and their families, said Lev Tahor has historically drawn its members from within the orthodox Jewish community, where it is difficult to identify how the group differs from other Hassidic sects.
His first case involved three teenaged boys who went to Brooklyn for a summer of religious study with Helbrans. The summer ended and they never came home, he said.
The most recent case involved an orthodox boy from New Jersey who was convinced by an older relative to come visit him in Quebec.
"In the context of the Jewish community, and of orthodoxy, it's not unusual for children . . . to go and live at a yeshiva (Jewish religious school) and to be away from home," Markowitz said. "It is unusual that they wouldn't be in contact."