Friday, March 30, 2012

Case of David Kohn

Case of David Kohn
(AKA: Avraham Perl, Dovid Kohn)
Monsey, NY

Convicted sex offender.  Sent to prison relating to 40 sex charges involving 12-year-old girl.  He also is likely to be deported following his sentence, as he’d overstayed his immigration VISA.

Table of Contents:

  1. Monsey man Charged with Sex Attack (03/30/2012)
  2. Monsey man faces 40 counts of criminal sexual acts (03/30/2012)
  3. Monsey man jailed on 40 sex charges involving girl (03/31/2012)

  1. Kohn Receives Justice (01/31/2013)


Monsey man Charged with Sex Attack
Rockland Times - March 30, 2012

Town of Ramapo Police arrested a Monsey man Friday on charges of sexual abuse.

The man, Dovid Kohn, 59, of Monsey, also know as Avraham Perl, is being charged with 40 counts of a criminal sex act in the second degree for engaging in sexual conduct with a person younger than 15 years old, a class D felony. Kohn is also facing one count of sexual conduct with a child in the first degree, a class B felony, police said.

According to police, a female victim went to them about Kohn on March 19. Following an investigation they found Kohn had abused the victim over several years when she was between the ages of 12 and 15.

Town Justice R. Shoenberger arraigned Kohn and set bail at $1 million. Kohn is currently incarcerated at Rockland County Jail.

Police are encouraging any other victims to contact the Ramapo Police Detective Bureau.


Monsey man faces 40 counts of criminal sexual acts
News 12 - March 30, 2012


Monsey man jailed on 40 sex charges involving girl
LoHud - March 31, 2012

RAMAPO — A 59-year-old Monsey man has been charged with 40 counts accusing him of having oral sex with a girl when she was between the ages of 12 and 15, police said Friday.

Dovid Kohn, also known as Avraham Perl, is being held on $1 million cash bail in the county jail in New City on 40 counts of second-degree criminal sex act and first-degree sexual conduct against a child.

The girl is now in her mid-20s, Ramapo Detective Lt. Mark Emma said Friday.
The woman came forward March 19 to file a complaint against Kohn, who runs a video business in Monsey that covers events for businesses.

“This happened over three years when she was between 12 and 15,” Emma said. “I wouldn’t question the motive of any victim who decides to come forward.”

Emma said there is no statute of limitations on sex crimes. The sexual-conduct charge is applied when the alleged abuse lasts at least three months.

Authorities would not say how the suspect and the woman knew each other.

The reason for the high bail from Justice Rhoda Schoenberger was because he uses two names, police said. The judge set bail at $5 million bond or $1 million cash.

His legal name is Avraham Perl and he has lived in the Monsey community for 30 years, said his lawyer, Kenneth Gribetz. He is married with three adult children.

Gribetz said his client will plead not guilty and will provide the court with documentation showing his legal identity.

“We will review the facts and circumstances of the case when the police and District Attorney’s Office provide us with the details,” Gribetz said.
Emma said anyone with information can call the Ramapo Police Department at 845-357-2400 and ask for the detective bureau.


Kohn Receives Justice
Rockland County Times - January 31, 2013

After a series of religious Jews charged with sex abuse crimes evaded prison time, law enforcement finally appears to be turning the corner in the effort to provide equal protection to children of the community. 
David Kohn of Monsey pled guilty on Monday of performing oral sex on a then 12-year-old girl who was friends with his daughter. The 60-year-old Israeli-national is expected to face a sentence of eight years in state prison, 10 years probation and placement of the sex offenders registry. He also is likely to be deported following his sentence, as he’d overstayed his immigration VISA.

Kohn admitted to Judge William Nelson in the county courthouse that he’d perform sex acts on the girl between the years 2004 and 2006 when she was between the ages of 12 and 14. The girl did not report the crimes until 2012.

Prosecutors outfitted the girl with a body wire and recorded conversation between she and Kohn which verified her version of events and led to his arrest.

Kohn pled guilty to 35 counts of sexual abuse.

In the last year and a half Samuel Dym (AKA: Shmuel Dym) and Moishe Turner of Monsey and Herschel Taubenfeld of New Square were all charged with various sexual crimes against children, but evaded jail time. The probation sentences of Taubenfeld and Turner were announced within the last two weeks.

Prosecutors have faced challenges in securing justice for children in the religious community that have been victimized. Sometimes there is pressure from persons within the community for victims to deal with such matters internally, and not include the justice system.




Father of sexually abused child speaks out against Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes and Henna White

A father recently talked exclusively to CBS about his personal anguish on what it's like being a parent of victim of abuse and being victimized by his own community for speaking out and doing the right thing to protect his children.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Case of Rabbi Nachman Helbrans

Case of Rabbi Nachman Helbrans
(AKA: Jewish Taliban, Jewish Burka Wearing Cult)

This page is under construction

Leader - Lev Tahor Community,  (Chatham-Kent ) Toronto, Canada
Rabbi - Riminov, Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada
Monsey, NY

According to court reports, the Lev Tahor sect has arranged marriages with girls as young as the age of thirteen. Adam Brudzevski disclosed that he married his wife when she was 15 years old.  He was 25 at the time.  His marriage was arranged by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, the father of Rabbi Nachman Helbrans.

Brudzevski stated that "there was much rejoicing in the community when it was announced that a date had been set for the 13-year-old girl to marry a 12-year-old boy. It meant the community had finally reached its goal of arranging marriages for 13-year-olds."

Brudzevski shared that the middle daughter of one groups leaders was married at 14, and had her first child when she was 15. Her husband was the same age.

The minimum legal age for marriage in Canada is 16.

Over the last few years there have been repeated allegations of various types child abuse within the Lev Tahor community.  The group is lead by Rabbi Shlomo Hebrans and his oldest son, Rabbi Nachman Helbrans. 

Many Jewish community leaders on an international basis believe that the Lev Tahor practice cult like behaviors.   

Many people refer to Lev Tahor group as the Jewish Taliban because the women wear burqa-like robes like Taliban women. The group is also accused of discrimination against women, who are allegedly confined to household tasks.

Nachman Helbrans is the son of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, who was convicted on charges of kidnapping.   

The Helbrans are loosely connected to the Satmar movement of the Hasidic Jews. 

Disclaimer: Inclusion in this website does not constitute a recommendation or endorsement. Individuals must decide for themselves whether the resources meet their own personal needs.

Table of Contents

  1. Lev Tahor: Pure as the driven snow, or hearts of darkness? (03/09/2012)
  2. ’When you’re on the path of truth, you don’t care what others say’ (03/16/2012)


  1. Lev Tahor sect arranged underage marriage, former member tells youth court  (01/17/2013)
  2. Quebec police search Ontario homes of Lev Tahor (01/29/2013)
  3. Radical Jewish group settles in Chatham, Windsor (11/24/2013)
  4. Suspected Jewish child abuse cult flees Quebec homes (11/30/2013)


  1. Lev Tahor sect arranged underage marriage, former member tells youth court - 
  2. Lev Tahor children appeal to public via letters  (01/14/2014)
  3. Adam Brudzevski enters the courthouse during a hearing for the Lev Tahor sect youth protection court case in Saint-Jérôme on Wednesday, November 27, 2013
  4. Attempt to leave Lev Tahor sect thwarted, former member testifies (01/17/2014)
  5. Sect Lev Tahor: Testimonials Explosives (01/17/2014)
  6. Lev Tahor: Raids may have sought evidence of child marriages (01/30/2014)
  7. Children to be removed from ultra-Orthodox Jewish community (02/03/2014)
  8. Star seeks unsealing of Lev Tahor warrant (02/04/2014)
  9. Lev Tahor Mother Pleads With Public
  10. Sun Media among news outlets that requested documents’ release (02/07/2014)
  11. Documents on Lev Tahor raids to be made public (02/07/2014)
  12. Lev Tahor: Former member’s testimony into sect is released (02/08/2014)
Also See:
  1. Case of Rabbanit Bruria Keren
  2. Case of Adam Brudzevski
  3. Case of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans
  4. Case of Jacob Frank and The Frankist Movement
  5. Case of Sabbatai Zevi 
  6. Cults, Mind Control, Sex Crimes and the Jewish Community


Lev Tahor: Pure as the driven snow, or hearts of darkness?
By Shay Fogelman
Haaretz - March 9, 2012

Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans - Convicted Sex Offender
Haaretz spent five days with the controversial 'Lev Tahor' Haredi community in Canada to uncover the truth about the sect and its charismatic head, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans. Part one of a two-part series.

Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans is trying to get me to repent and become religious. To this end, for the past four months he has been spending hours with me on the phone from Canada. He believes I have a good Jewish soul that somehow got lost, and insists he can, and must, show it the way back. I disagree with him about the soul, the Jewish thing and the path, but do find many other interesting subjects to discuss with him.

Rabbi Helbrans is a bit disappointed that I haven’t become religious yet, but he’s not giving up. He keeps trying at every opportunity. He maintains that discussion of God should not be relegated to the realm of fate, but rather that it is an absolute and provable truth. Therefore, before he would consent to be interviewed, he insisted that I devote 10 hours to listening to him present his proofs. Helbrans declared that if I came to him with an honest desire to explore the truth, I would no longer be able to deny God and his Torah, as given to the Jewish people at Sinai.

Despite my skepticism, I acceded to his demand. Because of this same skepticism, I also agreed to pledge to him that if I was in fact convinced, I would change my life and become religious. Helbrans was satisfied. He was so keen and confident of his success that, before I boarded the plane for Canada, he suggested that I cancel – or at least postpone – my return flight. I didn’t change my plans, but I do admit that, at least once, I did try to picture a Shabbat without a cigarette.

Shlomo Helbrans heads a small and controversial Hasidic community called Lev Tahor (“Pure Heart”). It is a zealous and insular community, situated at the outer fringes of the Haredi world. Helbrans and his disciples would surely be pleased with this description. Stringency – or true piety, as they would have it – stands at the heart of their community life. They don’t see any negative connotation in the word “extremism,” either. On the contrary. In many senses, theirs is an ideology that remains unshakable, even in the face of waves of criticism and derision.

Lev Tahor came into being in the mid-1980s in Jerusalem. In the early 1990s it followed Rabbi Helbrans to the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and from there to the town of Monsey, upstate in Rockland County. About a decade ago, the community settled permanently in the Canadian town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec. Throughout this time, the name of the community – and especially that of its leader – was associated with various scandals, including some that reached the courts or were the subject of police investigations in the United States and Israel.

The community currently numbers about 50 families, but it has hundreds more supporters and admirers, living mostly in Haredi areas of Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and the United States. Some of them adopt certain aspects of the community’s extremist outlook, others emulate the women’s unique manner of dress, or some of the community’s customs. At least one or two new families join the community each year.

Then there are those who oppose Rabbi Helbrans and his community. Their number and strength is much bigger. They view the community as a dangerous cult, and its leader as a guru who employs brainwashing techniques on his followers. They refer to the community as Lev Tameh (“Impure Heart”) or as the Sabbatean Cult, and call Helbrans a false messiah and the “Sabbatai Zevi of our times.” (Zevi was a 17th-century rabbi who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah.) Wall posters and pamphlets distributed mainly on the Haredi street assert that members of the community mortgage their property, independence and their very souls to Lev Tahor. “Everyone, without exception, is like a slave before him [Helbrans], and commanded to lie and deceive as necessary in order to satisfy the appetite and desire of the ‘Rebbe,’” are just some of these publications’ claims.

Opponents of Lev Tahor say that Helbrans, or his emissaries, beat wayward Hasidim and their wives. They say that teenage girls in the community are married off at a young age, in violation of the law. They also accuse the rabbi and his followers of polygamy, sexual exploitation and abuse of minors.

But not only in the Haredi world is the Lev Tahor community considered controversial. In the past, the authorities in Israel, the U.S. and Canada tried to determine whether this was a legitimate Hasidic community or a cult that should be outlawed. It was in this context that the community’s name returned to the public consciousness last Rosh Hashanah. Media reports several days before the holiday said that two sisters from Beit Shemesh, ages 13 and a half and 15, had been sent to the Lev Tahor community in Canada by their newly religious parents. After an intervention by their grandmother, the girls were detained at Montreal Airport and returned to Israel three days later.

The negotiations that preceded my visit to Lev Tahor lasted three months and included dozens of phone calls and meetings with people with close ties to the community. Helbrans and his people were extremely wary. They say that all of the media coverage about them has been unfair. They state that reporters for both secular and religious newspapers just quoted rumors and derogatory statements about them, without any attempt to discover the truth. Publicly, the members of the community do not generally respond to the accusations made against them. They try to avoid interviews and being photographed, certainly when it comes to the Israeli press. They have also never filed a lawsuit alleging slander. They do not recognize the Zionist court system in principle, and so cannot use it.

It’s hard to figure out why Helbrans agreed to be interviewed for the first time, and why he allowed a reporter to visit his community. Perhaps his great eagerness to get me to see the light and change my ways played a key role in the matter.

During my five-day visit to Lev Tahor, I was given complete freedom to speak with any member of the community – men, women and also children. All of the community institutions were opened to me and I was permitted to question Helbrans on any topic, and to confront him with any suspicion or claim. All the community members also agreed to be photographed, even though this never usually happens, not even at wedding or other celebrations.

The full openness and the answers I received in Sainte-Agathe left me with a positive impression about the community and its way of life. But at the same time, the nagging doubts never ceased for a moment. Only later, after I returned to Israel, did I learn to what extent some of them were true.

Strictest of all
Morning mist covers Sainte-Agathe. Visibility is zero. It’s late January and the snow that fell all night has turned the streets white. The thermometer in the car reads minus 20 degrees Celsius. The weatherman is saying that with the wind chill factor, it feels like minus 30. The lake at the base of the town is frozen over. There are no ducks and no boats. The hundreds of tourists who descended upon the town for Christmas have all left. Here and there, decorated Christmas trees whose time has passed have been stuck in the snow on the side of the road.

Against this white backdrop, it’s impossible not to notice the Lev Tahor women as they walk the streets of the town clad all in black. The robes that cover them conceal the contours of their bodies as well as their footsteps. And in the fog, they appear to be floating over the snow.

Sainte-Agathe is about a two-hour drive north of Montreal. The population of 10,000 is comprised mainly of French-speaking Catholics, but there is also an English-speaking population and a single synagogue that belongs to Chabad. The town is surrounded by mountains, forests and lakes, and is considered an attractive tourist destination, especially in summer. In the winter, the area is home to several of Canada’s preeminent ski resorts.

The homes of the Lev Tahor members are concentrated on four small streets on the eastern outskirts of the town. They are typical suburban North American homes, either one or two stories, with tile roofs. Out front are wood fences and green lawns, but in the winter all is covered by five feet of snow. There are also a few homes scattered through the area that belong to local Christians, as well as some small wooden vacation cottages. In the center of the neighborhood, a large, three-story building is currently being built. When completed, some of the community’s institutions and its synagogue will move in.

All the females of the community, starting from age three, are covered from head to foot in a type of long black robe. A black scarf covers their heads. Only their faces, from forehead to chin, are exposed. In Israel, this burka-esque attire has earned them the moniker “Taliban women.” The Sainte-Agathe residents sometimes refer to them as the “Amish women.” Their entire culture and imagery – the males of the community also wear a specific uniform – is similar to that of the Satmar Hasidim, only with longer tzitzit (tassels). The children wear identical hats and everyone, aside from Helbrans, wears the same eyeglass frames. In addition, from age three all the males have the hair on their head shaved once a week. Their beards and sideburns will never be touched.

Melting pot
The Lev Tahor community follows other customs that seem quite peculiar to an outside observer. Many are also practiced in other branches of Hasidism, but nowhere as scrupulously as here. The prayers in the synagogue, for instance, often last up to twice as long as the norm; the words are pronounced slowly and with great emphasis, often with loud shouting. “Hoarseness is a sign of piety,” the Hasidim joke. The community’s diet is quite limited. While based on the familiar laws of kashrut, their interpretation of these laws is exceedingly stringent. For example, they will not eat chickens or their eggs.

They say that genetic engineering has made chickens tref (nonkosher), and so they will only eat the eggs and meat of geese. For halakhic [Jewish religious law] reasons, they insist that all fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, must be peeled. They will not eat rice, green onions or leafy vegetables for fear of tiny bugs. They eat a lettuce leaf once a year – from the Seder plate – but only after thorough cleansing that lasts at least half an hour.

They make their own wine. They will only drink cow’s milk from a dairy that will allow them to milk the cows themselves. They bake their own bread. The only kashrut approval they will accept is that which comes from Helbrans personally. They do not buy any prepared or preserved foods and use natural, unprocessed ingredients as much as possible. The children do not eat candies bought from a store, but only chocolate that is made at home. For other sweets, they eat mostly fruit and all types of roasted nuts and seeds.

Throughout my visit to the community, the people insisted that I eat together with them. They invited me to dine in their homes, wanting to fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality, but also for fear that I might foil Helbrans’ master plan and eat tref at one of the goyische restaurants nearby. For that reason, every night as I prepared to head back to the hotel, they also furnished me with a bag filled with seeds, nuts and baked goods prepared by the Lev Tahor women.

The customs and prohibitions followed by the Lev Tahor community have an explanation and an internal logic. The people there say their way of life is completely within the bounds of the halakha and Jewish tradition. That there is nothing new or different about what they are doing. Their central worldview derives from the attempt to return to the principles of Hasidism, as they see them. They place a great emphasis on “observation” and on processes that resemble meditation, and combine traditions from other types of Hasidism. Other customs that have been adopted by the community come from Mizrahi Jewish tradition.

Helbrans takes great pride in the integration and equality between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim within the community. The Hasidim also noted with satisfaction that, unlike in many other communities in the religious and ultra-Orthodox world, in Lev Tahor there is no ethnic discrimination. Ethnic identity does exist, but here its significance is confined to the folklore aspect. For the sake of unity, prayers are recited in the Hasidic fashion, but at gatherings and on holidays, various liturgical tunes that people bring from home are included.

When making a shidukh, a marriage match, the parents’ ethnic background is of no importance, so today many of the families in the community are mixed. Children are given names that are popular in the Hasidic world, but also names that are popular in Mizrahi tradition. One of Helbrans’ grandchildren is named Masoud, after Rabbi Masoud Abuhatzeira (also known as Baba Sali). Another granddaughter, Sulika, is named for “the Moroccan saint,” who according to Jewish legend was executed for refusing to convert to Islam.

The Hasidim I spoke with in Sainte-Agathe see themselves as the only ones following the true path, as the guardians of the walls, as the defenders of the last flame left in the Jewish world. They have contempt for other branches of Hasidism, which they view as overly compromising, describing them as despicable and degenerate. They consider other streams in the ultra-Orthodox world completely unworthy, especially those that enjoy the patronage of the State of Israel. And in their eyes, religious Zionism does not even count as a Jewish movement.

The basic requirement demanded of Lev Tahor Hasidim is simple: to worship and serve God at every given moment, with all their heart and soul. Their libraries contain only Jewish books. There are no televisions, radios or computers in their homes. Concepts such as free time, broadening one’s horizons or self-fulfillment, in their standard Western senses, do not exist here. The walls of their homes are also bare of any decoration; no pictures, amulets, photographs of rabbis. For the most part, the sole adornments are candlesticks, menorahs or silver religious utensils, all kept behind a glass case. In some homes, embroidery and other crafts done by the women are also displayed.

You won’t find the children of Lev Tahor out playing ball. They don’t have one. Nor are other games meant to help children develop physical coordination played. “This is not the human being’s purpose,” they say. There are books in Yiddish, puzzles, Lego, toy cars, plastic kitchen utensils and stuffed animals (kosher animals only). A father of a 2-year-old says: “You wouldn’t believe how fascinated he was one day by an onion.”

Another family said their children loved to draw and sing, and do role-playing games. In this particular family there are 11 siblings. Sometimes, with the eldest daughter acting as director, one of the younger children takes their father’s old shtreimel and dresses up as a bridegroom, while another wears an old dress of their mother’s and plays the role of the bride. There are always enough siblings around to hold up the sheet they use as the wedding canopy. The boys like to go out and play in the snow: They don’t build snowmen, but during school breaks they take little plastic sleds and slide down the street. This year they also built an igloo.

Goose eggs
Schooling begins at age three and is devoted entirely to sacred subjects. All the boys study in three heders, divided according to age. The girls are taught separately, and only at home. They assemble each morning in groups, according to age, and their lessons are given by women in the community. There is a different teacher for each subject: reading and writing, math, English, French, history and geography. The law of the province of Quebec allows for homeschooling, as long as the studies include a number of mandatory subjects, similar to those that are part of the core curriculum in Israel. In the name of the value of multiculturalism, so revered in Canada, Lev Tahor – like the Satmar community and other isolationist groups – is currently fighting for its right to follow a different method.

Employment is not perceived as something to strive for. A Hasid who can receive financial support from his parents will always prefer to study all day instead. Some of the Hasidim work outside the community, mostly as independent tradesmen or in temporary jobs working on computers or in customer service centers. The community also supports a number of teachers; three men who work in the community’s independent publishing house; and two managers, who are responsible for the Lev Tahor institutions and handling whatever problems arise. Donations to the community are limited, and so a large portion of the construction and maintenance work is done by the Hasids themselves. Unlike some other Hasidic groups, Lev Tahor is not backed by any financial titans or state authorities.

Everyone here lives very modestly and simply. Two or three times a week, each family receives a food delivery straight to the door. This way they do not have to make contact with strangers, and the prices for buying in bulk are better. Sometimes there are no goose eggs. Sometimes there are no vegetables. When I visited, there was no cow’s milk, so they drank coconut milk. “What really matters is Torah,” they say.

Every so often, the community tries to come up with business initiatives to bring in more income. In the past they tried to start a business making fruit compotes, and they also thought about building coops for a species of chicken that they consider kosher. But the necessary investment was too large and the weather conditions were not suitable. Their isolationism and aversion to the modern world also makes it hard for them to form business ties, and most do not speak French, the dominant language in the province. For some families, the child allowances given by the Canadian government are the main source of income.

Another key element of the community’s economic support system is the value placed on mutual assistance. This is not a collective in the usual sense. Each family has a separate bank account, private assets and property. But each family unit is also bound to the communal framework, and to the other units that make up the whole. About a year ago, a religious penitent couple and their three small children came from Israel to join the community. The father, who requested anonymity, says that in their first half-year in Saint-Agathe, they had no living expenses: “Every day – morning, noon and night – somebody would come, knock on the door and bring a hot meal for the whole family. Someone in the community also took care of paying the bills and the property tax in the first months.”

Real depression
After hours on the phone with Helbrans, I wondered what to bring him from Israel when I came to interview him. He, of course, yearned to see my lost soul repent; I just wanted to bring him some small, symbolic gift. I searched for something that would touch him, that would stir some memory, even emotion perhaps. I ended up buying him a large packet of Turkish coffee with hel (cardamom), with Badatz kashrut approval. I figured it was something he hadn’t smelled in years. Bingo. Helbrans was ecstatic when he saw the gift. He asked one of his aides to make us some coffee. The latter returned a few minutes later with large glass mugs, as if we were drinking half-liters of beer.

And I brought him something else, too: the new book by poet Eli Eliahu. To my mind, Eliahu’s poetry is truly marvelous. Beyond its keen emotional punch, it distills a secular, Hebrew and liberal ethos that is neither apologetic nor self-effacing before its roots – Jewish, ethnic or otherwise. I hoped it would give Helbrans a little glimpse of my world. When we met the next morning, he told me he had read the book. He complimented Eliahu on his writing ability and his rich language. He quoted whole verses and said that he had cried at times while reading it. I asked which poem moved him the most. He looked at me in astonishment: “I didn’t cry from excitement! I cried from sorrow. I cried from pain. I cried over your life, over the life of Eli Eliahu. I cried when I understood in what kind of hard and terrible world you live. A world without truth, without hope and without faith. These poems caused me great sorrow, for you and for him. Real depression.”

I was stunned. “Give me back the book,” I said to him. “You didn’t understand me and you didn’t understand Eli. Apparently it wasn’t the right gift. I’ll send you something else in the mail, when I get back to Israel.” He held out the book indifferently and said: “No problem. But send that Eli Eliahu here, too. Maybe I’ll be able to get him to repent.”

Helbrans’ obsessive concern with getting others to repent and become pious derives in large part from his own biography. Erez Shlomo Elbarnes was born in Jerusalem in 1962, the only child of secular parents, graduates of the Mahanot Haolim Zionist youth movement, who enlisted in the Nahal and married during their time serving at Kibbutz Hulta. They wanted to name him after a tree. They thought about Alon but settled on Erez. They added the name Shlomo to his birth certificate in memory of his grandfather.

Erez’s childhood friends from Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood described him as “a curious kid with an active imagination.” They say that he loved animals, and that he kept chickens and a cat named Cleopatra in his parents’ yard. “He was a kid who loved nature,” they say. He would spend hours hiking the rocky hills around the neighborhood searching for frogs and turtles. He was a member of the local Scouts group. Filmmaker and screenwriter Yoad Ben Yosef, who knew him from when he was a toddler, still remembers how they would play Cowboys and Indians in the park next to the neighborhood community center during summer vacations.

At school he was a good student. Not the best in his class, but good enough to be accepted into a class for gifted students. He was also popular among his classmates. Not the king of the class, but not someone who could be ignored, either. All of his childhood friends who were interviewed for this article said he had a keen sense of right and wrong, and would be outraged by what he saw as injustice. Some recall him getting hit when standing up for the weak and ostracized. His mother, Yocheved, says she was called to school a number of times over such incidents.

The attraction to a more religious way of life began before his bar mitzvah. “I was just curious to know why I’m alive and why the world exists,” Helbrans recalls. “I wanted to understand what it all meant.” He says he asked these questions to his parents and teachers, and every adult he knew. He also searched for answers in the books that were available to him as a boy. His mother remembers that the school janitor had to be called at least twice after Erez got locked in the library at the end of the school day.

Helbrans says he did not find any satisfactory explanations anywhere until he met Yosef Yagen, who was an energetic Haredi youth and a leader of the religious penitent movement that was beginning to grow in Israel at the time. Today Yagen is a Haredi rabbi living in America. The two young men met at the time through relatives, and they hit it off right away. Yagen showed the curious Erez the “code method” in the Bible, in which by means of skipping letters at regular intervals, one uncovers meaningful words. “That may have been the first thing that really excited me,” Helbrans says, adding with a laugh that he still recalls “what kind of beating Yagen later got from my father, who realized that he was the one who got me to become religious.”

His parents were vehemently opposed to their son’s return to religion. “It went against our whole outlook,” says his mother. His parents remained nonreligious and still live in Jerusalem. Over the years they have visited their son a few times and remain in close touch by phone with his six children and 18 grandchildren. But at the time, when they learned of his new interest in religion, they barred him from going to the synagogue and tried to keep him from having any connection with elements they thought could influence him in that way. Erez kept on studying in secret. And it seems like that struggle over the return to religion is still felt in the community today.

The big change occurred after Erez met, at Denmark High School, history teacher Dr. Abraham Fuchs, who was observant and wore a kippa. Erez tried to get explanations and answers from him. Fuchs noted the boy’s interest in religion, and in Hasidism especially, and suggested that he join him one evening for a tisch at the Belz yeshiva. His parents were alarmed when they heard about the idea, but the history teacher promised them that he would personally see to it that the boy did not suddenly become religious. His mother says she was sure the whole class was going to take part in the visit: “If I’d known that he was the only one going, I wouldn’t have let it happen.”

The holy Shabbat atmosphere in the Haredi neighborhoods captivated him and a few weeks later, Erez was wearing a kippa and tzitzit. He started keeping kosher and insisted on transferring out of his coed school. His parents refused. When the conflicts escalated, he ran away from home and found shelter in several different Haredi yeshivas. Twice the police searched for him. The welfare authorities also got involved. In the end, it was agreed that a compromise would be found with the help of Rabbi Dov Bigon, a former kibbutznik who became religious. He recommended sending the boy to the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. And that’s what happened.

“A year later he called me at work and said he didn’t want to be with hypocritical religious types,” says his mother Yocheved now, describing how the process of her son becoming ultra-Orthodox began. Erez was 15 now and his parents could no longer impose their authority. He embarked on a journey into the heart of the Haredi world, via yeshivas in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and Safed. He taught at a Chabad school, then aligned himself with Braslav Hasidism; later on he became attached to the Toldot Aharon and Satmar sects.

His classmates from yeshiva remember him as “a real Torah scholar with a very sharp mind.” They say he was brimming with curiosity and that he managed to acquire a great deal of Torah knowledge in a relatively short time. In those days, he also began to stand out for his skills of rhetoric and his talents as a teacher, and at interesting others in becoming religious. At 17, he was married in an arranged match with Malka Azulai, a girl from Kiryat Ata who had also recently become religious.

Following Satmar practice, Erez rejected his Zionist name and declared that henceforth he wished to be known as Shlomo. He also altered the spelling of his surname from Elbarnes to Helbrans. He says this was how the name was spelled in his grandmother’s old Yugoslav passport. He also notes proudly that his mother’s family also came from Serbia, and that both parents grew up in Ladino-speaking Sephardi families. The Yad Vashem archives contain the names of a number of his parents’ relatives, who perished at Treblinka, Poland.
Shlomo and Malka Helbrans lived in Safed for six years. There he ran the Braslav Yeshivat Hametivta and was mentored by certain prominent Hasidic rabbis, including Rabbi Eliezer Shlomo Schik, known as “the tzaddik from Yavniel,” who heads one of the most extremist and isolationist Hasidic communities. In the mid-’80s, the couple and their three children moved to Jerusalem. In the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, Helbrans began to gather around him a small group of Hasidim, mainly religious penitents. Several of his first students now live in the community in Canada.

Writer Haim Be’er was a reporter on Haredi affairs in the late 1980s. He visited the young community in Jerusalem three times and recalls that it numbered no more than 20 yeshiva students. Helbrans agreed to speak with him but not to be interviewed, and so Be’er did not write about their meeting.

Be’er remembers the young Helbrans as “a radical, an original man with a different way of thinking,” but he also saw “dangerous extremism” in him. “Helbrans was searching for his path in the Haredi world,” he says, adding that, “for the religious penitent, someone who has family tradition or roots to draw upon, there are no boundaries or limits by which this extremism can be stopped.”

Be’er says that during his last meeting with Helbrans, something odd happened in the community. “It was shortly before the first Gulf War in 1991. Yeshiva students were coming and going, moving packages. There was a lot of activity. At some point, someone brought in a pile of 20 passports and placed it on the table. Helbrans wasn’t willing to divulge what the plan was. Hasidim around him said there was nothing here for them anymore. The next time I went there, maybe a week later, the place was empty. There was no trace of them.”
In Part II, to be published next week, Shay Fogelman writes about Lev Tahor’s policy on underage marriages, how its members really make a financial living, and speaks to people who left the community.


’When you’re on the path of truth, you don’t care what others say’
By Shay Fogelman
Haaretz - March 16, 2012

In the second part of Haaretz’s investigation into the Lev Tahor Hasidic cult in Canada, Shay Fogelman speaks to the group’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, about his prison time in America and the community’s attitude to underage marriage, to a young man who managed to leave the religious extremists and to a mother who defend their hard-line way of life.

Waiting for the Messiah
Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans’ arguments for the proof of God’s existence go on much longer than planned. After two and a half days, he still hasn’t finished laying out all his points. We spoke each day for many hours – about his worldview, his community, his life. We debated quite a bit, mostly about God. But the conversations and interviews were generally pleasant, and laced with a bit of humor at times. He has a good sense of humor, and is able to laugh at himself, too. Once in a while, he said he was offended and tried to employ emotional manipulation. At times he was dramatic, at other times quite childish. He is a fascinating interlocutor. He has a great thirst for knowledge, and is attentive and curious.

Our talks took place in his office, whose walls are completely covered with bookshelves crammed with holy books. In the middle of the room is a large table covered with an embroidered tablecloth overlaid with a sheet of plastic. Helbrans sat at the head of the table on a wooden, leather-upholstered chair adorned with delicate carvings.

Most of the time, one of the new Hasidim from the community was also present; he recorded the conversations and wrote down the main points. Every so often an assistant came in and handed the rabbi the telephone or whispered something in his ear. One aide or another served us coffee and cookies for hours on end. In the evenings there was wine and a hearty meal.

Like all the other Hasidim in the community, the aides always walked backward while leaving the room. Out of respect, they will not turn their back to their rabbi. Entering or leaving the room, they kiss his hand. They consult with him on just about everything and always accede to his authority. They call him the Tzaddik or Admor, as is customary in the Hasidic world.

The community’s detractors say the honor shown to Helbrans is excessive and call him a power-hungry megalomaniac. They say his adherents mostly show him blind faith that derives from fear. I tried to test these claims, and to stretch the limits. At times I would joke about him with his Hasidim. When one of them spoke admiringly about the rabbi’s dancing at a wedding, I said to him: “That kind of surprises me. He looks pretty fat.” When they spoke reverently of his intellectual abilities, I said I thought he was “a little rusty.” I joked again and again that he was a nudnik. No one was fazed by my provocations. Sometimes they laughed with me, sometimes they stuck up for him, but not in any way that went beyond what one would expect to find in the personality cults of other Hasidic sects.

Helbrans’ critics also describe him as an extraordinarily charismatic manipulator and charlatan. They ascribe to him an almost demonic ability to brainwash people. In talking with him for hours, my impression was that these claims are quite exaggerated. He is an impressive man, no doubt, but not overwhelmingly eloquent. Though clear for the most part, his arguments are sometimes overly convoluted and tend to get lost in examples and anecdotes. Sometimes he forgets what he meant to say, sometimes he repeats the same thing a few times in the same sentence. Sometimes he exaggerates a bit, sometimes he gets boastful. Sometimes he is mistaken, or veers away from the truth.

Helbrans’ first book of halakha is entitled “Derekh Hatzala” (“Path of Salvation”). It is well summarized by the subtitle printed in gold letters on its blue binding: “An illumination of what is occurring right now in the Holy Land, and the approaching erasure of the state, and of the magnitude of the danger to each and every one who is found there and resides there, and the path of salvation for each one who is found there and resides there, and many more important matters.”

The book was published by the community in Canada and thousands of copies have been distributed throughout the Haredi world. Some are sent by mail but mainly they are passed from hand to hand, under the table, in synagogues and yeshivas. Most of the Hasidim who have joined the community in recent years came to it after reading the book.

The main inspiration for Helbrans’ doctrine as presented in “Path of Salvation” is drawn from the book that is a keystone for all the most extreme Hasidic sects – “Vayoel Moshe” by the previous Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. As in that 1961 work, Helbrans’ main arguments against the State of Israel are based on Biblical prophecies, on interpretations of halakha and, above all, on “the three vows.” In these vows, which appear in the Babylonian Talmud, the Jewish people vow to God not to migrate en masse and by force to the Land of Israel, not to provoke the nations of the world and not to establish independent rule. In the Haredi world, there is much debate surrounding these three vows. Helbrans, like the Satmar Rebbe, has chosen an interpretation that is vehemently opposed to the existence of the State of Israel. In a review of the book six years ago in Maariv, Adam Baruch wrote: “If only Yossi Beilin or Avigdor Lieberman could write such a modern, clearly and energetically argued intellectual political book.”

Lev Tahor Hasidim strive to avoid any contact with the State of Israel and its authorities. A few years ago, some of them appealed to the Canadian authorities to recognize them as refugees without a homeland. They observe the Fifth of Iyar (the Hebrew date of Israel’s independence) as a day of disaster and mourning, often burning Israeli flags. But unlike Neturei Karta and other anti-Zionist Haredi sects, Helbrans insists he would not wave the Palestinian flag. “I’m prepared to identify with the suffering of the Palestinian people in the same way I identify with the suffering of any human creature on earth,” he says. “But I have no opinion as to the justice of their cause or the way in which they are waging their struggle.

“A Jew who believes in the Torah cannot take a side in this struggle,” he says. “The Zionist state must be annulled and quickly, from the Torah’s point of view. Because of that same outlook, other peoples must not be enslaved. The Jewish people must wait in exile for redemption and the coming of the Messiah. I pray every day for this to happen, but I would be happy if it is done without any bloodshed.”

The Shin Bet enters the picture
Helbrans’ anti-Zionist stance was formed when he was still living in Israel. After embracing the Satmar Rebbe’s doctrine, he began taking part in Haredi demonstrations and pasting up street posters denouncing the state. And when the ideas turned to actions, Helbrans and his followers started appearing on the security service’s radar. A man who was part of the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division at the time says, “The alarms were actually set off by information that came from the other side. One day, people in the field, who were monitoring the activity of radical Islamic organizations, passed on information about a Jerusalem group of religious penitents who’d sought contact with sheikhs and Muslim clergy. In the past we’d seen ties between members of the Haredi movement and different leaders in the Fatah movement or other secular Palestinian organizations. The background to it was always opposition to the state. But before this, we had never seen a single case in which extremist Haredim made contact with Muslim extremists.” The official says that, for a long time, the Shin Bet was trying to get to the root of this connection and its motives.

Helbrans says that the connection was made in the summer of 1988, with what was then the Islamic Movement in Israel. “We had a problem with the Transportation Ministry,” he recounts. “They wanted to pave a road over ancient Jewish graves in Wadi Ara. From past experience we knew that it would be hard to stop them with protests and to prevent the desecration of God’s name. So we contacted Raad Salah, who had just been elected as mayor of Umm al-Fahm [Salah was first elected in 1989]. We held an urgent meeting with him and presented our case. There was much mutual admiration and respect between us as men of religion. He understood the problem and immediately offered to help. The next day, hundreds of young people from Umm al-Fahm came to the road. They showed us just how a demonstration is done. A few days later, the Transportation Ministry backed off the plan and the graves were saved.”

On the eve of the first Gulf War in 1991, Helbrans declared there was a real and immediate danger to the lives of Jews who remained in Israel. Together with two families and about 10 of his students, he flew to New York. There the small community was warmly welcomed by the Satmar sect, particularly the isolationist group known as Bnei Yoel. The hasty departure of the Lev Tahor Hasidim was the subject of much criticism in the Israeli press at the time. They were said to be “running away.” The parents of several of Helbrans’ followers accused him of brainwashing and kidnapping their children, and filed complaints with the police in Jerusalem. But because these people were not minors, the cases were closed.

The families’ pain was great. For some, the trauma is still ever-present. “They left many things that are dear to us. The land, first of all, but also the Jewish people. To say that they are right and everyone else is wrong is not the way of Judaism or the Torah. This separation is hard for me, but they are my brothers and I love them,” says Rabbi Gavriel Goldman, whose two brothers, Uriel and Michael, were part of the group who left Israel with Helbrans in the early 1990s.

The three brothers grew up in Jerusalem and were taught to love the Torah, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. They took part in youth movements and served in the army. They belonged to the religious-Zionist elite. Gavriel, the eldest, is now the rabbi of Kfar Adumim, and struggles to explain just what attracted his brothers to the Lev Tahor ideology and way of life. “It’s the way they’ve chosen and they seem happy. But it’s hard for me to accept,” he says. “I wish they would sit down and have this discussion with me here. I would invite them to live with me. I would try to show them my world, which is much more complex – a world that contains both the Torah and Israel. Sometimes there are contradictions and you have to find a balance between different needs. This does not mean it’s a way of compromise. It’s a quest for the middle way, which is the way of Judaism. This is the reality and it is never painted in just black and white.”

Gavriel has visited his brothers in Canada but he says it was hard to communicate with his young nieces and nephews, who speak only Yiddish. He calls them on holidays and birthdays and tries to maintain a good, loving relationship. Despite the resentments of the past, their parents also try to visit their children and grandchildren in Canada each year.

’Angels in black’
A number of other relatives of Lev Tahor Hasidim were interviewed for this article. Some have trouble accepting or understanding their children’s decision, but they respect it and remain in touch by phone. A.’s daughter became very religious when she was 14. A year ago, when she was 22, she joined Lev Tahor in Canada, with her husband and their two children. Since then she has assumed a different name. “I’m still not used to it,” says A., who lives in central Israel. In her daily phone calls to her daughter, she continues to call her by her original name. “It’s not easy for me to accept this change. It’s not easy to deal with the physical and mental distance, but I’ve been there twice and she seems happy. She has a supportive community that provides a lot of mutual aid. When I left I told all the women I met there, ‘You are angels in black.’”

A. was alarmed when she read stories about the community on Haredi websites, but her visits and talks with her daughter reassure her. “My impression is that the community is being unjustly denigrated,” she says. “It’s not a regular place and it’s not for everyone. But I think people who are searching for themselves can find answers in this community. As a mother, I can honestly say I’ve never heard my daughter’s voice sound as calm and peaceful as it does now. She grew up in a world of plenty. She never wanted for anything. But there was always this restlessness in her. She was always searching for something else. I’m sorry she had to find the answers in such a faraway place.”

Aside from the distance, A. says it’s also hard for her to accept the way her daughter dresses and the anti-Zionist attitudes that are prevalent in the community. However, she immediately adds, “I’m always telling myself I have to accept the choice that makes my daughter happy. Soon I’m going to start learning Yiddish, so I can talk with my grandchildren on my next visit.”

Over the years, the media have also reported stories about families who could not accept their children’s decision to join Lev Tahor. Just a few weeks ago, the supplement of the Makor Rishon newspaper carried an article about the Lev Tahor community. It told the story of Malka Masoudi, whose two sons, Aryeh and Yosef, joined the community more than 20 years ago. It reported that she had turned to the Lev Le’achim organization for help, saying, “Erez Elbarnes took my two sons and kidnapped them away from Israel to America without my knowledge or consent.” The article also said she did not contact the police “because the boys were no longer minors.” Aryeh and Yosef never resumed contact with their mother and they still live with Helbrans.

Another story in the article has been publicized several times before, mainly in the Haredi media. It is about a young man who spent several months in the community, about 20 years ago. His mother says that “Helbrans took him for a walk in the woods. The whole night he walked with him among the shadows and said: ‘I know what you did.’ He scared him so much that my son completely lost his self-confidence. Helbrans explained to him that only he could save him from evil.”

The article goes on to describe allegations of violent actions by Lev Tahor Hasidim against the youth’s parents, the police complaints and more. In conclusion, it says: “The method Helbrans has been using for the past 20 years is to influence the child to pressure his parents to allow him to learn in the yeshiva. And when this pressure doesn’t work, Helbrans pulls out the heavy artillery” – what the article describes as false depositions that children file with the police against their parents. After a protracted legal battle, the youth was returned to his parents’ home, with his mother describing him as “a broken vessel.”

Helbrans denies the accusations. “These lies started 20 years ago and they continue to evolve in different forms. There is no truth to them. There never was any truth to them,” he says, although he does acknowledge that, over the years, a few families have been torn apart. Excommunications have been declared. Two couples divorced when one spouse wanted to join the community against the other’s wishes. One Hasid told me he had burned all of his childhood pictures. Another Hasid left his parents’ home with nothing but the clothes on his back, and has not returned once in the 20 years since.

There have also been cases of violence. Parents and other family members have sometimes come to the community and tried to forcibly take their children back. Complaints have been filed with the police from both sides, each accusing the other of provocation. Helbrans says he has been hospitalized at least twice after taking a beating. There have also been appeals made to the rabbinical courts, primarily in the United States, in an attempt to excommunicate the community. To this day, most of the controversy surrounding the community has been aroused in the wake of struggles like these.

But Helbrans does not draw all his followers from secular or religious Zionist families. Currently, about a third of the community’s members are Haredim from other Hasidic sects in the United States. Another third are people with Israeli roots who’ve recently become more religious. And the last third is comprised of Hasidim from the first generation that grew up within the community.

The bitter struggles triggered by Haredim from other sects joining Lev Tahor have been even more fierce than those that have occurred in secular families whose children joined the group. In fact, most of Helbrans’ real conflicts with the Haredi world began after Hasidim – including some with very distinguished family pedigrees – left their Rebbes to join the court of Helbrans, who is derisively referred to as “the kibbutznik who found religion,” and who comes from a Sephardi background to boot.

In this particular arena, the language used in the struggle is especially crude and harsh. “Shlomo Helbrans tormented and shredded the hearts of men and women, and stole good and decent children from their parents’ homes, and turned them into beggars, and lunatics, who shame their fathers and mothers, and who tell their fathers and mothers: ‘You have not seen him [Helbrans],’ and do not heed them,” says one flyer that was distributed around Monsey and in New York City. At the bottom is a hotline number one can call with complaints about Helbrans’ behavior.

A similar flyer in the Satmar community concludes with the words: ”He is the biggest scoundrel in Jewish history. Let us put an end to the darkness. This same man who was born in impurity in the kibbutz of the Zionists shall preach no more. Please help before it’s too late!”

Helbrans now has at least four followers in his court who come from preeminent Hasidic families and who gave up their standing and high positions in other important Hasidic sects, including the Kasho, Boyan and Satmar sects. This has caused an unprecedented sensation in the Haredi world.

Allegations of corporal punishment
Helbrans is an excellent interviewee. Nearly every line he utters could cause a sensation. The State of Israel: “The worst sin of all.” Torah Sages: “Who decided that they’re the greatest sages? It’s all deals and politics.” Chabad: “The notion that the Rebbe is the Messiah is nothing more than idol worship in the guise of Judaism.” Haredi political parties: “A tragedy.”

He believes there is one eternal and absolute truth. And that anyone not following it acts in error. Of course, he purports to know just what this path is. His disciples harbor that same powerful sense of internal truth – otherwise they’d have nothing to look for here. Their criticism of the entire world, Haredi and otherwise, is coherent for the most part, and based on an elaborate and fully formed worldview.

However, Helbrans says he also ready to acknowledge that he could be wrong. “The search for truth is the purpose. And at its base there exists the assumption that one could also be wrong. Otherwise, there would be no search,” he says. “If you convince me I am wrong about something, and that there is another truth, I won’t be able to avoid embracing it. I strive to maintain an open line of communication with the Hasidim, to hear them, to accept criticism and to amend things if there are mistakes.”

The customs and lifestyle of the Lev Tahor community have been consolidated over the past 25 years. On occasion there were attempts to write down a code of regulations, as is done in other Hasidic sects, but the frequent changes and numerous additions have been preserved instead as a kind of Oral Code. Like the leaders of other religious groups, Helbrans also aspires to return to the sources, to the foundations of early Hasidism. He believes all the community’s customs, no matter how controversial, have a halakhic [Jewish religious law] anchor and historic precedent in the Jewish world.

One of the most serious allegations leveled at Lev Tahor in the past had to do with the use of corporal punishment. Publications of the Va’ad Shomrei Mishmarot Hakodesh in New York said that in his yeshiva, “Helbrans gave beatings to Hasidim who are his servants, causing them to pass out and to shed blood and more.” In a 2004 article in the Haredi newspaper Besha’a Tova, Natan Nussbaum reported: “Helbrans himself goes to the extreme, adopting this way in all areas of life. Especially in the area of repentance for sins. For example, on every day of the year, he adopts the custom that was practiced by Shlomei Emunei Yisrael on Yom Kippur Eve, to receive lashings (malkot), as a means of repentance. The community also practices this throughout the year, and their daily prayers are also similar to that of the High Holy Days and more. From time to time, Hasidim fall to the ground to absorb ‘malkot’ that are meted out by whip, in order to repent for their sins.”

Speaking by phone from America, the reporter retracts many of the things that were said in the article. His real name is not Natan Nussbaum, and he is a Breslov Hasid living in New York. “I didn’t really check into those things,” he admits today. “There was a lot of talk that this is what they do. I personally never heard any first-person testimony about it.”

Another article that was recently printed in Makor Rishon described similar things. Yocheved Ma’uda detailed how for weeks she would hide at night in the women’s section of the synagogue, in order to see what the Hasidim of Lev Tahor were up to during the time her son Sinai was there: “Helbrans’ method was to establish these small groups in which the students would confess their sins and flog one another.”

In addition, the Makor Rishon reporter also quoted several former Lev Tahor Hasidim who wished to remain anonymous: “The former students tell of indescribable suffering inflicted upon them by the Rosh Yeshiva – having to roll in the snow, hundreds of lashings that cut the flesh of their backs, and other types of severe harm.” Aside from these statements, in recent years there has been no direct and verified testimony that these things are indeed happening. Not from any of the dozens of people who were interviewed for this article. Nor have any complaints to this effect been filed with the police.

Helbrans also denies that any such policy was ever employed in the community, but he does say that he and some of his Hasidim have had experience with some of these things. “If you take Judaism seriously, you cannot ignore the whole world of the ‘righting of wrongs’ that is found in the kabbala and the books of Musar (spiritual discipline). It’s an ancient halakhic tradition and all of the kabbalists, without exception, discuss it. In all of the books of responsa, the greatest halakhic arbitrators are asked what the remedy is for this or that deed.

“Since the days of the Second Temple, the practice has been for things to be done symbolically and with desire and consent. We never deviated in these matters from the written halakha. There were a few incidents, that were done by a few people on their own. It was never a policy in the community and I can’t understand why such accusations are hurled at us. I can count on one hand the number of times in which Hasidim rolled in the snow as part of a tikun, for having transgressed a negative commandment. This is something that is very common today in many other places in the Hasidic world. Maybe it bothers them that we did it better than they did,” he says jokingly.

Helbrans also says that, as in other Hasidic communities, here, too, on Yom Kippur Eve they also receive 39 symbolic lashings, but he insists that beyond this there are no other tikunim that involve corporal punishment. “Today these things no longer have a place in the way Lev Tahor works. Because of the libelous accusations, they are officially prohibited. From my personal life experience and the community’s experience, I haven’t been able to find a way to bridge between these ancient traditions and our way of work, which is based on looking inward. With fasting and self-mortification, you can’t keep your head clear to look inward.”

Child marriages
Lev Tahor has also been accused of having minors enter into marriages. In the course of talking with various people involved in the community, the names of at least seven recently married couples came up where one or both of the couple was under the age of 16 (which is against the law in Canada). One former Lev Tahor Hasid says that in all of these cases, the marriages were not formally registered with the authorities until the minor reached the age at which he or she could be legally married. He says that other couples composed of minors were sometimes sent to Missouri, in the United States, where marriage is permitted from the age of 15, with parental consent.

Helbrans’ first reaction to these accusations is insistent: “Of course I support marriage at as early an age as possible. According to the halakha, if the two young people are ready, they can marry as early as age 13. If I could have, I would have married a number of couples at this age who I thought were ready. But this is against the law in Canada. Here the minimum age is 16 and we adhere to that. Meanwhile, there are also cases where couples are not ready even at this age.”

In the course of preparing this article, when I had already returned to Israel, at least one case came to light in which a wedding ceremony was held by Lev Tahor at which the bride was still two weeks shy of her 16th birthday. Helbrans’ response: “I’m in shock.” He says he knew nothing about it. “This is a mistake that was apparently caused by various elements in the community.” I requested photocopies of the passports of the couples who were alleged to have married under the minimum age permitted by law, but at press time, evidence refuting the allegation was only received in regard to one couple. Meanwhile, from other sources came several ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) proving that marriages of minors were in fact held in the community in recent years. Helbrans insists this is a mistake.

Helbrans and his followers say the accusations made against them are part of a persecution campaign by those who will not accept their path, or those that were ejected from the community because they did not adapt to its lifestyle. This is what they say, for instance, about the last Hasid who left Lev Tahor. He is Nehemia Benzion Brodowski, 27, and he “escaped,” as he puts it, from Sainte-Agathe in the middle of the night, together with his wife, Leah Shaindel. The couple now live in Denmark and their first child, a boy, was born about a month ago. Brodowski says he still follows the Lev Tahor path and that he and his wife still follow all of the community’s kashrut rules and way of dress. But he adds that, “in Lev Tahor, everything is done right, but through coercion. We could not live that way any longer.”

Brodowski says he joined the community two years ago. He has an Israeli mother and a Danish father and grew up completely secular in Denmark and then Sweden. At 19, he became religious and went to study at several Haredi yeshivas in the United States, which is where he first learned of Lev Tahor. His wife was born and raised in the community, the daughter of one of its most prominent families.

Brodowski says he secretly obtained a laptop computer a few months ago. He then conducted Internet research about the behavior of cults and religious extremist groups, and eventually concluded that Lev Tahor was “dangerous.”

“The place is controlled by brainwashing and fear,” Brodowski says. “I went through dozens of websites and studies about the subject, and I was stunned to discover how on every criterion Lev Tahor is run in a way that is typical of dangerous cults. People there have a blind and total yearning to please the Rabbi. They try their utmost to be good Hasidim and get lost along the way. They will do whatever they are told. They have no control over their lives. They have no free choice. They have no will.”

Brodowski describes a series of punishments meted out to community members who don’t live up to the strict code. He says he was forced to flee Sainte-Agathe with the aid of foreign elements after he was made to sign an oath in which he pledged to immediately give his wife a get (Jewish divorce decree) should the community’s Beth Din or Helbrans himself order him to do so. As proof, he proffers the oath that he signed “under threat.” For fear that he would be called upon to divorce his wife, he cut off all contact with the community.

Brodowski displays a version of the oath he was forced to sign by Lev Tahor: “I hereby take upon myself to be ostracized and … cursed with all the curses written in the Sefer Habrit given to Moses at Sinai, if I should knowingly, after being warned, transgress any one thing of what I signed today being of sound mind ... and should I speak or tell about this path with any person, whether in speech or in writing or in any other way, anything that could cause financial or bodily harm. And also not to do any action at all in any manner, either by my own hand or by means of a messenger or by means of any deceit or ply that could cause financial or bodily harm or mental anguish to the Admor … or to the Lev Tahor community … or to anyone affiliated with the community.”

Helbrans denies all the accusations. He confirms the wording of the oaths that Brodowski signed, but explains that the man constituted a threat to the community. Helbrans: “If I were to find that there are people that feel frightened or pressured, even though they are here of their own free will, I wouldn’t keep them here for one minute. We are fighting for a path and a method that everyone is committed to, but it is done without any brainwashing or pressure.”

He says of Brodowski: “This is a fellow with serious mental problems who never fit into any framework.” Helbrans rejected similar claims I presented to him from others in the community in the same manner. Discussing one woman whom he suspected had spoken with me, he said: “She’s retarded. Plain and simple.” About another woman: “She is totally disturbed. For a long time we’ve been considering whether to throw her out or not.”

Family assistance
During my visit to Sainte-Agathe, the gravity of the deeds ascribed to Helbrans and members of Lev Tahor weighed on my mind. My wariness never left for a moment. Besides the meetings I scheduled with Helbrans and some of his Hasidim, I also went into the streets of the community without any prior coordination, I went into the children’s classrooms and the synagogue. At night, too, suspecting that awful things might be happening, I would leave the hotel and observe the houses in the neighborhood, looking for lights that were left on.

Every foreigner who has visited the community in recent years, and who was interviewed for this article, described similar feelings. Relatives of Lev Tahor members, as well as Canadian journalists who’ve visited Sainte-Agathe, say they felt that, below the surface, other things were happening than what was presented to them publicly. I, too, often had the feeling that the community members were putting on a show for me. Not until I returned to Israel did I obtain recordings that were made in Helbrans’ office before a visit by an outsider. “There are things he doesn’t need to know,” the rabbi is heard instructing his followers.

From Christian neighbors in the area, I heard some complaints about the Lev Tahor people. 
The neighbors grumbled about the way their yards were neglected and about their peculiar dress that draws reactions from tourists, upon whom Sainte-Agathe’s economy is largely based. A large portion of the complaints had to do with the cultural differences. There was nothing about abuse, violence or illegal actions.

But the neighbors, like an outsider who pays a brief visit, cannot comment on one controversial institution that exists in the community, out of their sight. It’s called Ezrat Mishpacha (“Family Assistance”) and Helbrans says “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.” He relates that the organization is headed by one of the most dominant women in the community, but insists that he takes responsibility for every decision or action. He describes this organization as a kind of “communal welfare bureau,’ whose role is “to keep an eye on all the families and help those in need. If a woman is sick, for instance, we make sure to send help to her at home. Or if we get reports that there are certain problems in education that need fixing, or domestic problems – such as complaints from a wife about her husband, or vice versa – the righteous women of Ezrat Mishpacha will do everything to help and to solve the problems.”

Others in the community offer a different view of the organization. They describe it more as a type of “modesty patrol.” They say it’s really a punishment mechanism for those who don’t hew strictly to the community line. They say that each week at a meeting of all the women of the community, there are reports made about people who have deviated, however slightly, from the community’s strict code of behavior. Some say it is sometimes family members who do the informing. The punishments include the silent treatment, confinement to the house or being sent to other homes in the community for “reeducation.”

Helbrans contends that such depictions are nothing but a distorted interpretation of things. “There are no punishments in Lev Tahor,” he declares. “The only punishment is expulsion from the community.” Excommunications, he says, are only made “in the few instances when we think that someone must be removed from the community. When we think that he is unsuitable, and so he is forbidden to take part in the community or to use its institutions.”
He confirms that, at his instruction or the instruction of Ezrat Mishpacha, several community members have been forbidden from speaking with others. However, Helbrans says, “This is not a fine or a punishment. Certain people can hurt one another and if Ezrat Mishpacha sees that this is the situation, it can order them not to speak to each other anymore. For example, one Hasid said his wife was chatting with another woman all day long. He complained that she was neglecting the house and the children. She admitted it, and so it was decided that these two women would only speak to each other once every two weeks. This kind of thing happens very rarely and the reasons for it usually concern a lack of productivity.”

Regarding instances in which adult members of the community were sent to live in others’ homes for a period of time, Helbrans says: “Everything was always done with consent. These are cases in which Ezrat Mishpacha recommends to a couple that the wife go and stay with her mother for a while if she’s not feeling well, for example. Other cases occurred when we saw that a woman was developing a certain amount of mental stress that kept her from being able to function at home.”

As for the transfer of minors to different families, Helbrans confirms it, but explains: “When a woman gives birth, all the children are moved to other families until she fully recovers. It can sometimes take up to a month. And here, too, it is always done with everyone’s full consent and desire.”

Elior Chen comes to town
Over the years, Lev Tahor’s location at the extreme fringes of the Haredi world has attracted all kinds of seekers and fringe types to its ranks. This is also one of the important elements that make up the community. Helbrans categorizes those who join Lev Tahor in two groups: “There are people who come because they seek the truth. They’ve heard about the community and they know it is the only place where they can live in the way that is right for them. And then there are people who come because they are terribly miserable and no one else is ready to help them. Only here in this community will they receive attention, warmth, love, patience and brotherhood. Sometimes they change, they get onto the right path and integrate in our way of life. We have many such success stories. But sometimes they don’t succeed.”

With surprising openness, some of the Hasidim in Canada told me about their difficult childhoods in broken families. One related that his Haredi father had been sentenced to 30 years in prison in America for raping his daughter. Ever since the trial, the family was torn apart. The mother “lost it,” the sister left the Haredi world. Another Hasid said he was sexually abused as a child. Another was kicked out of every school and institution he’d ever been in. He came to Lev Tahor when he was 18, and his friends recount that he couldn’t even read and write.

Lev Tahor has also attracted Hasidim who were rejected by other Hasidic sects due to poor marital ties, their background or other deviations from the accepted norms in that society. Teenage girls from Haredi families who fall into distress, for various reasons, are also sometimes sent to the community to be married off there.

The community’s isolationism and remoteness has also sometimes attracted people with dubious histories, who thought they would find shelter there. Some left of their own will, others were expelled by the community. The most well-known example is that of Rabbi Elior Chen, who fled from the authorities in Israel after being accused of very violent and serious child abuse (he was dubbed “the abusive rabbi”). Four years ago, with the help of one of his followers, he fled to Canada and went to Sainte-Agathe. “He told us he was a scion of the Abuhatzeira family and that he was being persecuted by the Zionists,” says Helbrans about their first meeting. “I hugged him. We gave him food and a warm bed for a few days, until we started to get reports about the charges being made against him in Israel.”

Helbrans says that, even with all his opposition to the Zionist state and its laws, he could not give shelter to such a man. Not to mention that he was also placing the entire community in danger because Interpol was already on Chen’s tail. Chen was forced to leave and fled to Brazil, from where he was subsequently extradited to Israel, tried and sentenced to 24 years in prison. Chen told one of his associates he tried to find shelter with Lev Tahor after he came upon a copy of the book “Path of Salvation” at a cemetery where he slept while on the run from the police. That’s how he learned of the community’s existence, he said.

A number of other negative fringe phenomena from the Haredi world have been mistakenly attributed to Lev Tahor in recent years, though. Because of the way the women dress, the woman known as “Mama Taliban” has been said to be a part of the community, as have the women the press came to call “The Abusive Mother” and “The Mother who Starves her Children,” as well as some of the Sikrikim in Beit Shemesh. However, these particular cases and people have no affiliation with Lev Tahor.

A white shirt in prison
"Listen well, Shay, listen well. I’ll tell you very clearly. Anyone that I see has the potential to come back to religion, and I mean anyone, at any age. I will do my very utmost to see that it will happen,” Helbrans said to me in one of our conversations. His wife Malka, who was standing on the other side of the room, appeared to clutch her head in disbelief, and whispered in desperation: “Oh no, not again. Not again.” Helbrans looked at her and then turned to me, raising both eyebrows, and said: “What can I do? This is the truth.” The Rebbetzin muttered, “I can’t listen to this anymore,” and left the room. “Hey, look, now you’ve got the big scoop,” Helbrans said with a smile.

This dialogue may sound insignificant, but 20 years ago this kind of thinking got Helbrans involved in an episode that culminated with prison time and deportation from the United States. In February 1992, an Israeli boy named Shai Fhima Reuven arrived at Helbrans’ home in the Borough (aka Boro) Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Newspaper coverage of the story said the boy arrived there accompanied by his mother, Chana. Two years earlier, she had smuggled him out of Israel and away from his father, from whom she was divorced. This was a month before Shai’s bar mitzvah and the mother wanted Helbrans to prepare the boy to be called up to the Torah. A week later, Shai began studying in the yeshiva and slept there four nights a week, with his mother’s consent.

Shai was also given a bar mitzvah party by the Lev Tahor community. Newsday, which covered the story, reported that “more than 60 people attended, most of them Hasidim of the Rabbi, including Jackie Fhima, Shai’s stepfather.” With his mother’s consent, Shai stayed on to live and study at the yeshiva for another whole month. During this time, he grew closer to the community and also began to follow its religious ways. Several times he told Helbrans and some of his Hasidim that his stepfather and his mother beat him, and that for two years they had not allowed him to have any contact with his father, who lived in Israel.

When his mother came to pick him up, Shai refused to go home with her and announced that he was also no longer willing to go to public school and study together with goyim. The mother objected and took the child, almost by force, back to the shelter for battered women where she was staying at the time. In the following weeks, Shai ran away back to the yeshiva several times and was only returned to his mother under threat and by force. In early April 1992, he disappeared.

Helbrans was arrested a few days after Shai’s disappearance, but then released. “I don’t care what Shai or Helbrans say. As far as I’m concerned, he is responsible for the kidnapping. Throughout these two years [of Shai’s disappearance, from 1992-4], he knew where the boy was. He tricked all the investigators but that won’t help him any because I know the truth,” says Michael Reuven, Shai’s biological father, with anger that clearly hasn’t subsided at all over the years.

The New York police as well as the FBI investigated the case. And the parents also hired private investigators to try to find Shai. Helbrans’ phone lines were tapped, surveillance vehicles and hidden cameras were set up near the yeshiva. “Helbrans burned two years of my life,” says Reuven. “After I got divorced from Shai’s mother, I started a new family. Because of the struggle over Shai, I neglected my business and my family. In the end I sold my house and later I got divorced, too.”

Helbrans vehemently denies that he was involved in the boy’s kidnapping. He claims to have no idea who was behind it. “If Shai Fhima would have come to me when he ran away, I don’t think I would have refrained from helping him. But I would have done it differently,” he says. “Besides, I have nothing to say about the kidnapping. I have no connection to it.”

In February 1993, about a year after the boy’s disappearance, Helbrans was arrested again, and this time his wife was arrested with him. The Jewish Advocate reported that Malka Helbrans was suspected of trying to prevent the child’s mother from obtaining custody of him, and Helbrans was said to have tried to purchase custody of Shai from his mother. Hundreds of Lev Tahor and Satmar Hasidim came out to protest the arrests, which were made on Shabbat eve, and the fact that Malka Helbrans was separated from her infant son.

An organization from Brooklyn called the Central Rabbinical Congress raised $250,000 to make the bail payment for Helbrans and his wife. Helbrans’ trial began in January 1994 and lasted five weeks. According to the indictment, he was facing a possible 25-year sentence. The New York Times, which gave the story extensive coverage, reported: “Throughout the trial, the rabbi insisted that Shai fled to him because of beatings he was receiving at home. And his mother, Chana Fhima, insisted that her rights to the child had been ignored. ‘You brainwashed him! You brainwashed him!’ she shouted out in the courtroom. The rabbi insisted, clutching a prayer book to his chest, that he had nothing to do with the boy’s disappearance and that he himself had tried to search for him.”

Eight days after the start of the trial, Shai suddenly appeared at the Rockland County Sheriff’s Office and asked to testify in court. He was questioned for many hours but would not reveal where he had been hiding for the last two years, for fear that “it would hurt the people and the families who helped me.” Regarding Helbrans, he had this to say: “I told Rabbi Helbrans about the abuse I experienced at home and that I just ran away. I never wanted to go and learn in his yeshiva. I went somewhere else.” He gave similar testimony twice in court.

Shai now lives abroad. He is not religious and declined to be interviewed for this article. He visited the Lev Tahor community about 10 years ago and remained on good terms with Helbrans and some of his Hasidim, even after he abandoned religion. In an interview about a decade ago with The New York Times, Shai was said to “still insist that he was not kidnapped or brainwashed by Helbrans. ‘I was going after the religion, not after Helbrans.’” The piece goes on to say that “He does not speak with his parents about the two years when he was missing. ‘They think I was brainwashed. I don’t. So we just let it go.’”

At the end of the trial, Helbrans was convicted but not on the charges for which he had originally been arrested and sued. The New York Times reported that a settlement was reached with the Brooklyn District Attorney, in which Helbrans was charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping in the fourth degree. According to the prosecution, Helbrans was recorded proposing to Shai’s father that he would handle negotiations with the people with whom Shai was hiding, and so he therefore knew who they were and where they were. He was sentenced to six to twelve years in prison, additional time on probation and 250 hours of community service. All the charges against his wife were dropped.

The prison rabbi, Herbert Richtman, told The Jewish Week about Helbrans’ time behind bars: “Helbrans wears only white shirts. I had to make a special effort for him because here, on Rikers Island, only guards wear white shirts ... The prison system decided that I would give him a white shirt each day and he would return it to me at the end of the day. This way, no one could use a white shirt to escape from the prison.”

Helbrans received other religious privileges while in prison. For the first time ever in the New York prison system, a prisoner was excused from being photographed for the prisoners’ album. Prisoners are photographed clean-shaven and Helbrans refused to shave his beard for halakhic reasons. In a precedent-setting decision by the New York State Court, a computer-generated portrait was permitted instead.

On the recommendation of the parole board, Helbrans was released after two years. The New York Times reported that the District Attorney launched an investigation to see whether he was released in wake of a personal appeal from a Hasidic fund-raiser for New York Governor George Pataki. Newspaper reports also said there was an investigation into whether Helbrans was given special treatment by officials during his incarceration and if they had any hand in his early release. The New York Times reported that records show prison officers transferred Helbrans to an open framework of working, even though he didn’t meet the criteria for it. The investigator said the prison officers told him this was done at the instruction of senior officers. A spokesman for the Prison Authority called it a minor administrative error. Helbrans was returned to prison to complete his sentence.

Helbrans rejects the claims that he received special privileges in prison. “I might have been the first Haredi rabbi in this place,” he says. “The system was dealing with someone it wasn’t familiar with. But I didn’t get any breaks. I paid a heavy price for something I wasn’t involved in. My family also paid a heavy price.” He says that one of the hardest moments was when his young son saw him in prison uniform and cried in alarm, “Tateh goy!”

Reuven, Shai’s father, is not willing to accept Helbrans’ denials of responsibility, but he does shed some new light on the story: “In retrospect, I can say that to a certain degree I was the one who led Shai to end up in Helbrans’ arms. After his mother smuggled him out of Israel, I didn’t hear from him for two years. After I exerted pressure on her family in Israel, she allowed me to have a brief phone conversation with him. This was two or three weeks before the bar mitzvah and I requested that he put on tefillin. I told him: ‘If you see some Hasidim, those guys with the black clothes, go up to them and say: “I’m about to be bar mitzvahed and I want to put on tefillin. My father wants you to help me.” They’ll take care of you.’ I don’t know where things could have ended up. Shai was involved with a bad crowd at the time, maybe he would have ended up involved in worse things, like drugs.”

God in colored markers
In the 1980s Helbrans was a rising star in the movement of getting people to “return to religion.” He worked independently as well as with his friend Rabbi Yagen, as part of the Arachim (“Values”) movement. Newspaper reports from the time describe him as “having tremendous persuasive powers,” and say that “religious penitents in Jerusalem say he is impossible to resist.” One widely known legend had it that once, while waiting at a bus stop, he managed to convince a secular soldier to turn religious. “One soldier? Lots of soldiers!” he says now. “Every time I got on a bus I looked for a ‘victim.’ Sometimes I even got him to get off at some yeshiva.”

Helbrans’ proofs of God’s existence were disappointing. I was expecting a complex theological debate, and what I got instead was the familiar series of arguments used by rabbis who bring people back to religion. He presented, for instance, the prophecies of the destruction of the Second Temple as they appear in Chapter 28 of Deuteronomy and the fall of the Kingdom of Babylon as prophesied by Isaiah and Jeremiah, maintaining that these prophecies came true exactly as predicted. He also presented several more Torah verses and examples that he says prove the eternality of the Divine truth as it appears in the Bible. In making his points, he referred to other books and drew on an erasable board with colored markers. His handwriting was practically illegible.

Helbrans is not aware of the power of the Internet. He hadn’t heard of Wikipedia, and using satellite pictures from Google, I challenged his claims about the destruction of Babylon. I showed him the results of archeological excavations that were done there. The fact that Saddam Hussein reconstructed some of the buildings also stood in contrast to the biblical prophecies as he presented them. The conversation turned into a discussion about the smallest details. We found ourselves arguing over different interpretations of the meaning of the vision of the eagle that appears in the prophecy of the destruction of the Second Temple, and even about the structure of the bee’s digestive system. Because he purports to present an absolute truth, I insisted that it be beyond any reasonable doubt. So far he has not succeeded. For the time being, we declared it a draw.

The whisperers
I’d already talked for hours upon hours with Helbrans and some of his Hasidim and still I had great expectations ahead of the final interview in the Lev Tahor community – an encounter with the women. This was supposed to answer many of the questions I still had. Over five days in Sainte-Agathe I’d occasionally seen then walking on the street, usually in groups. Often I saw them peeking through cracks in the window blinds or from behind doors. In Lev Tahor, the women aren’t just kept out of the public sphere, they seem practically absent altogether. Whenever I came to the home of one of the families, they hurried into another room. When I passed them on the street, they would slip into one of the nearby yards. They usually remain inside the home and do not come out in public or among strangers. Even with their husbands they try not to be seen in the public space. They keep up their strict dress code even when alone at home. Taking the interpretation of women’s modesty to the extreme, they also hardly speak; they have adopted a soft tone of speech that is nearly a whisper.

We met in the evening in the living room of one of the Lev Tahor families. The children had gone to bed, the men had returned from the synagogue, the women had finished the housework. Outside it was snowing. Inside it was pleasant. They introduced themselves: L., 34 and a mother of 11; M., 35 and a mother of 9; Z., 22 and a mother of three; and H., 26 with one child.

They described their daily routine. They say most of the women in the community are full-time housewives. Three also work as teachers. Other women in the community work at home as seamstresses. All defined their main work first of all as “worshipping Hashem.” They say they are good friends and that all the women in the community are very close, that they help one another with housework and child care. They all get together at least once a week for a Torah lesson given by one of the women. H. says she feels like they are “one big family.”

The women always give birth at the hospital in town. They also make sure that the children are vaccinated on time and receive any medical care they need.

L. and M. grew up in the Satmar Hasidic sect in America and came to Lev Tahor after they married. H. was born in the U.S., but before joining the community she lived in Israel for about a decade. Z., who became religious later in life, joined the community with her husband two years ago.

They say they’ve heard a little about the controversy that has grown lately in Israel surrounding the issue of the exclusion of women from the public sphere, but they say they have no interest in getting involved. L.: “It doesn’t concern us. We respect the society in which we live and we expect everyone to respect the society and the customs in the place where they live. Generally speaking, I think it was chutzpah on the part of that young Israeli woman to stir up anger and disputes. [She is referring to Tanya Rosenblit, who refused to sit at the back of a public bus in December.] If those are the society’s laws, people need to respect them and behave accordingly.”

They are familiar with the concept of feminism but M. says it has nothing to do with them. “It was meant for the outside modern world, not for Jewish women,” she says. “It’s not for me. I’m not looking for rights in order to attain political positions or to vote on policy. I’m not looking for equal rights in the workplace. That’s not the way of the Torah. That is what I follow, and only then can I be at peace with myself.”

As for the blessing that men recite each morning, thanking God “who did not make me a woman,” they say it actually attests to a flaw that exists in men. “I was created exactly in accordance with God’s will,” says L. “I say, ‘Blessed is He, who created me in accordance with His will.’ This is His perfection. Woman was created complete with no need to compare her to any other creature. Hashem created the world and woman’s nature. He did not create her so she should be unhappy with His creation. A woman who walks in the path of the Torah is one hundred percent happy with this.”

They told me about the handicrafts they do, about their hobbies and about the Yiddish books they read. They say they were the ones who wanted to introduce the dress code that is followed by the women in the community, even though there was resistance at first from the men, including Helbrans. They say they love the burka – that it’s comfortable – and they speak excitedly about the white robes they wear on Shabbat and holidays.

Their attire is made up of two dresses, a jacket with buttons, an apron tied on top of that, and on top of that a long robe and veil. L. insists that “the foundations of the community are not the way we dress but how we follow the path of Torah. And this attire is part of the Torah’s way. Sometimes I see women dressed in the style of the Western world and I don’t understand it. How can they walk in the streets like that? It’s so unrespectable and unworthy.

“Sometimes I feel the attention that my attire attracts,” L. adds. “People find it odd. We look different. But when you know exactly why you are doing this or that, it’s a lot stronger and more satisfying than all the judgmental eyes and the criticism. When you’re on the path of truth, you don’t care what others say.”

Throughout the interview, their responses are polite but formal. They were articulate and courteous, and never once interrupted one another. When I asked, all of them said they were happy. But throughout the interview with them, my attention and focus was often drawn to the green curtain with a floral pattern that was hanging in front of me. I couldn’t see the faces of the women who were sitting behind it. Nor their body language or hand gestures.

The green curtain was the condition that was imposed by the women in order to hold the interview. And this wasn’t the only curtain that I strained to see through during my visit to the Lev Tahor community. Their extreme worldview and way of life endlessly challenge liberal thinking. But even more so, Lev Tahor poses a challenge to the Haredi world. In many senses, it is putting forward new standards for this world, and defying the existing order.

The women’s attire is a good example of this. It may still be a marginal custom only practiced among the most extreme communities, but it is spreading and threatening some of the larger communities in the Haredi world, perhaps more than any other phenomenon that has arisen in recent decades. Because similar dress was adopted by a number of Jewish communities throughout history, to this day there has not been a single halakhic ruling from a prominent rabbi prohibiting it. The controversy around the women’s attire has become so great in the Haredi public that, in the last months, there have been a number of riots and demonstrations on this issue in Haredi enclaves in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.

The visit to Lev Tahor is unsettling. Days later I still had more questions that I knew neither Helbrans nor any of his Hasidim would ever be able to answer. They are closed off and isolated within themselves and have no possibility or ability to examine their lives in relation to the world around.

My attitude toward the community and its ways also shifted a number of times over that period. One minute the things they said sounded logical and legitimate; the next minute it all seemed very strange and unreasonable. In terms of the halakha, I couldn’t express criticism of Helbrans or find fault in the community’s way of life. I simply didn’t have the tools to do so. On the human, ethical and legal level, I found more than a few faults.

As if to add to the journalistic difficulty and emotional weight, during the research for this article I was also contacted by some family members of people in Lev Tahor, who asked me to help rescue their relatives. I also received a good number of phone calls from people who introduced themselves as opponents of the community and wished to warn me against writing anything positive about them. They claimed to have evidence of the terrible things that are happening in the community. I spoke with dozens of them. Most of the evidence was about the same controversial episodes from 20 years ago. Helbrans and some of his Hasidim also called several times, curious to hear my impressions.

For weeks I struggled to remove the fluttering curtains before my eyes, until proof came of the marriages of minors, as did the story of Brodowski and his wife who had fled, with which it was hard to argue. Perhaps we, perhaps I, have a side in us that wants to believe in something, perhaps it’s the side in me that wanted to believe Rabbi Helbrans, too. The rabbi and his Hasidim who called me after the visit tried to provide answers and explanations in response to the arguments I raised about their alleged illegal actions. By this point, I could barely sense the curtain fluttering before my eyes.


Lev Tahor sect arranged underage marriage, former member tells youth court
Testimony at youth court hearing describes unions for children as young as 13
By Jason Magder
The Montreal Gazette - January 17, 2014

MONTREAL — The stated goal of the Lev Tahor community is to arrange marriages for children as young as 13.

That was one of the facts revealed during the testimony of a former member of the sect in the Nov. 27 youth court hearing to consider removing 14 children from the community and placing them in foster care. Among the reasons listed by Quebec’s Youth Protection Department for the removal of the children is the suspicion that underage marriages are the norm in the community, a claim the community’s leaders have vigorously denied.

The court order has not yet been executed, and the children have not been placed in foster homes, because the community members fled from Ste-Agathe to Ontario a week before the hearing, which was held in their absence. However, the testimony from the Nov. 27 youth court hearing may now be published, since a reporting ban was lifted on Thursday morning.

Adam Brudzevski, 28, revealed that he married his wife when she was 15 years old and he was 25. The minimum legal age for marriage in Canada is 16.

In court, Brudzevski listed the marriages of 10 people in the community that he attended over the span of two years where one or both of the participants was underage.

He then said there was much rejoicing in the community when it was announced that a date had been set for the 13-year-old girl to marry a 12-year-old boy. It meant the community had finally reached its goal of arranging marriages for 13-year-olds.

Brudzevski, who was raised as a secular Jew in Denmark and joined the sect in 2009, said it isn’t common practice among ultraorthodox communities to have weddings at such a young age.

He was married nearly three years ago, a union arranged by the community’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans. The rabbi called the man into his office and proposed the marriage. Helbrans proposed what he called an “A minus” girl who would need a strong man to keep her in line. Brudzevski didn’t learn his wife’s name until he saw it on the wedding licence.

Prior to his wedding, a little more than two years ago, Brudzevski said he was taught about his duties as a husband. On the day before the wedding, he was taught about marital relations by a teacher who used vague Yiddish terms for body parts. He was told not to worry too much about it, because the women would be knowledgeable on this matter. He said his wife told him that in her pre-martial lessons, she was told not to worry about sexual relations, because the men would know what to do.

Brudzevski said the main expectation for women in the community is to produce children. Women are urged to use ovulation tests to increase the likelihood of getting pregnant. Even the daughters of community leaders had the same expectation. The man explained that the middle daughter of one leader was married at 14, and had her first child when she was 15. Her husband was the same age.


Lev Tahor sect arranged underage marriage, former member tells youth court
Testimony at youth court hearing describes unions for children as young as 13
By Jason Magder
The Montreal Gazette - January 17, 2014

MONTREAL — The stated goal of the Lev Tahor community is to arrange marriages for children as young as 13.

That was one of the facts revealed during the testimony of a former member of the sect in the Nov. 27 youth court hearing to consider removing 14 children from the community and placing them in foster care. Among the reasons listed by Quebec’s Youth Protection Department for the removal of the children is the suspicion that underage marriages are the norm in the community, a claim the community’s leaders have vigorously denied.

The court order has not yet been executed, and the children have not been placed in foster homes, because the community members fled from Ste-Agathe to Ontario a week before the hearing, which was held in their absence. However, the testimony from the Nov. 27 youth court hearing may now be published, since a reporting ban was lifted on Thursday morning.

Adam Brudzevski, 28, revealed that he married his wife when she was 15 years old and he was 25. The minimum legal age for marriage in Canada is 16.

In court, Brudzevski listed the marriages of 10 people in the community that he attended over the span of two years where one or both of the participants was underage.

He then said there was much rejoicing in the community when it was announced that a date had been set for the 13-year-old girl to marry a 12-year-old boy. It meant the community had finally reached its goal of arranging marriages for 13-year-olds.

Brudzevski, who was raised as a secular Jew in Denmark and joined the sect in 2009, said it isn’t common practice among ultraorthodox communities to have weddings at such a young age.

He was married nearly three years ago, a union arranged by the community’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans. The rabbi called the man into his office and proposed the marriage. Helbrans proposed what he called an “A minus” girl who would need a strong man to keep her in line. Brudzevski didn’t learn his wife’s name until he saw it on the wedding licence.

Prior to his wedding, a little more than two years ago, Brudzevski said he was taught about his duties as a husband. On the day before the wedding, he was taught about marital relations by a teacher who used vague Yiddish terms for body parts. He was told not to worry too much about it, because the women would be knowledgeable on this matter. He said his wife told him that in her pre-martial lessons, she was told not to worry about sexual relations, because the men would know what to do.

Brudzevski said the main expectation for women in the community is to produce children. Women are urged to use ovulation tests to increase the likelihood of getting pregnant. Even the daughters of community leaders had the same expectation. The man explained that the middle daughter of one leader was married at 14, and had her first child when she was 15. Her husband was the same age.


Quebec police search Ontario homes of Lev Tahor 
By Canadian Press and the Gazette
The Montreal Gazette - January 29, 2014

Quebec police executed a search warrant Wednesday at apartments rented by members of the Lev Tahor sect just north of Chatham, Ont.

Legal counsel for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect told The Canadian Press that investigators arrived at the residences in the evening, searching for computers and electronics in connection to an ongoing criminal investigation.

The Sûreté du Québec confirmed its detectives led the raid alongside Ontario Provincial Police, but would not comment on the matter as the investigation is ongoing. The SQ’s investigation into Lev Tahor began in 2013 after concerns were raised about the well-being of children in the sect.

Members of Lev Tahor moved to Chatham-Kent in November, citing pressures from the Quebec education system as the reason for leaving.

An Ontario judge will decide on Feb. 3 whether the children will remain in Chatham-Kent, or be sent back to Quebec to be placed in foster care.

Child welfare authorities in Chatham are now asking the court to enforce an order subsequently made in Quebec that would see 14 children placed in foster care. The order is being appealed in Quebec.

The community denies any mistreatment of the children and says they were already planning to move out of Quebec.

The Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart,” came to Canada from Israel in 2005 after their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, was granted refugee status here.


Radical Jewish group settles in Chatham, Windsor
By Rebecca Wright
The Windsor Star - November 24, 2013

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.”

With files from the National Post

Nachman Helbrans, a member of the Jewish fundamentalist group, Lev Tahor, talks about the groups move from Quebec to Ontario amid a child neglect investigation, while at a motel in Windsor Ont., where they are temporarily staying.


Suspected Jewish child abuse cult flees Quebec homes
Fearing the imminent removal of its children, the hassidic Lev Tahor cult is reportedly fleeing Canada and heading to Iran
By Hannah Katsman
Times of Israel - November 20, 2013

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.

An ultra-orthodox woman covered from head to toe walks in a street in central Jerusalem on May 29, 2013. (Illustrative photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

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.


Lev Tahor children appeal to public via letters
By Jason Madger
The Gazette - January 17, 2014 

Some of the 14 children from the ultraOrthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor who have been ordered into foster care responded to allegations of abuse and neglect on the sect’s website.

Quebec Court Judge Pierre Hamel ruled on Nov. 27 that the children be placed in foster care for at least 30 days, to be re-evaluated afterward. The order wasn’t executed because most members of the community of 240 fled from Ste-Agathe to Chatham, Ont., before they were due in court. Ontario child welfare officials are now involved and a Chatham judge is to rule Feb. 3.

While they can’t be named because of youth protection laws in Quebec, a 17-year-old girl, who is the mother of a 4-month-old baby wrote a letter, which was posted on Lev Tahor’s website, and was sent to several media outlets.

“I married legally to my husband; God blessed us with a wonderful, healthy baby four months ago,” she wrote. “The youth protection in Quebec visited my home several times in Quebec, and never found any concerns. Neither was I ever called to court. I don’t live with my parents, I had my own apartment. Would there be any concerns, the Youth Protection would take my baby in Quebec already. So why does the child protection request to take my baby now? The crime is that I moved to Ontario!”

“Our darling baby has a warm home — a mother and father living in beautiful harmony. And what? The (Children’s Aid Services in Chatham-Kent) wants to destroy it for her? What rudeness is this, child protection or child abuse??? ... How can you do this for a mother to her child? And above all, there is no reason and no explanation — It is because I moved to Ontario.

“Now, regarding my siblings; my sisters and brothers grew up in their warm loving home. And now the C.A.S. is requesting to remove them from their parents. There were never any concerns (found) in my parents’ home, except of fungus on some of their toe nails. Unbelievable!”

She went on to say that the community was persecuted in Quebec, and that’s why they left.

“Our religion simply does not comply with the Quebec education regulation,” she wrote. “All the Ultra-Orthodox schools have the same problem and are fighting about it in court. We simply chose to live where the education laws fit our religious needs.”

Another letter posted on the website was signed by two of the younger children ordered into foster care.

“(Our parents say) there is a court case going on about you, and maybe C.A.S. will remove you from your home and put you in foster care. We yell and scream, ‘no way! We have the best family and we will never go anywhere.’ But our mother says, ‘I wish your cry and the cry of your parents would be heard, but the court case is because we moved to Ontario.’ ”


Adam Brudzevski enters the courthouse during a hearing for the Lev Tahor sect youth protection court case in Saint-Jérôme on Wednesday, November 27, 2013 
The Providence Star - January 16, 2014

Adam Brudzevski enters the courthouse during a hearing for the Lev Tahor sect youth protection court case in Saint-Jérôme on Wednesday, November 27, 2013.


Attempt to leave Lev Tahor sect thwarted, former member testifies
By Jason Magder
The Gazette - January 17, 2014

Adam Brudzevski enters the courthouse during a hearing for the Lev Tahor sect youth protection court case in Saint-Jérôme on Wednesday, November 27, 2013.

MONTREAL – When the community leaders of Lev Tahor got wind that a member planned to leave, they told him he had a psychological disorder and forbade him and his pregnant wife from seeing each other for two weeks.

Adam Brudzevski, who has since left the sect, testified in a Nov. 27 youth court hearing in which Judge Pierre Hamel ordered 14 children from the community to be removed from their families and placed in foster homes for at least a month. The man’s testimony was part of a sweeping publication ban that was lifted Thursday after a challenge by The Gazette and other media.

Brudzevski, 28, joined the community in 2009 and was a member for two years. However, his wife was born and raised in the community. They left the community together in 2011.

Brudzevski said that when word got out that he and his wife, who was then three months pregnant, were thinking about leaving the sect, community leader Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans requested a meeting with him.

“I was called into the rabbi’s office,” he said. “My wife didn’t want to stay at home, because meetings with the rabbi could be long, so I took her to her parents’ house.”

During the meeting, Brudzevski said, the rabbi explained that Brudzevski would suffer in the afterlife if he left the community.

“He warned me that even if I continued to follow all the teachings after leaving, when I died, my soul would not go through a cleansing process in order to be close with God. Rather, it would be ground up to dust and thrown under the feet of the righteous,” he said. “This is a known concept in Judaism.”

Brudzevski said the rabbi told him he had borderline personality disorder and would have to attend daily workshops with three or four other members of the community who had the same affliction.

“I was told if I attended the sessions and followed a healthy diet, I wouldn’t need medication,” he said. “Other members had pills they were taking.”

He said the rabbi also told him that if he didn’t shape up, the community would have to find another family to take care of his baby after the birth.

For the two weeks that followed the meeting with the rabbi, Brudzevski said he wasn’t permitted to see his wife, who remained in her parents’ house.

He was only permitted to see her again after he made an oath of loyalty to the community. He explained that in the community, oaths are taken very seriously, because punishment for breaking them is retribution in the afterlife.

“I was asked to take an oath, and I accepted all the conditions without knowing what they were, just to prove my loyalty,” Brudzevski told the court. “I was told I would have to divorce my wife. The plan was to divorce her, and then to spend two years devoted to curing my borderline personality disorder. Divorced women can only remarry two years after they give birth, and my wife was three months pregnant. If I was successful in my treatment, I would be allowed to marry my wife again in two and half years.

“The next week, they took me in a car, saying they were taking me to a Rabbinical Court in Montreal so I could have my divorce finalized. On the way there, they stopped the car and told me it’s now clear I am obedient, and I don’t have to divorce my wife, if I agree to certain conditions. I told them I would agree to anything so as not to divorce my wife.”

Brudzevski made a formal oath of loyalty to the community, and a week later his wife was permitted to return home.

Despite the oath, his conviction to leave hadn’t waned, but he wasn’t sure about his wife.

Through nightly sessions, he started to teach her about the definitions of a cult and eventually explained how Lev Tahor had all the signs of a dangerous cult.

“Eventually, she started to recognize patterns (of what was happening in the community),” he said. “I could speak with her openly about the need to leave. She was (in agreement) with me on keeping it a secret.”

Brudzevski found a local rabbi who was sympathetic, and on his daily errands, he snuck out more of the couple’s belongings and brought them to the rabbi. He secretly bought a computer and switched his home phone line to include an Internet connection.

The couple purchased airline tickets to Denmark, where Brudzevski’s family lives. His wife clicked on the button to purchase the tickets, a symbolic gesture, Brudzevski said, because it showed she was on board with leaving the community, which also meant leaving her parents and siblings behind.

The local rabbi arranged a car to transport the couple to the airport in the middle of the night.

“Everything was planned so it would be dark and no one would see us,” Brudzevski explained. “At an agreed-upon time, we ran through the garden and the bushes to a car that took us to the airport.”

The couple had no contact with members of the community for several months.

“We had nothing to do with them until my child was born three months later,” Brudzevski said. “The main reason was my oath. I swore that if the community decided I needed to divorce my wife, I would be obligated to. My wife didn’t want to contact her family even though I encouraged her to do so. After the baby was born, she contacted her family for the first time.”


Sect Lev Tahor: Testimonials Explosives
Fears of Mass Suicides
By Marie-Claude Malboeuf
La Presse - January 17, 2014

Nine days after the chaotic flight of Lev Tahor group to Ontario, the Sûreté du Québec was feared that the 40 families feel hunted to the point of imitating the Order of the Solar Temple.

Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans used to terrorize, claiming that U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper raze their synagogue, by shining an arsenal of special weapons on the flanks of the mountain of Sainte-Agathe-des Monts. "He said that everyone would sit together and hold hands meditating according to the instructions and thoughts recorded in a document that was about to finalize," he told Adam Brudzevski, a former member who testified Court of Québec, November 27.

The 28 year old man also told police he had been question of collective suicide if the community broke out, as it had happened in the history of the Jewish people.

Chaotic escape
On November 18, the drain 200 members Lev Tahor to Chatham-Kent already had the air of doom. According to a social worker, a neighbor heard the screaming children, while their parents dragged aboard three buses with garbage bags full of clothes and pans. Other families went by car, and one fell into a ditch.

The drivers were all shocked reported to the DPJ. In an email, one tells of a man ordered him: "Nobody leaves this bus, close the door! "On board the small initial panic would quickly turned into a" can not silence. " Fourteen hours. Drivers found that the children had been medicated. The DPJ for its part believes they could be full of melatonin, a natural substance that promotes sleep, but children Lev Tahor reported taking as a sedative, in broad daylight.

"During the trip, the children urinated in Ziploc bags. There has been no change layer and women and children have not eaten anything other than bread crumbs.Others were deposited outside without a coat, "also reported an intervener.

A fireside is certain that babies were hidden under long black dresses for mothers, since most travel progressed, they were many.

Sexual assault
Towards the end of his testimony, Adam Brudzevski admitted marrying a 15 year old girl when he was 25 - which is illegal in Canada. The young man said to have attended seven other marriages between young people from 13 or 14 years. A teenager has given birth for the first time on the eve of its 15th anniversary.

According to the DPJ, another girl even admitted having married a man 20 years her senior when she was only 14 years - although it is a crime in Canada, where it is a form of sexual assault. Today 17 year old mother and a baby of four months, the teenager has yet to send a letter to the media where she denies.

In 2012, the DPJ also intervened with a 13 year old girl hospitalized in psychiatry at Douglas because she threatened to commit suicide if removed in the community.We had engaged the force. According to a social worker, Rabbi reportedly asked the psychiatrist medicate and write a letter saying that the marriage was considered desirable.

"For the rabbi, these marriages were common. He said it was based on a historical fact: being married so young, you could remove his demons, his bad instincts, "said Adam Brudzevski the judge.

Among other unusual practices, the women in the group would use a monthly test of ovulation to get pregnant as often as possible. During menstruation, they become seemingly untouchable. A man will ask for an object on the ground that his wife picks up, says Mr. Brudzevski.

Who is Right?
"I was shocked," said a social worker from the DPJ telling her reaction, Nov. 18, when she suddenly discovered the abandoned houses of his protégés. Their parents had promised to cooperate, but he finally was a simple strategy, she believes. A week later, the Ontario Social Services visited two families fleeing in a motel. Children were plasticine characters and playing with a remote controlled car, reported the intervener, who sees this as a public relations firm. "This is a smokescreen, a staging, it is indignant court. These games are totally prohibited, even the rabbi admits."Certainly, people Lev Tahor flatly deny everything they are accused - often preferring to speak to the media rather than judges, at least in Quebec.  They say witnesses are lying, exaggerating and that persecutes because they are against the State of Israel.


Craintes D'un Suicide Collectif

By Marie-Caude Malboeuf
La Press - January 17, 2014

Le rabbin Shlomo Helbrans avait l’habitude de les terroriser en clamant que le président américain Barack Obama et le premier ministre canadien Stephen Harper raseraient leur synagogue, en braquant un arsenal d’armes extraordinaires sur les flancs de la montagne de Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts. « Il disait que tout le monde s’assoirait ensemble et se tiendrait la main en méditant selon les instructions et les pensées consignées dans un document qu’il était sur le point de finaliser », a raconté Adam Brudzevski, un ancien membre qui a témoigné en Cour du Québec, le 27 novembre.


L’homme de 28 ans a aussi confié à la police qu’il avait déjà été question de suicide collectif si la communauté éclatait, puisque cela s’était déjà produit dans l’histoire du peuple juif.
Fuite chaotique

Le 18 novembre, la fuite des 200 membres de Lev Tahor vers Chatham-Kent avait déjà des airs de fin du monde. D’après une travailleuse sociale, un voisin a entendu les enfants hurler, tandis que leurs parents les traînaient à bord de trois autobus, avec des sacs-poubelle pleins de vêtements et de casseroles. D’autres familles partaient en voiture, et l’une a reculé dans un fossé.

Les chauffeurs scandalisés ont tout rapporté à la DPJ. Dans un courriel, l’une raconte qu’un homme lui a ordonné : « Personne ne sort plus de cet autobus ; fermez la porte ! » À bord, la panique initiale des petits aurait rapidement fait place à un « silence impossible ». Quatorze heures durant. Les chauffeurs ont conclu que les enfants avaient été médicamentés. La DPJ croit pour sa part qu’ils ont pu être bourrés de mélatonine, une substance naturelle qui favorise le sommeil, mais que des enfants de Lev Tahor ont dit prendre comme calmant, en plein jour.
« Pendant le trajet, les enfants urinaient dans des sacs Ziploc. Il n’y a eu aucun changement de couche et les femmes et les enfants n’ont rien mangé d’autre que des croûtes de pain. D’autres ont été déposés dehors sans manteau », a aussi rapporté une intervenante.

Une chauffeuse est certaine que des bébés ont été cachés sous les longues robes noires des mères, puisque, plus le voyage avançait, plus ils étaient nombreux.

Agressions sexuelles
Vers la fin de son témoignage, Adam Brudzevski a admis avoir épousé une adolescente de 15 ans alors qu’il en avait 25 – ce qui est illégal au Canada. Le jeune homme dit avoir assisté à 7 autres mariages entre jeunes de 13 ou 14 ans. Une adolescente a ainsi accouché pour la première fois à l’aube de ses 15 ans.

Selon la DPJ, une autre fille a même admis avoir épousé un homme de 20 ans son aîné alors qu’elle n’avait que 14 ans – bien qu’il s’agisse d’un crime au Canada, où cela constitue une forme d’agression sexuelle. Aujourd’hui âgée de 17 ans et mère d’un bébé de quatre mois, l’adolescente vient pourtant d’envoyer aux médias une lettre où elle nie tout.

En 2012, la DPJ est aussi intervenue auprès d’une fille de 13 ans, hospitalisée en psychiatrie à Douglas parce qu’elle menaçait de se suicider si on la renvoyait dans sa communauté. On venait de la fiancer de force. D’après une travailleuse sociale, le rabbin aurait demandé au psychiatre de la médicamenter et d’écrire une lettre disant que le mariage envisagé était souhaitable.

« Pour le rabbin, ces mariages étaient courants. Il disait que c’était basé sur un fait historique : en étant marié aussi jeune, on pouvait supprimer ses démons, ses mauvais instincts », a dit Adam Brudzevski au juge.

Entre autres pratiques inusitées, les femmes du groupe utiliseraient chaque mois un test d’ovulation, pour tomber enceintes aussi souvent que possible. Lors de leurs menstruations, elles deviennent apparemment intouchables. Un homme posera un objet par terre pour que sa femme le ramasse, raconte M. Brudzevski.
« J’étais abasourdie », a confié une travailleuse sociale de la DPJ en racontant sa réaction, le 18 novembre, lorsqu’elle a soudain découvert les maisons désertées de ses petits protégés. Leurs parents avaient promis de collaborer, mais il s’agissait finalement d’une simple stratégie, croit-elle. Une semaine plus tard, les services sociaux ontariens ont visité deux des familles en fuite dans un motel. Les enfants faisaient des personnages de pâte à modeler et jouaient avec une voiture téléguidée, a rapporté l’intervenante, qui voit là une entreprise de relations publiques. « C’est de la poudre aux yeux, une mise en scène, s’est-elle indignée devant le tribunal. Ces jeux sont totalement proscrits, même le rabbin l’admet. » Chose certaine, les gens de Lev Tahor nient en bloc tout ce dont on les accuse – en préférant souvent parler aux médias plutôt qu’aux juges, du moins au Québec. Ils disent que les témoins mentent, exagèrent et qu’on les persécute parce qu’ils sont contre l’État d’Israël. 


Lev Tahor: Raids may have sought evidence of child marriages

A leader with the radical Jewish group Lev Tahor believes a police raid on the homes of two members on Wednesday may have been in search of evidence of illegal child marriages.

By Allan Woods
Toronto Star - January 30, 2014

MONTREAL—A leader with the radical Jewish group Lev Tahor believes a police raid on the homes of two members Wednesday may have been in search of evidence of illegal child marriages.

The minimum age that someone can marry in Canada is 16 and while Lev Tahor members say that they respect the law, they believe children as young as 13 should be able to marry.

Nachman Helbrans, the son of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, the group’s spiritual leader, says he suspects police were looking for original copies of marriage contracts alleged to have involved members below the minimum legal age.

Helbrans told the Star in an email his best guess is that police were trying to verify the authenticity of “unsigned drafts” of marriage contracts that are in the possession of a renegade former member, Adam Brudzewsky.

“The timing may be connected to our advice to the (Children’s Aid Society) that after six months of humiliating investigation of the innocent mothers, boys and girls, it is time to draw (a) conclusion rather than paralyzing the innocent families,” he said.

The search warrants that were obtained by the Sûreté du Québec led the provincial force to the former homes of Lev Tahor members in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., as well as to the Chatham-Kent, Ont., homes of Nachman Helbrans and Mayer Rosner. Rosner acts as a director or administrator for Lev Tahor.

Police would not say what they were searching for or what alleged crimes they are investigating, but they are believed to have seized computer equipment and some paper files. A spokesperson for the SQ said the search warrant has been sealed from the public while the investigation runs its course.

Brudzewsky, the former Lev Tahor member, told a Quebec court hearing last November that he had personally witnessed at least seven underage marriages performed when he lived with the group between 2009 and 2011 in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, north of Montreal.

That hearing, which resulted in an order permitting child-welfare officials to take 14 Lev Tahor children into foster care, also heard that one of the children, who is now 17 years old and the mother of a young baby, is believed to have been married off at the age of 14 to a man in his 30s who had children from a previous marriage.

Brudzewsky himself was 25 when he married his 15-year-old bride in a ceremony he said was arranged by Rabbi Helbrans.

“It was common when I was there,” Brudzewsky said. “It was the stated goal of the community to perform marriages at the age of 13.”

Nachman Helbrans told the Times of Israel in December that no marriage ceremonies have been conducted in Canada involving children younger than 16. He added some parents have taken their teens to the state of Missouri, where individuals as young as 15 can be married.

He said in his email Thursday: “I will be proud to defend our legal and moral Marriage Policy in any relevant court.”

The first indications of a criminal probe into Lev Tahor’s activities come just days before an Ontario judge is set to rule on whether Ontario child-welfare authorities have the jurisdiction to carry out the Quebec court’s foster-care order.
About 200 members of the group fled Quebec for Ontario in mid-November, saying they objected to a provincial education system that forced them to teach their home-schooled children about such topics as homosexuality and evolutionary theory. The group is now appealing the foster-care ruling on the grounds that the children were no longer residents of Quebec when the judge’s order was made.


Children to be removed from ultra-Orthodox Jewish community 
By Jason Magder
The Montreal Gazette - February 3, 2014

MONTREAL — An Ontario judge has decided to uphold a ruling removing 14 children from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Lev Tahor.

The order means the children must be removed from the sect and placed into the custody of foster families in Quebec.

The ruling at the Chatham-Kent Courthouse upholds a Nov. 27 ruling in St-Jérôme by Youth Court Judge Pierre Hamel, who ordered the children be placed in temporary homes for a period of 30 days.

On Monday, Ontario Judge Stephen Fuerth ruled the Quebec Court had jurisdiction in this case, and said not to uphold the decision would "create jurisdictional chaos."

The children were ordered back to Montreal where foster families have already been identified. Fuerth exempted the oldest of the 14 children, a 17-year-old mother of an infant from the judgment.

However, the ruling won't take effect for 30 days, so the families can have a chance to appeal the judgment, Fuerth ruled.

Ahead of the Nov. 27 court date, about 200 members of the 240-person community fled Ste-Agathe-des-Monts for Chatham-Kent. The case has been tied up in Ontario youth court since that time.

The Quebec hearing, which was carried out in the absence of Lev Tahor members, had heard from a witness, a former member of the sect, who said children were hit in the sect's schoolhouse with wire hangers. The witness also described how children were routinely taken away from their parents and placed with other families as a form of punishment.

Social workers from Quebec's Youth Protection Department had also described how one of the children targeted to be removed was married at age 14, two years younger than the minimum legal age in Canada. Social workers also noted fungus on the feet of most of the girls, ostensibly caused from adhering to strictly modesty rules that they always wear socks, stockings and shoes.

Known as the Jewish Taliban, because of the full-body cloaks warn by women and the sect's anti-Zionist ideals, Lev Tahor has been widely criticized as an extremist cult in Israel. Most of the community's members are either born in Israel or Monsey, N.Y. The sect relocated to Ste-Agathe in 2004 after Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans was granted refugee status in Canada. He claimed he would be persecuted in Israel if he returned there.

Francine Campeau, a spokesperson for Quebec's Youth Protection Department, said she was pleased with the ruling.

"We're happy the judgment was recognized, but we continue to be concerned for the children while they remain with their families," Campeau said.

A spokesperson for Montreal's Jewish community said back in November that several families came forward to act as foster homes for the children. The families are from ultra-Orthodox communities in and around Montreal, and they speak Yiddish, which is essential since Yiddish is the predominant language used in Lev Tahor.

"We welcome the ruling itself," said David Ouellette, the public affairs director at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said the community is anxious to help. "This is the course of justice. They have the right to appeal. That can't be denied to them."


Star seeks unsealing of Lev Tahor warrant
The Toronto Star, along with several other media outlets, has applied to a Quebec court to unseal information used to obtain a search warrant and the warrant itself.
By Tim Alamenciak
Toronto Star - February 4, 204

The Toronto Star, along with several other media organizations, applied to unseal search warrants and information used to obtain them in connection with a January search of homes that belong to members of the ultra-orthodox Lev Tahor community.
Homes in Chatham, Ont., and Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., were searched in January by Quebec police. In Chatham, floorboards were removed as police spent hours searching the homes. Authorities in Quebec and Chatham have refused to disclose any information about the search warrants as they are under a sealing order. The Star and others are fighting that order in the public interest.
“The Supreme Court has decided time and time again that these proceedings are presumed to be public,” said Sébastien Pierre-Roy, a lawyer with the Quebec-based Chenette Litigation Boutique Inc. and lead counsel representing the group of media outlets.
The application notes that the media outlets provide “coast-to-coast reporting on matters of public interest” and notes the broad coverage of the Lev Tahor community. It says the onus is on the court to justify the order, not on the media to justify its right to access the information.
“Such proceedings are presumed to be public unless strong evidence is entered into the record to convince a judge that there’s a necessity to keep it sealed from public view,” said Pierre-Roy.
About 200 members of the controversial sect fled Quebec for Chatham ahead of a child protection order calling for the removal of 14 children. An Ontario court judge upheld that order this week, with a 30-day grace period for appeal. One child, who is 17 and also a mother, will not be subject to the Ontario order.
Quebec child protection authorities have documented what they say is evidence of abuse, neglect and a sub-standard education regime within the community. The province’s child protection authority had concerns about underage marriages and feared a mass suicide among the group.
A sect leader, Nachman Helbrans, suggested that the raids may have been an attempt to find evidence of illegal child marriages.
“The timing may be connected to our advice to the (Children’s Aid Society) that after six months of humiliating investigation of the innocent mothers, boys and girls, it is time to draw (a) conclusion rather than paralyzing the innocent families,” he told the Star earlier.
The application calls on the Quebec court, which issued the warrant, to make the information that led to the search warrant public. It also requests a list of seized property.
The motion, which could take months to address, will first be heard in Quebec court Feb. 7.


Lev Tahor Mother Pleads With Public
CTA-TV - January 6, 2014


Sun Media among news outlets that requested documents’ release
London Free Press - February 7, 2014

A Quebec judge has ordered the unsealing of search warrants used to raid the homes of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect that fled Quebec last fall, settling near Chatham.

Quebec police last week searched two homes of the Lev Tahor group, at a complex of rental duplexes near Chatham, days before a local judge was to rule whether a Quebec order to apprehend 14 of the sect’s children could be enforced.

The judge upheld the order, but delayed its enforcement for 30 days.

The order was sought by Quebec child welfare authorities amid allegations — not proven in court — of child abuse and neglect.

What Quebec police were seeking when they searched the two homes wasn’t clear, prompting media outlets including Sun Media, which owns The London Free Press, to request the documents be released at a hearing Friday in St.-Jerome, Que.

The Crown did not object.

The documents were handed over to Quebec police, who have one week to edit out any information that could identify the children involved or hurt the Crown’s case. Any information that isn’t redacted can be published.

The men who were the focus of the raids suspect authorities were seeking documents to prove alleged under-age marriages of girls in the sect, described by a former group member at a Quebec child-protection hearing held after 250 Lev Tahor members left Quebec last Nov. 17 in the dead of night.

Lev Tahor, known for its conservative dress and religious beliefs, left Ste.-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., north of Montreal, days before a Quebec judge ruled 14 kids from three families could be apprehended and put in temporary foster care.


Documents on Lev Tahor raids to be made public
By Jason Magder
The Montreal Gazette - February 7, 2014

ST-JÉRÔME — Evidence found during two police raids of members of the Lev Tahor community will be made public next week.

On Friday, Postmedia News — which includes The Gazette — and several other media outlets petitioned Quebec Court Judge Normand Bonin to lift the seal on the seizure documents. The documents detail what was found during Sûreté du Québec raids last month of homes belonging to members of the Lev Tahor community in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts and in Chatham-Kent, Ont.

The other media outlets making representation Friday were The Toronto Star, CBC, The Globe and Mail, CTV, Quebecor Media and Shaw Media (Global News).

Bonin granted the request since there were no objections from lawyers representing Lev Tahor, the Crown, or Quebec’s Department of Youth Protection.
Crown prosecutors have until next Friday to submit the documents, which will likely be redacted to protect the names of the children involved. The Crown could also redact more parts of the documents so as not to harm its investigation, said Sébastien Pierre-Roy, the lawyer representing all the media outlets except for Quebecor.

It is believed police were searching for information to substantiate claims of abuse and neglect within the community.

Nachman Helbrans, one of the community’s leaders, said he believes police were searching for marriage contracts to prove Lev Tahor carried out marriages of participants younger than the minimum legal age of 16.

A lawyer for the group said police took computer equipment and other electronics.

A Quebec judge in November ordered 14 children from the Lev Tahor community to be placed into foster care for a temporary period of 30 days, based on allegations of neglect and abuse by Quebec’s Youth Protection Department. That order, however, could not be executed because about 200 members of the community of 240 had fled the previous week to Chatham-Kent, near Windsor, Ont.

Last Monday, an Ontario judge upheld the Quebec judgment, but delayed its execution for 30 days to give Lev Tahor members a chance to appeal.

The order to remove the children was made during an emergency hearing on Nov. 27. If the order is executed, Quebec’s Department of Youth Protection would have to return to court after 30 days to provide further evidence to justify keeping the children in foster care.


Lev Tahor: Former member’s testimony into sect is released
'I looked up the definition of cult ... we are a cult' member said he told leaders.
By Allan Woods
The Star - February 8, 2014

ST-JEROME, QUE.―From apocalyptic visions of an armed invasion, to a bogus diagnosis of psychological problems to corporal punishment, there were many signs to a former member of the radical Jewish group Lev Tahor that something was not right.

But it was not until he was called upon to fight allegations that the reclusive community was a cult led by Shlomo Helbrans, a self-proclaimed rabbi, that he was convinced to make a dramatic midnight escape from the group, the ex-member told a Quebec court.

The testimony, heard on Nov. 27, was protected by a publication ban based on fears that the 40 Lev Tahor families and their many children would carry out a collective suicide pact because of perceived persecution based on their religious beliefs. That publication ban was lifted Thursday after an appeal by various media organizations.

The former member cannot be named, but the tale of his experiences living with Lev Tahor between 2009 and 2011 can be now be made public. They helped convince the Quebec family court judge to rule that 14 children from the community should be taken into foster care.

A week prior to the hearing, though, about 200 members of the group fled Quebec for a new life in Chatham-Kent, Ont., where child protection workers are now fighting in court to enforce the Quebec judge’s order.

The ex-member was asked in the spring of 2011 to defend Lev Tahor’s reputation after two teenage girls from Israel were seized at the Montreal airport and prevented from joining the group because of perceived dangers to their welfare.

Nachman Helbrans, the son of Lev Tahor’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, sought out the ex-member because of his mastery of the English language and asked him to prepare a defence to claims Lev Tahor was a cult. He obliged, mainly because he had fallen out of favour for having tried to leave the community with his pregnant teenage wife. As punishment, the couple had been forcibly separated for two weeks, his wife had been pressured to divorce him and Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans had diagnosed him with borderline personality disorder.

“I looked up the definition of a cult,” the ex-member told the court. “Based on various checklists I told Nachman Helbrans that we are a cult.”

The testimony is one of just a few instances in which a renegade former member of the Lev Tahor sect has come forward to denounce their activities over the years. The former member’s concerns about the group’s conduct and practices also answer many of the questions about why Quebec’s child protection authorities seem so determined to take the 14 children into protective custody.

He testified that in the two years he lived in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., he personally knew of seven marriages arranged by Rabbi Helbrans that involved youth under the age of 16, which is the minimum age under Canadian law.

“It was common when I was there,” he testified. “It was the stated goal of the community to perform marriages at the age of 13.”

The ex-member, who now lives in Montreal, was himself in his mid 20s when he was called into Rabbi Helbrans’ office to learn about the girl who would become his wife. She was almost 16 — the minimum age at which one can be married in Canada — and described as an “A-minus girl from a respectable family.”

He only learned her name the next evening when he viewed the marriage contract at an engagement party. He didn’t lay eyes on her for the first time until the day of their wedding, two months later.

The ex-member normally worked in the Lev Tahor office, but occasionally he filled in as a substitute teacher at the boy’s school. The classrooms were filled with prayerbooks rather than textbooks and a wooden stick for discipline. He said he was instructed by one community member on how to enforce good behaviour in class.

“I was told first to warn them, then slap them in the face with an open hand if they would speak in class without permission or misbehave,” he said, adding that he used physical punishment three times on boys between the ages of eight and 13.

A girl’s education consisted of some English and mathematics. Lev Tahor’s boys were taught prayers, bible study and some Hebrew reading skills.

“The goal of these studies was to enable them to understand the rabbi’s teachings,” the ex-member said. “The belief is that boys should be busy with holy studies and girls run the house.”

The community is run with totalitarian discipline and in many cases, people are terrified to break ranks.

Quebec child-welfare investigators have documented how women are obliged to shroud themselves in head-to-toe black robes even when they are in the hospital to give birth, according to a nurse who was interviewed in the course of the probe. They often seek the express permission of Rabbi Helbrans before accepting pain medication such as an epidural, child-protection workers testified.

In person, Rabbi Helbrans can reportedly be quite charming. He speaks with a disarming lisp and a stutter.

In a recording released on the Lev Tahor website of a conversation with Quebec child-protection workers after the group fled to Ontario, Rabbi Helbrans can be heard explaining: “The people in this group are not my slaves, they are not my servants. I’m just a rabbi. It’s spiritual. I have a big influence over people, but not everybody follows everything that I say.”

But the ex-member countered that impression with the court.

On one occasion, shortly after the U.S. navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, Rabbi Helbrans confided in him, he said, a vision of the near future that involved Lev Tahor members fending off full-scale assault by the Canadian and American militaries at the group’s compound in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts.

“He described how they would come over the mountain ridges to Ste-Agathe and will shoot everything they have at this community,” the ex-member testified, adding that the scenario had been written out in a document explaining that the overwhelming force would be repelled when the group’s members joined hands in meditation.

“I didn’t believe it. It seems that people were afraid of this happening but they were hopeful,” he testified.

On other occasions, Rabbi Helbrans would use reverse psychology to strengthen his emotional hold over the group, the man testified. He would threaten to leave Lev Tahor, which would render the group leaderless. While he locked himself away in his home, the community would go into a panic.

“People would ask his forgiveness. They would sleep outside the doors of his apartment because they were afraid of losing him,” the ex-member said.

By this point, he was beyond disillusionment. After his first attempt to leave the community, Rabbi Helbrans diagnosed him with borderline personality disorder, a psychological condition marked by unstable emotions, behaviour or sense of identity.

“The main point was that I would observe positive things and interpret them in a negative way,” he explained, adding that he was one of three or four people who had received the rabbi’s diagnosis. “There were no symptoms (except) them claiming the falsehood of my criticism.”

He was not seen by a doctor nor prescribed medication, but was put on a regulated diet and made to undergo telephone counselling with an Orthodox Jew in New York and adjust his life accordingly.

The ex-member began plotting a dramatic escape.

He secretly purchased a computer for his home with an Internet connection. Then he began feigning sickness and exhaustion, using the time at home to build trust and plot with his teenage wife who was born to a Lev Tahor family and knew nothing of the outside world.

Eventually, he made contact with an Orthodox rabbi in the town and started using his excursions into town to stash his family’s essential belongings at a girls’ school run by the Orthodox rabbi.

His family sent him money and the final step came when the young couple purchased airplane tickets. He had his wife, who was by this time six months’ pregnant, push the button on the computer, to ensure she was fully onside with the plan.

On the night of the escape, the local rabbi arranged for a car to take them to the airport.

“Everything was timed and planned so that it would be dark and no one would be around,” he testified. “We went through the bushes and into the waiting car.”

He testified that he has had no threats or further contact with Lev Tahor since leaving two years ago, but suggests that may be because he made copies of internal documents “that would be very problematic for the community if they were made public.”

“I figured that’s why they wouldn’t even dare to threaten me.”



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