In 2014, Lev Tahor arrived in Guatemala, the latest stop in a 20-year international journey. The ultra-conservative Jewish sect cries that it is escaping religious persecution. But to those left behind — in Israel, New York, and Canada — the group is a dangerous cult ducking accusations of brainwashing, abuse, and child marriage.
Uriel Goldman’s bushy eyebrows knit together in dismay when he sees a cockroach skittering across the tiled floor near the entrance of his cramped Guatemala City apartment. Despite the warm spring weather, he is dressed in a heavy calf-length coat, velvet wide-brimmed hat, and bulky shoes with stockings — all black. He maneuvers his broad frame into the next room to grab a broom, careful to avoid a gantlet of obstacles scattered around the awkward space: a mini-fridge, a folded-up mattress, a basket of laundry, a bag of groceries. He gently sweeps the bug out the door and into an equally cluttered stairwell.
Goldman, who is in his mid-40s, sits down in a blue plastic chair and sighs. “It’s the seventh month,” he says, “that we are in this terrible situation.” Seven months of pretending that a run-down office building that once housed Guatemala’s immigration directorate is a suitable place for 14 families to live, sleeping six or more people to a room. Seven months of dealing with scores of restless kids who are tired of being cooped up indoors because their parents think the city’s Zona 9 neighborhood, thick with traffic and peppered with sporadic crime, is no place for children to play.
But they’re here, Goldman says of his family and friends, because they have no other choice.
Goldman is a member of and spokesman for Lev Tahor (“Pure Heart” in Hebrew), an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that has been bouncing around the Western Hemisphere for the better part of two decades. Before winding up in Guatemala City, Lev Tahor lived for several months in San Juan La Laguna, a small Mayan village about 100 miles west of the capital. In August 2014, however, village leaders ordered the group to leave. They cited irreconcilable differences: Locals had complained that Lev Tahor’s men refused to touch the hands of female shopkeepers and that sect members bathed nude in the lake. According to Goldman, authorities threatened to cut off electricity and water if Lev Tahor didn’t go. So it did, with followers’ earthly belongings strapped to the roof of one of Guatemala’s iconic Technicolor “chicken buses.”
Goldman insists that persecution has prompted all of Lev Tahor’s peregrinations — from Israel, where the group formed, to the United States, then to Canada, San Juan La Laguna, and finally Guatemala City. “It’s political,” he says. “It’s because of our political religious ideas.” The sect’s principles are controversial. On a philosophical level, it believes Israel should not exist because only God can proclaim a Jewish state, and only after the Messiah’s return. Lev Tahor is also deeply conservative. Its women cover their bodies and hair at all times (they wear burqa-like shrouds beginning at age 3), and all followers, of which there are about 200, limit contact with the outside world. Children are home-schooled, and the group’s leadership arranges marriages.
But there is a different, more nefarious version of this narrative, one in which Lev Tahor’s moves have not been escapes from discrimination, but flights from justice. The group’s critics, including former converts, estranged families of followers, religious scholars, and law enforcement officials, say Lev Tahor is dangerous. They describe sadistic behavior that goes on behind closed doors, including child abuse, brainwashing, drug use, and forced marriages of teenage girls to men as many as 20 years their senior. “It’s definitely a cult,” says David Ouellette of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a Canadian advocacy group that fights anti-Semitism and promotes Jewish interests. “There’s no question about it.”
Government agencies around the globe, from Jerusalem to Quebec, have investigated Lev Tahor. At almost every turn, however, detectives and prosecutors have struggled to collect evidence from an insular group that rarely speaks with secular authorities. Competing agendas and a lack of coordination between police and child-welfare agencies, particularly across borders, have also slowed inquiries, in some cases giving Lev Tahor enough of a window to relocate before a solid case can be built. The exception to this pattern was the 1994 conviction of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, Lev Tahor’s charismatic founder, for kidnapping a teenage boy. Yet after serving a two-year prison term in New York, the rabbi continued leading the group. He remains in charge today. (Despite five requests, through his lawyer and Goldman, Helbrans did not make himself available for an interview.)
Lev Tahor’s members, Goldman says in accented English, pray to HaShem (a Hebrew name for God) that Guatemala will be their final stop. He vehemently denies accusations of wrongdoing. “We don’t force anybody” to marry, he says. “Abusing people?... Tell me one name, let’s go to the family, let’s see!”
With its competing claims of prejudice and criminality, the story of Lev Tahor reveals how the complexities of religious freedom can make it tricky to distinguish between radical devotion and dangerous extremism. Given religion’s important role in societies, “there’s a tendency in Western culture to overly defer to religious entities … and to assume that nothing will go wrong,” says Marci Hamilton, a Yeshiva University law professor who has followed Lev Tahor’s trajectory.
However, the case also shows that even when the line between faith and transgression is clear, red tape can make it difficult — even impossible — for legal systems to protect people. “There’s no religious defense of violence,” Hamilton says. “The problem is that you have social, cultural, political, and constitutional factors that weigh in.”
“‘Extreme’ is too mild of a word” for Lev Tahor, she adds. “They are their own universe.”
Orthodox Judaism, which contains many subsects, is characterized by a strict adherence to guiding religious texts. Yet even within those devout strictures, Lev Tahor’s austere brand of faith is at the very conservative end of the spectrum, combining an obsession with spiritual purity with a virulent — and, in Judaism, rare — opposition to Israel.
Helbrans explained the origins of the group to a reporter who writes for Haaretz, Shay Fogelman, in a 2012 interview. Born to secular parents in Jerusalem in 1962, Helbrans said he was attracted to religion from an early age: As a young man, he ran a yeshiva and was mentored by Eliezer Shlomo Schick, a rabbi and prolific religious writer who was once investigated for officiating underage marriages. (Schick died in early 2015.) Helbrans founded the Lev Tahor yeshiva in the mid-1980s, espousing a belief that modernity corrupts the spirit. He designed strict rules, many of which hold fast today. Members must engage in several hours of intense prayer each day. Boys study the Torah, while girls’ education is limited. Dietary restrictions prohibit the consumption of chickens and their eggs (said to be genetically modified and therefore not kosher), leafy green vegetables (which might be contaminated by bugs), and milk from any cow that followers have not milked themselves. Speaking Hebrew, the Zionists’ tongue, is often eschewed in favor of Yiddish.
Helbrans started small. “He had not more than 12 followers at the time,” Fogelman wrote in an email, describing Lev Tahor’s early days. But operating out of a tiny space in Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighborhood, Helbrans sought more converts by giving lectures and simply stopping people on the street; he bragged that he once persuaded a secular Israeli soldier to return to religion after meeting the man at a bus stop. “Every time I got on a bus, I looked for a ‘victim,’” Helbrans told Fogelman.
Goldman claims he joined Lev Tahor in a particularly unusual way: As a young member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), he was sent to spy on Helbrans’s lectures and gather intelligence. “I could have gone [on to a] very successful career in the army,” Goldman says. Instead, he found Helbrans’s teachings persuasive and decided to “go all the way” with his newfound faith. He has been in Lev Tahor ever since; he and his wife have 10 children.
Helbrans bragged that he once persuaded a secular Israeli soldier to return to religion after meeting the man at a bus stop. “Every time I got on a bus, I looked for a ‘victim.’”
An IDF spokesman wrote in an email that he could locate no records that would confirm or deny Goldman’s claims of spying. An anonymous source cited in Fogelman’s Haaretz article said Lev Tahor aroused government suspicions, specifically those of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, after it tried to make contact with radical Islamists. Helbrans told Fogelman that he had merely reached out to Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who at the time was mayor of the city of Umm al-Fahm but who would be convicted years later of funding Hamas. The rabbi insisted he wanted the mayor’s help in stopping the Transport Ministry from paving over ancient Jewish graves. (In a book he later wrote called Derekh Hatzala, or Path of Salvation, Helbrans states, “The Jews and Muslims are natural allies! Both are interested in maintaining the special and ancient character of their peoples.”)
Fogelman believes Helbrans exploited the situation to advance a narrative of persecution. “As far as I know, [the Shin Bet] … were curious to understand his connections with radical Islamists, and not more than that,” he says. “They didn’t put any effort [into] monitoring his activities or following his people.”
Helbrans soon decided his group needed to leave Israel, citing Torah prophecies that the territory would be “turned to desert and desolation.” By 1991, he had packed up and taken his flock to New York. The New York Times reported after the move, which landed Lev Tahor in the heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, that some community leaders believed the new arrivals had come “in part because of continued pressure by the Israeli Government over its extreme anti-Zionist views.”
Whether probes, substantial or not, into Lev Tahor’s activities played a role in the group’s departure is uncertain. But its troubles were just beginning. Helbrans would soon become entwined in a controversy that would seize the attention of New York’s media and roil the city’s insular Orthodox community.
Hana Fhima walked into New York’s 66th police precinct in April 1992, apoplectic over the disappearance of her 13-year-old son, Shai. His abductor, she claimed, was none other than Helbrans.
Fhima insisted that Shai had been a regular New Jersey kid who liked girls, video games, and going to the mall. That is, until Helbrans, whom Fhima had sought out to prepare Shai for his bar mitzvah on the advice of an Orthodox aunt, turned the seventh-grader practically overnight into a budding Hasid, complete with shorn hair and nascent payot (side curls). Soon after his ceremony, Shai went to a study session with one of Helbrans’s other mentees. He never came home.
Four days after Fhima went to the police, Helbrans was arrested. Within hours, however, the district attorney dropped the charges, citing a lack of evidence. (Some observers, including reporters, later wondered whether this was because he was running for state’s attorney and counted many Hasidic Jews among his voting base; the district attorney’s office publicly denied any political influence.) Helbrans repudiated being involved in the disappearance, telling the Times that the accusation was “Mickey Mouse information.” The rabbi, who claimed he had no idea where the boy was, said Shai must have run away from home.
Fhima isn’t the only person over the years to describe Helbrans’s powers of persuasion as both extraordinary and dangerous. Oded Twik, a 41-year-old Israeli from the town of Rishon LeZion, says his sister was raised in a secular household but, to his surprise, married a Lev Tahor adherent she met while working as an au pair in Brooklyn. Although she eventually parted ways with the group after 20 years, her brother tried to bring her home well before then. At one point, she told him that if she left, Helbrans would never let her come back. (She declined to comment for this article; Twik says his sister wants a quiet start to her new life.) Twik knows of many families with similar stories. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “[Helbrans] is running a terror organization.”
Some families are frightened to come forward, worried that their loved ones in the group will be punished in retaliation. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Israeli man recounted how his 18-year-old son ran away to join Lev Tahor more than two decades ago, largely cutting off verbal contact several years later after his father criticized Helbrans’s religious views. “[The rabbi] could sit and talk to someone for 12 hours until he convinces them, and after that they’ll be his slave,” the man says. “He hypnotizes people.”
Helbrans also struck a bad chord with U.S. federal investigators, who picked up Shai’s case in mid-1992. After an extensive, months-long inquiry and with Shai still missing, Helbrans was again charged with kidnapping; this time, he was brought to trial. The prosecution presented evidence that Helbrans had told Shai’s biological father, who lived in Israel, that he would pay for the father’s airfare to come see Shai, indicating he knew where the boy was. Lawyers also argued that Helbrans, “with the assistance of his followers, arranged to have two sets of letters emanate from Shai”; among other things, the letters informed the boy’s mother that he was living happily among Brooklyn Hasidim (though not specifically with Lev Tahor). The goal of the missives, according to the prosecution, was to discourage Hana Fhima and the police from searching for Shai.
During the proceedings, in 1994, Shai suddenly materialized at a sheriff’s office in Rockland County, New York. He had shown up at the home of an Orthodox rabbi unaffiliated with Lev Tahor named Aryeh Zaks a few weeks prior. Zaks told authorities that Shai would not divulge where he had been for the past two years — only that he had left home voluntarily and had not been living with Helbrans’s sect. Shai testified in court that his mother had beaten him, and he spoke in support of Helbrans. “I never had a chance to know what a normal family was [until] I came to Rabbi Helbrans,” Shai said, according to the New York Times. “Once you see a normal life it’s hard to go to an unnormal life.”
Nonetheless, Helbrans was found guilty of kidnapping and was sentenced to prison. He was released on parole in 1996 and returned to live among his followers. Despite several legal appeals, he was deported to Israel in 2000 due to his felony conviction. Helbrans didn’t stay long, however. Six weeks later, he flew to yet another potential home: Canada, where he claimed to be a refugee escaping persecution by Israeli authorities.
A Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) investigation has since reported that Helbrans “may have used misleading or false evidence,” including Goldman’s unconfirmed claim that the IDF tasked him with spying on the rabbi and a video recording of Shai denying his kidnapping. In a separate interview with CBC reporters, Shai recanted his long-standing defense of Helbrans, saying he had in fact been abducted and that Lev Tahor had paid him $5,000 to make the video shown to Canadian authorities. (Shai has not spoken to the media in several years; contacted via Facebook, he declined to comment for this article or to confirm his whereabouts.)
However shaky its foundation, Helbrans’s case flew under the radar; no one challenged it before Canada’s refugee commission, so he was granted asylum. His followers joined him in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts (Ste.-Agathe for short), a small village near Montreal. They again sequestered themselves, living quietly for the better part of a decade — until accusations of abuse started seeping out of Lev Tahor’s normally airtight ranks.
In 2011, two Israeli sisters, ages 13 and 15, whose parents had sent them to join Lev Tahor in Ste.-Agathe were stopped by Canadian immigration authorities and put on a plane back home. According to the Globe and Mail, the girls’ great-uncle had gotten an Israeli court to order their return, fearing they would be harmed. Of particular concern was that they would be forced to marry. Helbrans responded to the accusation in a sit-down interview with the Canadian newspaper; though girls in Lev Tahor did marry as teenagers, he said, partners were only “suggested.” He added, “The women here choose of their own will.”
Yet the threads of that statement soon unraveled. In 2011, Quebec authorities noted that Lev Tahor wasn’t educating its school-age children, of which there were about 50, according to the provincial curriculum. (For instance, many couldn’t speak either French or English, Quebec’s official languages.) This sparked a visit to the group’s compound by child-welfare and education officials, who found the quarters to be dilapidated and cold.
In May 2012, child-welfare officers reported having spoken with a girl from Lev Tahor who claimed she had been promised in marriage to an older man; soon after, authorities decided to remove her from the community. (She was eventually sent to live with an aunt in the United States.) That December, a 17-year-old pregnant girl from the sect allegedly told staff at a local hospital that she’d been beaten by her brother, sexually abused by her father, and married at 15 to a 30-year-old man. Authorities petitioned for the girl’s removal from her home, but the case had to be closed when she turned 18 just a few months later.
Then, there was the account of a former Lev Tahor male devotee who joined the group in 2009 and, at age 25, married a 15-year-old girl. Because he spoke English and was Internet savvy, he spent time online doing research to help refute accusations that Lev Tahor is a cult. “I started having more and more questions … about the righteousness of what was going on,” he would later state in sworn testimony. He presented documents to the police that accused leaders of locking disobedient young girls in basements and drugging members to exert psychological control. (Lev Tahor’s alleged transgressions extended into other realms as well. While in Canada, the sect is believed to have accrued some $6 million in assets, including international donations collected by two charities affiliated with the group. Both charities have since lost their tax-exempt status and reportedly owe the Canada Revenue Agency more than $3.5 million in back taxes.)
Based on evidence of abuse, authorities raided the Lev Tahor compound in August 2013 to take reports on the health and safety of the group’s children. Social services had five kids removed and placed with a foster family. (Due to privacy concerns, Quebec agencies would not confirm whether these children remain in state care or have since been released.) During subsequent visits to Ste.-Agathe, officials identified another 14 children from two families as being in need of intervention. In November 2013, a summons was issued for the parents to appear in court.
When authorities arrived at the compound with the summons, however, they found the place deserted and in disarray; a coffee pot had even been left on. Lev Tahor had fled in the middle of the night on chartered buses. With warrants, officers seized laptops, hard drives, bottles of prescription drugs, credit cards, and documents, including bank statements and wedding licenses from Missouri, where the legal age of marriage (with parental consent) is just 15. At a hearing in late November, a judge ordered the removal of the 14 children from their homes — but that would prove more difficult than expected.
The same month, Lev Tahor came under scrutiny before another government body 6,000 miles away: the Israeli Knesset’s Committee on the Rights of the Child. Israeli authorities, it turns out, had also been collecting testimonies of abuse, but no charges had been brought. Knesset members and families of Lev Tahor followers decried the sluggish progress: “Every day that goes by is a horrendous crime,” one lawmaker said at a hearing. In response, the deputy state prosecutor cited the challenges of gathering evidence from a secretive sect and of prosecuting crimes allegedly committed abroad. Were the case based in Israel, local police would have had jurisdiction to investigate and collect evidence. In Canada, its hands were tied.
Though girls in Lev Tahor did marry as teenagers, Helbrans said, partners were only “suggested.”
Similar complaints arose when Lev Tahor resurfaced in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, a small town nearly 600 miles away from Ste.-Agathe near the U.S.-Canada border. With no jurisdiction in another province, Quebec authorities had to wait for an Ontario court to decide whether it would honor the earlier ruling and put the 14 at-risk children into custody — a process that dragged on for more than two months. “In Canada, each province is provincially responsible for child welfare,” explains Stephen Doig, executive director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services (CKCS), “so the reciprocal agreements between the two provinces around court orders is really gray, to say the least.”
In February 2014, a judge finally ruled that CKCS could remove the children from their homes. Lev Tahor had 30 days to appeal. In the meantime, however, the 14 minors fled. Two of them were detained at a Calgary airport, while immigration authorities in Trinidad and Tobago flagged and deported another six; all were placed in foster care. The remaining children, as well as three adults, disembarked safely in Guatemala, where Goldman says Lev Tahor had friends in a budding Orthodox community.
In Guatemala, yet another legal debate emerged: A spokesperson for the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Newsweek, “Until … abuse is proven in Guatemala, Canada cannot proceed to take them back,” and a local judge ordered that the children could stay. International law couldn’t force a change: As Martha Bailey, a Queen’s University law professor, has pointed out in a journal article on the Lev Tahor case, neither Guatemala nor Canada has acceded to a 1996 treaty on parental responsibility and the protection of minors that might have compelled the children’s return.
The law continued to work in Lev Tahor’s favor. As it began to set up shop in Central America, the group won its appeal in Ontario. Provincial authorities had no grounds on which to hold them, so six of the children in custody were released to their parents, while two more, both teenage girls with U.S. passports, left their foster home and crossed the border to be with family still in New York. “Although we had closer eyes on those two … we really don’t have the authority to physically detain them,” Doig explains. U.S. authorities subsequently determined that, as American citizens, the girls could stay put.
In the end, then, all the legal wrangling added up to very little. A scathing follow-up report by Quebec’s Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission blasted all parties involved in Canada for their lack of coordination. Camil Picard, the commission’s vice president for youth affairs, called the legal process “incomprehensible.” Not mincing words, he said at a press conference, “It’s clear that the [agencies] systematically failed in their role to protect the children.”
As government departments licked their wounds, Lev Tahor relocated most followers to Guatemala over the summer of 2014. As for why that country was chosen as a new haven, Doig has a theory that’s a far cry from Goldman’s explanation: Doig says Guatemala’s child-welfare agency is badly understaffed and that, at the time of the move, the legal age of marriage was 14, with parental consent. (Last November, new legislation raised it to 18.)
“It’d be fair to say,” Doig guesses, “they didn’t go to Guatemala by accident.”
A tattered curtain bisects the lobby of the building where Lev Tahor lives. The drab divider, in shades of white and gray, extends up the building’s stairwell, past empty 5-gallon water jugs, broken toys, and cinched-up bags of trash littering the halls. It ensures the strict separation of genders, one of the most essential rules in the Lev Tahor playbook. In the lobby, on one side of the curtain, girls dressed head to toe in black busily sort a huge pile of vegetables on the dirt-streaked floor. Upstairs, boys are scattered into two makeshift classrooms, some learning math as others read prayer books and chant loudly in Yiddish.
Goldman receives me warmly with a plate of tropical fruit, but he explains that because I am a woman, he can’t shake my hand. After pausing to bless the fruit, he grows heated recounting what happened in Canada. “They wanted to change our religion,” Goldman says of Quebec authorities, his tightly wound side curls bobbing like springs as he becomes animated. “It’s so unfair what they’ve done to us … an investigation of two years without finding anything wrong.” He dismisses former members who’ve spoken about abuse in Lev Tahor as lying publicity-seekers.
While life hasn’t been easy in Central America, from being kicked out of San Juan La Laguna to being squeezed into tight quarters in the capital, Lev Tahor is relatively free from scrutiny. Legal proceedings against it appear stalled. According to Caitlin Workman, a spokesperson for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, “Canadian officials are engaging with the relevant authorities in … Guatemala” — but it’s unclear to what extent those authorities are pursuing any sort of case against Lev Tahor. (Representatives for Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and immigration directorate did not respond to requests for comment.)
Nothing has yet come of Israeli investigations into Lev Tahor, and Hamilton, of Yeshiva University, says global agencies that seem equipped to help are actually limited in their reach. “An international human rights force,” such as a body at the United Nations or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, could intervene, but “Guatemala is not a country where it’s easy for Western authorities to get cooperation on the ground. A combination of corruption and a lack of effective law enforcement against violent crime generally puts a strain on resources…. The level of crime, the level of poverty, and the level of corruption make it less likely that the government is going to focus on a small group like Lev Tahor, even if it is engaging in serial child abuse.”
Meanwhile, Lev Tahor’s leaders want to build a forever home in Guatemala: They have their eye on some land in the country’s Santa Rosa department, near the border with El Salvador. Right now, it’s covered by mango trees, but they envision a compound complete with schools, a synagogue, and at least 40 houses — one for each family. “We are planning to do the whole place like a pueblo,” Goldman says. If getting there requires living with cockroaches for a while, it’s worth it. “I’m happy that I can educate my children,” Goldman says. “My children are the most important thing that I have.”
Helbrans is not in the building; Lev Tahor is busy preparing for Passover, and the rabbi, Goldman explains, has gone away to a mikvah, a bath used for a purification ritual. But as I descend the stairs to leave, another of the group’s adherents pulls me into a two-room apartment. The 30-something woman, in a voice that’s barely more than a whisper, introduces herself as Udel and says she has been in Lev Tahor since she was 3 years old. Neither she nor her nine children — a handful of whom play at her skirts — have ever known life outside the sect. She too is looking forward to the new compound in the mango grove, a place where her children can play.
“The rabbi never forced people to stay here against our will,” she says, unprompted. “Whoever wants to come here is welcome, and you want to go, you go.”
When asked whether she has ever considered going, she smiles and shakes her head.
“This is my life,” Udel says softly. “This is what God wants.”