| Magazine Feature |

Hearts of Darkness

Is Lev Tahor pursuing a warped vision—and are their children paying the price?


A shocking court case has thrust the insular, controversial, ultra-pious Lev Tahor group into international headlines, provoking discussions of extremism, mind control, and abuse. The group insists that they’re being persecuted for exalted religious strictures, but troubling reports paint a different picture. Is Lev Tahor pursuing a warped vision—and are their children paying the price?



n an isolated snow-swept town near Windsor, Ontario, the controversial Lev Tahor community is struggling to hold itself together amid allegations of child abuse and other legal irregularities. The lonely collection of houses, the groups of women dressed in black burkas, the unflinching devotion to a leader seen as a direct link to G-d, the tightly controlled yet perfectly behaved children, the self-imposed isolation, the hours-long prayers, the teenaged brides, the rickety shelves lined with rows of vitamins — all paint a picture that captured headlines but still remains a mystery to most.

Now the group, under the charismatic — and some say dictatorial — leadership of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, is fighting to retain more than a dozen children that a Quebec court ordered removed from their families, due to charges of unlawful confinement and physical abuse. Rabbi Helbrans’s own wife Malka reportedly fled to Israel after allegedly being beaten by the rabbi’s followers when she took a public stand against child punishment tactics.

Last November, in order to avoid implementation of the court order, about 200 Lev Tahor members fled the Quebec town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts — a two-hour drive from Montreal, where the group has lived since 2003 — to Chatham, Ontario, in the middle of the night. And last week, after an Ontario court upheld the Quebec ruling, nine of them — three adults and six children — were apprehended in Trinidad and Tobago on their way to Guatemala. Even after their forced return to Canada, other members of the group have applied for emergency passports to undisclosed locations, making observers wonder about their final destination.

The developing story of Lev Tahor has captured the imagination of many Canadians as it continues to make headlines both locally and internationally. The group has shown itself to be media savvy as well, opening up its doors to reporters: Global Television news reporters spent a week in the community where they spoke for hours with Rabbi Helbrans, and two national media outlets aired investigative documentaries on Lev Tahor.

Centre for Israel-Jewish Affairs executive director Jonathan Kalles says that coverage has been responsible and reasonable. “People understand this is not representative of the Jewish community. But within the broader Jewish community, some are offended that this group is using the name of Judaism to justify their behavior.”

But amid all the headlines and intrigue, there is a deeper, more fundamental question: Can a group’s right to religious freedom be overridden by society’s standards of normative behavior?

And who, really, is this ultra-chassidic group that resided for a decade in the sleepy Laurentian town of Sainte-Agathe? Is it, in fact, a cult with sinister underpinnings, exerting mind control over its 250 members? Or is it an extreme version of chassidus, a group that merely wants to be left alone to live in peace? Does their distrust of government stem from their desire to maintain their value system, or is there something they are trying to hide?

Fight or Flight

It was March 5, and the courtroom in Chatham, Ontario, was filled to capacity. Journalists from across Canada were gathered to hear Superior Court Judge Lynda Templeton render her decision as to the fate of 13 children — ages four months to 14 years — from the Lev Tahor community. The question before the court was whether to uphold a Quebec court ruling regarding jurisdiction in another province. Lev Tahor argued that since the group no longer lived in Quebec, but in Ontario, the ruling that ordered its children removed and placed in foster care for 30 days was now invalid. The stakes were high — both for the Lev Tahor community who wanted desperately to hold on to its children and for Quebec’s director of Youth Protection — Laurentides Regions (DYP) Denis Baraby, whose team invested countless hours to protect these children from what it claimed were serious instances of abuse and neglect.

As expected, nobody from Lev Tahor was at court. They were represented by their lawyer instead. Baraby was absent as well; he was back in St. Jerome, Quebec. The judge’s decision, he hoped, would bring an end to a long, drawn-out legal battle that pitted Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, Lev Tahor’s spiritual leader, against child protection authorities in both Quebec and Ontario. As far as Baraby was concerned, this heartbreaking turn of events should never have happened. The children had not originally been slated for foster care — that is, until Lev Tahor left the province and chose to disregard a direct court order to bring the children back. If the judgment were to go his way, Baraby’s plan was to travel to Chatham and with the help of the Chatham-Kent Children’s Services remove the children and place them in foster care in Quebec. There were many chassidic homes in Montreal’s Outremont district eagerly waiting to welcome the children.

“We’ve arranged to have them receive medical assessment and care, as well as psychological assessment and support,” Baraby told Mishpacha. “The children’s parents will be offered the possibility of returning to Quebec to maintain some contact with their children.”

But it became more complicated with the attempted escape to Guatemala — one family via Trinidad and Tobago and the other via Mexico. These Lev Tahor escapees left behind not only empty houses, but legal challenges they felt ill-equipped to handle. Yet when the family was returned to Canada on March 8, the six children were put in the care of the Children’s Aid Society. As of publication, the children have all been placed in foster care in Toronto, Ontario. Lev Tahor has upped the ante; three of the girls have gone on a hunger strike and are being force-fed in Toronto’s SickKids Hospital.

The Early Years

Rabbi Helbrans, 52 (who calls himself the Admor of Riminov), was born Erez Shlomo

Elbaranes, into a secular Sephardic home. He became religious as a teenager, and by his early 20s he had already attracted a small group of adherents, who followed him to Brooklyn in 1990 — where he fled following an investigation into his ties with the Islamic Movement. He established a small yeshivah with the name Lev Tahor, gaining a name for strict religious standards, a Yiddish-only rule, and sublime levels of spirituality.

But soon after, the angel gained the title of felon, when he became embroiled in the alleged kidnapping of Shai Fhima Reuven. Shai was a bar mitzvah boy that Helbrans tutored. The alleged kidnapping was an apparent attempt to remove him from his secular mother and violent stepfather. Shai resurfaced two years later when the case finally came to court, and testified in Rabbi Helbrans’s defense. Still, the rabbi was sentenced in 1994 to four to twelve years, but was released in 1996 after his sentence was commuted.

He then ran a yeshivah in Monsey, but that didn’t stop the authorities from deporting him back to Israel in 2000; yet in 2003, he sought asylum in Canada, claiming his life was in danger in Israel because of his vehement anti-Zionist views.

With all the noise about Lev Tahor in recent months, a CBC documentary about the group questioned whether witnesses on Rabbi Helbrans’s behalf didn’t mislead the immigration court. Since the documentary aired, immigration authorities have opened investigations into Israeli and American citizens belonging to the group who may have entered Canada illegally.

While many in the mainstream rabbinic world have looked upon Rabbi Helbrans’s group with no little disdain — calling them wayward chassidim who have lost all sense of proportion — today those voices are heard more urgently. On December 13, Rav Mendel Shafran of Bnei Brak issued a psak that obligates anyone with incriminating information on Lev Tahor to testify before the Youth Protection Court. Rav Moshe Green, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva D’Monsey whose two top talmidim joined the group, issued the following statement to Mishpacha: “I know the way things are run there. There is no mehalech in the Torah to run it that way.” But, he says, “no beis din wants to undertake this.”

Montreal, in fact, remains silent regarding their unwittingly exposed neighbors. Rabbi Meshulam Emanuel, executive director of the city’s Vaad Hair, told Mishpacha, “The Vaad is not prepared to issue a statement on Lev Tahor at this time.”

The Network

Back in the ’90s, the rabbinic stance against Rabbi Helbrans was somewhat ambiguous. He was a man few knew well. But Rabbi Michel Chill did. As chaplain of the Green Haven Correctional Facility, Rabbi Chill spent many hours with Helbrans before and during his imprisonment.

“He is a brilliant man who lives in a fantasy world,” Rabbi Chill told Mishpacha. “He saw himself as the theological incarnation of the Satmar Rebbe. The Satmar Rebbe was brilliant, but normal. Helbrans is brilliant, but not normal. He feels he is saving the world, like the Satmar Rebbe did in his time, from letting modern elements infiltrate Yiddishkeit. He runs his mini-empire with those shitos and he came to the point where he honestly believed everything he says.”

Even before Rabbi Helbrans moved his community to its isolated Quebec outpost, stories began circulating about strange behaviors of his adherents. Rabbi Helbrans instructed his chassidim, for instance, to roll themselves in the snow for purification reasons, and he is known to advocate malkos, flagellation as a form of penitence. He is said to arrange all the marriages within the community, often with underage girls. He also enticed the grandsons of two prominent rebbes into his fold. Relatives asserted that these were brilliant talmidei chachamim with bright futures but since joining Lev Tahor, their learning has diminished. In Lev Tahor, piety and prayer are emphasized, but intellectual Torah pursuits are not within the spirit of the movement.

Rena Schochet, a cult deprogrammer, was living in Toronto when she was approached by a frantic family desperate to rescue relatives from Lev Tahor, which was then in its inception. Their 15-year-old niece was engaged to marry one of the young men in the group. Mrs. Schochet discovered that this family wasn’t alone — others were equally desperate to remove their children from Rabbi Helbrans, who they said isolated the youngsters from family. “He told them that if they stuck with him, they would reach the highest echelons of Yiddishkeit, but, in fact, they were going door-to-door collecting money for him.”

There might not have even been ten families in Lev Tahor at the time, but the numbers were growing. Mrs. Schochet vividly recalled the women; many ended up there because they didn’t want to lose their children and their husbands who had been attracted to the group. “One woman was reported as saying, ‘What does it matter to me whether it’s a Shabbos, a Yom Tov or a weekday? My life is gehinnom anyway. Maybe when I die, I’ll find some happiness.’”

Mrs. Schochet also found that, except for Rabbi Helbrans himself, the chassidim were all undernourished. Rabbi Helbrans claims that genetic engineering has made chickens and their eggs treif, and so members of Lev Tahor only eat the eggs and meat of geese. All fruits and vegetables must be peeled to avoid bug infestation; they don’t buy any processed or preserved food, and only cook with natural ingredients. Families get food deliveries in bulk several times a week, but sometimes there’s no supervised milk, sometimes there are no vegetables, and sometimes there are no goose eggs.

The community has tried over the years to come up with business initiatives to bring in more income, but most ventures have failed due to poor investment or outside conditions; most families subsist on the Canadian government’s child allowances, or on donations from their families and the broader Montreal Jewish community. Lev Tahor is run like a commune; families get whatever they need from the central authority. Although a few work outside the community, the majority are assigned jobs inside, like managers, teachers, or cleaners. The men get Lev Tahor credits, the equivalent of $50 to $75 a week, ostensibly to spent at the store on premises. The women are not paid.

And although Torah, prayer, and spiritual meditation are integral to the lives of the members, even the way Torah learning is structured deviates from mainstream yeshivos.

Reb Eluzor Moskowitz, the Shotzer Rebbe’s son, lives in the Outremont borough of Montreal and is currently fostering five Lev Tahor children whose parents are involved in a custody battle in the courts. After investigating the learning curriculum, he shared that boys under bar mitzvah learn Tanach, but without Rashi or any other commentaries.

They also meditate. For 20 minutes a day they recite the mystical Ohr Havaya composed by Rabbi Helbrans. Its purpose is to bring them to a state of self-abnegation. This sefer is part of the rabbi’s larger treatise that he named Ohr Hashem and in which the Holy Name is printed on the top of every page. The men study the Ohr Hashem in lieu of Mishnayos and Gemara. As for halachah, there is 15 minutes of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch a day. Much time is spent on prayer; Shacharis takes about four hours and includes one hour of meditation.

Mind Control

Avraham Berger* well understands the allure of Rabbi Helbrans. He lived with Lev Tahor for over seven years and still keeps in contact with many of its members. “I was extremely grateful that Hashem led me to Rav Helbrans. I experienced something there that, until Mashiach comes, I don’t know if I’ll ever experience again,” he admitted regarding the spiritual euphoria of those years. That said, he feels people must be warned about getting involved with the group, and agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. Today, he lives a chassidic life with his wife and family in Monsey, New York.

Berger, who was born into a secular family, was deeply attracted to chassidus. When a friend brought him to visit Lev Tahor, he felt immediately drawn to the community — it was warm and accepting and he clicked with their mission to revert back to an idealized time before the galus, when Yiddishkeit was pure. He was warned that Lev Tahor was considered a deviant sect, but wasn’t deterred. He saw Rabbi Helbrans as a revolutionary and all revolutionaries, after all, have their detractors. But what he encountered there was a dynamic system that constantly evolved into a more extreme version of itself.

“To set himself apart from others,” Avraham says, “the Rebbe needed to establish exclusivity and to engage in some cult-like practices to sever people from the outside world. Only we pray and dress in the right way. Only we eat real kosher food. Only we learn the right seforim.” On whose authority was he basing this? “He claimed the angels spoke to him or certain things he learned or figured out,” Avraham explained. “By presenting himself as this spiritual entity who knows what nobody else knows, this gives him the right to start doing things that are different from the teachings of other rabbanim. And all in the name of preserving Yiddishkeit.”

As the group grew, so did the control; cultlike tactics were used to get people to behave. “Maybe it’s giving some drugs to the children to keep them relaxed or locking a teenage girl in a basement for two weeks to teach her a lesson,” Avraham says.

Rabbi Helbrans also added chumros that reinforced people’s loyalty to him and to the group, but some of those strictures were actually suggested by the members themselves. When Berger joined Lev Tahor, for instance, the women dressed in standard modest clothing. Today, they all wear black burkas over layers of undergarments. They cover their legs with tights and socks at all times and must wear shoes even in the house. The girls, from age three on, are dressed in navy blue burkas. It is said that the women alone suggested this stricture.

While the men spend hours listening to their rebbe expound on the mysteries of life, the women remain in their own insulated groups. “They have a strong support network and they get the satisfaction of knowing that they are the holiest people on earth and Mashiach is going to come to them first. That, in itself, keeps them going.”

Berger was so enamored with Rabbi Helbrans that he even justified his rebbe’s claiming to have killed Pope John Paul II through his prayers. It began one Friday, when Rabbi Helbrans announced to his chassidim his intention to kill the Pope. When the Pope, in fact, died that Shabbos, they were astounded. What they didn’t know was that John Paul II had suffered septic shock and heart failure two days earlier and was barely hanging on to life.

Rabbi Helbrans’s deceiving his followers to give them chizuk actually didn’t bother Berger as much as his use of preposterous claims of Divine knowledge to dictate to people how to conduct their daily lives in very intrusive ways, including who should marry or divorce whom. The rebbe’s decision was always final. Berger watched helplessly as his fellow chassidim’s freedom of choice was slowly being eroded.

Free to Leave?

Uriel Goldman and his brother Michoel grew up in a religious-Zionist home in Israel, served in the IDF, and then, after doing an about-face upon meeting Rabbi Helbrans, flew off to the US in 1991. Today Rabbi Gavriel Goldman, their older brother, is the rabbi of the yishuv Kfar Adumim, and Uriel is Lev Tahor’s spokesman.

Uriel Goldman cringes at the suggestion that Lev Tahor is a cult. There are no gates locking people in, he says. And he avers that if a man marries a wife who was born and raised in Lev Tahor, he is equally free to go, if he so chooses. But his son-in-law, Nechemiah Benzion Brudzewsky, 28, discovered otherwise.

When Brudzewsky informed the group that he and his wife Leah Shaindel wanted to leave, he was summoned to Rabbi Helbrans’s office, told he would suffer in the Afterlife if he left, and was then ordered to divorce his wife. Only after agreeing to treatment for what the rebbe diagnosed as borderline personality disorder was his wife returned to him. Treatment included taking vitamins and adhering to a meditation regimen that would result in the nullification of the self. The two escaped shortly afterward, at night, with the help of a local Lubavitcher chassid who purchased tickets for them to Denmark and who arranged for a car to drive them to the airport. (Brudzewsky has an Israeli mother and a Danish father, and grew up in Denmark before becoming religious.) When Goldman was interviewed for the CBC documentary, he claimed unabashedly in front of the cameras that his son-in-law was mentally ill and expressed no pain at the fact that his daughter had left.

Brudzewsky, dubbed the whistleblower, returned to testify against Lev Tahor at the Youth Protection Court. Rabbi Shimmy Adler of the Monsey-based Areivim, who works with kids-at-risk and with whom Brudzewsky is very close, told Mishpacha that Rav Eliezer Chaim Blum, the Kashauer Rav, instructed him to encourage Brudzewsky to reveal that “Lev Tahor’s derech is not derech HaTorah and that they, in no way, represent chassidus.”

“Lev Tahor is an exclusive club,” Goldman acknowledged. And yes, he agrees, the chumros have increased — but only, he claims, because the issues were clarified following years of vigorous intellectual debate between the rebbe and his chassidim.

On the Radar

Lev Tahor’s insularity was breached in December 2011 when the Department of Youth Protection made its first appearance.

“Complaints against us started three months earlier,” Goldman says. “They came from Israel to the police, who then started the investigation.”

He’s referring to an incident in September 2011, when two young girls from Beit Shemesh were detained at Montreal’s Pierre Trudeau Airport by authorities and returned to Israel. Goldman says their entire family was planning on moving to Lev Tahor after the Yamim Tovim but sent their two young daughters on ahead. Their secular grandmother, working through the Israeli courts, had the minors detained and sent back. “The papers in Israel were filled with terrible allegations against us — but with no evidence.”

Until then, Lev Tahor had been off the Ministry of Education’s radar. Now the ministry began investigating the educational levels of the children and didn’t like what it saw. Their reading, writing, and math skills were way below par. (In 2008, the Ethics and Religious Culture Program was introduced; its purpose is to provide elementary and secondary students with a basic elementary understanding of the various religions that comprise Quebec society. The curriculum is considered problematic by many religious adherents; some chassidic communities are taking the government to court over the case.) Although the ministry hadn’t exerted any pressure yet, they led Goldman to believe that this was only the beginning and there were more inspections to come.

And come they did. But not until August 6, 2013, when Denis Baraby and his team invaded their complex. According to Goldman, the team found no evidence of abuse or neglect. “Instead, they found healthy, happy children,” he insisted. There were, however, some fungus problems; a dermatologist Lev Tahor later brought in claimed it was normal and wrote a note to that effect.

The DYP also inquired about antipsychotic drugs that Rabbi Helbrans allegedly gives his people. “It didn’t make sense,” Goldman counters. “If people went to doctors and the doctors prescribed the medication, they took it. All the bottles they were looking for were, in fact, vitamins.”

They then started finding problems with the houses. “They asked us to take out the carpets and put in a different kind of floor. We changed that. We went to a lot of expense,” Goldman says. “There was a thermostat with black on it and they told us it was a fire hazard. We called in an electrician who wondered why they were making such a big deal out of this. We cooperated with everything. It was mamash rishus.” After three months of rigorous investigations, Goldman claims that the authorities found only minor infractions. And, as for the schooling, Lev Tahor brought in arithmetic and other texts from Toronto translated into Yiddish, to show the authorities that they were cooperating.

Lev Tahor was also questioned about forced marriages of underage children. But, claims Goldman, nobody was coerced, and every marriage was legal. To comply with Quebec law, he says, nobody was married before their 16th birthday and those who chose to marry earlier traveled to Missouri where the legal age is 15. Still, Leah Shaindel, Goldman’s daughter, was married to her husband when she was 15 and the chuppah took place in Quebec.

While Lev Tahor has been screaming harassment, Barbary paints a different picture. He says the DYP was never planning to wrench children away from their parents, but was planning on working with the Lev Tahor leadership and the families to resolve serious concerns regarding the children. Regarding educational issues, he says they were broached with the utmost sensitivity and respect for Lev Tahor’s religious convictions. Baraby himself did not get involved until four months after the DYP made its first inspection, when he was alerted to the case of a 14-year-old girl who was brought to Montreal’s Douglas Mental Health Institute suffering from acute emotional trauma. The girl was severely disoriented and was not able to do anything for herself, which triggered DYP to further prod the education of the children. She also reported an incident of physical abuse. She says she was engaged to be married and threatened suicide upon her return to the community. She was eventually sent to live with extended family in New York.

This incident raised the alarm, and the DYP soon received reports of underage marriages, with 14-year-old girls marrying men 20 years older, and children as young as six months being forcefully removed from their parents’ homes and placed into other homes, sometimes for years, as punishment to parents who were not “educating” them properly. Reports came not from disgruntled relatives in Israel, but from many former members who contacted the provincial police who, in turn, notified the DYP. Despite evidence on hard drives and written documentation, the allegations were difficult to verify. The DYP took its time; they wanted to make sure they were not being manipulated by ex-members seeking revenge.

When two more cases alleging physical abuse showed up in the hospital, including a married and pregnant 17-year-old with similar mental health trauma, the DYP decided to finally move in on the community.

Black Angels

In contrast to Goldman’s claims of a group that fused high religious standards with near-perfect functionality, the authorities found houses that were dirty and in a general state of disrepair — a leaking roof that could collapse on children’s heads, electrical heaters not installed in compliance with code, no fire escape in the school, dirty diapers on the floor, mattresses soaked in urine, terrible odors, and inedible food in the fridge. There were few toys for the children. The parents weren’t talking much, and neither were the children, although what the children did say was that Baraby and his team were goyim and black angels and therefore dangerous. But no matter what time of day they arrived, the authorities always found the children strangely subdued, leading the DYP to suspect they were given inordinate amounts of melatonin.

Additionally, the four- to seven-year-olds couldn’t identify a picture of a cow or a chicken, or add two plus two. None of the children brushed their teeth. Then there was the matter of the fungus: Just about everybody had it. Leah Shaindel still suffers from severe fungus on her toes and under her fingernails. Baraby says this is because the women and girls wear thick tights all day and night and do not maintain hygiene standards. Others blame it on a depressed immune system, or some other deficiency. One mother inadvertently confirmed that children were indeed removed from their homes and placed elsewhere for long periods of time. And a doctor in a Sainte-Agathe hospital remembered a lady from Lev Tahor arriving with a note from Rabbi Helbrans suggesting he prescribe a specific antipsychotic drug.

Discussions with the rabbi proved fruitless. He was more interested in teaching the authorities religion than in addressing their concerns. But meetings with Goldman and some of the other leaders seemed more productive. Repairs were made, an action plan was effected that included the children seeing dentists and pediatricians, and a proper homeschooling curriculum was established to teach basics like math, English, or French. Baraby insisted that no request was made that they adhere to the full curriculum of the Ministry of Education for Youth Protection.

“We asked that they mostly work with getting the children to some level of autonomy.… We wanted the children to be a bit more open to what is going on outside their community and to be able to function,” he says. “If these children come back… we can put aside, for humanitarian reasons, requirements of Bill 101,” which would allow the children — the majority of whose parents are not Canadian-born — to attend chassidic (non-French-language) schools.

The issue before the courts in November, Baraby insisted, was not to remove the children from their homes, but for Youth Protection to remain inside the community to make sure they were safe. But Lev Tahor had already set in motion a secret plan to flee before the papers were filed in court.

On November 18, a day before the parents of two families were scheduled to appear in court, the entire group disappeared from Quebec. In a quiet, overnight operation, they traveled to new lodgings in Chatham, Ontario. “What else could they do?” says Goldman. “To Lev Tahor it seemed clear that these children were only the first. The others were also on the line.” And so they left, hoping to outrun the reach of the courts.

No Words

If Goldman paints a rosy picture of spiritual striving, and Baraby carefully eschews any outright condemnation, it is the people who’ve lived inside who paint the darker undertones of the Lev Tahor picture. Leah Shaindel Brudzewsky, 18 and mother of two, sits quietly in her black tichel at her dining room table in Montreal’s Outremont neighborhood.

She wants to share her story, but cannot find the words to express herself. Her husband explains that she was not raised to express, or even have, feelings. She says her life at Lev Tahor was tedious, schooling was dreary, and even the youngest children had little time to play and were not kissed. Besides the rabbi’s niggunim, there was no music and certainly no books to read. Children were frequently removed from their homes and placed with her parents, the Goldmans, where they stayed on for months. The older ones accepted this stoically; the younger ones cried. How did her mother feel about this? She shrugs. Leah Shaindel was herself placed in someone else’s house for two months. Did her mother miss her?

“I don’t think so,” she says, and then adds, “My brothers and sisters did.” She was given pills by the rabbi to make her happy — but she didn’t know what those pills were.

Leah Shaindel was engaged to be married at age 12 to someone she didn’t like. She told her parents this, but they didn’t seem to care. Fortunately, her wedding was pushed off for a number of years, which often happens when the chassan is temporarily ostracized by Rabbi Helbrans. Their engagement was eventually broken by the rabbi, but nobody told her why. She does know that her original chassan married a girl who followed directions precisely — she consumed 50 vitamins a day without questioning, a perfectly compliant chassidiste of the rebbe.

Nechemiah Benzion, her new chassan, was apprised of his shidduch with Leah Shaindel the day before the tenaim were signed. He only found out her name when he read it on the papers. Was she happy she married him? “Of course,” she says. “Because of him, I left.”

“Nobody at Lev Tahor wants to abuse children,” Brudzewsky says, explaining the Lev Tahor mindset. “But if you want to reach extreme spiritual heights and you believe this is the only way to do that, then public humiliations, marrying children off early, breaking family units, having children and adults spy and report on each other, hitting children and depriving them of unconditional love, are all seen as tikkunim for the neshamah. And if you believe that purity only exists within this community, how could they have allowed the DYP inside to dictate to them what they could and could not do? Did they have any other choice but to run?”

Ometz, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ (CIJA) human services agency, worked closely with the DYP throughout the investigation. They provided interpreters, background information on Lev Tahor, and helped find foster homes. Luciano G. Del Negro, vice president of Quebec CIJA, says he’s pleased with the thoroughness and sensitivity that the DYP displayed. “We never sensed anything from them but to do what’s best for the children,” he says. “The defense attorneys of Lev Tahor have attempted to undermine the case of youth protection, by alleging that this is religious persecution linked to education and their anti-Zionism. We have faith in Quebec Youth Protection. They did their work and it’s been supported by the Ontario justice who studied the entire case…. Two independent courts in two jurisdictions arrived at the same conclusions.”

Ahavas Chesed Director Carol Polter, in the interim, is busy helping Ometz to secure foster homes from within the chassidic community of Montreal, should Lev Tahor families return to Quebec. If not, the Jewish community of Toronto may be asked to open their homes to the children – the smallest members of Lev Tahor, who’ve grown up with the sense that they alone adhere to the tenets of Judaism, and they alone deserve salvation.

A former Lev Tahor member relates that her friend once told their teacher about a dream she’d had. In her dream, Mashiach had come, and just as they’d learned, everyone was slated to die except for Lev Tahor.

“People were coming to us, asking us for our special modest clothing, so they could wear it and be rescued along with us. My Satmar friend, whom I’d known back when we went to the country, came to ask me for my dress. Then I woke up,” the little girl told her teacher.

“And what did you do?” the teacher asked. “Did you give it or not?”

The little girl was silent.

“Listen, it doesn’t matter what you did in your dream,” the teacher said.. “But remember! When it happens, when they come to you – don’t give.”

Prisoners of their own ideology, Lev Tahor is holding out. This insulated group, intent upon keeping all impure elements out, is now the focal point of world attention and their every move is watched and scrutinized, while they claim all they want is to live in a way that’s pure, spiritual, and sure to bring Mashiach to their doorstep on his first — and only — stop.

Even If You Left, Where Would You Go?

Mike Kropveld, founder and director of the Montreal-based Info-cult, has been following Lev Tahor over the past few years, following up requests from distressed families who’ve lost contact with their children.

“I don’t like calling any closed, authoritative unit a cult. It might be a conversation-stopper but it isn’t helpful. Every group that follows a hierarchy and has an authority figure with control over the group is open to abuse. The question is, what is the potential within that group for that abuse to be realized? And how can that be prevented?

“Nobody joins a cult, per se — a person joins a group because it responds to what he’s looking for, either beliefs or emotional or psychological needs. Doing so is not bad in and of itself. You can have a good experience in a so-called bad group and a bad experience in a so-called good group.

“Some important questions to ask are: Who makes decisions? What happens when you don’t go along with the role of the leader? Are children allowed to play? Do people become more dependent on the leader and less able to decide on their own? Kropveld explains that most leaders are true believers in their cause; they see issues in terms of black and white and can be very convincing to others who think in terms of gray. The leader offers precise simple answers to complex questions. Exclusivity is another red flag. The more isolated a group becomes, the less verifiable are the premises upon which the group is built. The thinking is, ‘We are the only ones who are pure and know all the answers. Others are trying to pull us away from the truth.’”

Other warning signs are: How is the group changing? Is it becoming more extreme? Does the group engage in physical punishment or public humiliation? Do friends and family “spy” on you because they are worried about your spiritual wellbeing? Do you keep the leader informed to show him your devotion?

“After a while you come to believe that these are your own thoughts and actions and, even if you just think of doing something wrong, it can elicit fear and guilt.”

Kropveld says that with Lev Tahor, “You have a movement that’s anti-modern and seeks security in a return to an imagined past where things were simpler and right. Over time, it’s become more rigid and closed with more clearly defined rules and regulations. Relationships are easy here; the leader determines who should marry and divorce whom. They see the rabbi as a revolutionary on a special mission who is G-d’s right hand. This is a powerful image for members. Even if no one held you back from leaving, if you were nurtured in that group, where would you go?”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 502)

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