‘Jewish Taliban’ sect flee in Canada
Graeme Hamilton, reporting in the Canadian NATIONALPOST.com, says that Lev Tahor sect director Mayer Rosner (pictured) says that being forced to teach Montreal’s public school curriculum was behind their decision to flee the province.
But, when Canadian child-protection workers arrived last Monday to check on children in what has been described as the “cult-like Jewish community” in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Montreal, the streets were deserted and nobody answered the doors.
Neighbours informed them that three buses had arrived in the middle of the night. With some families facing court dates this week under Quebec’s Youth Protection Act, almost the entire community — including all of the 120 children — had abruptly decamped for Chatham, Ontario.
“For sure we are worried by the fact that they fled Quebec to go to Ontario,” Denis Baraby, director of youth protection for the Laurentians region, said on Friday. His workers have been actively involved in the community since August, trying to help children suffering from poor hygiene, inadequate housing and unsatisfactory schooling.
“We gathered evidence that there was important child neglect within the community and there was also psychological violence made toward the children in many ways,” Baraby said. “The basic needs of the children were not necessarily well provided for.”
Files handed to Ontario
Last month, six children were removed from the community after their father, who had abandoned the sect to move to Israel, reported they were suffering neglect.
Baraby said he has shared all of his files, including photos of many of the children, with Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, which has begun its own investigation. The families are staying at a motel, but a representative said they intend to settle in the region.
What is ‘Lev Tahor’ Pure Heart ?
Lev Tahor leader Shlomo Helbrans (also known as Elbarnes) was convicted in 1994 of kidnapping a teenaged boy who had been brought to his Brooklyn yeshiva for bar mitzvah instruction. In 2000, he was deported to Israel after serving his prison sentence. A year later he arrived in Sainte-Agathe on a temporary visa and soon his followers joined him.
In Israel, critics refer to Lev Tahor — which means Pure Heart — as the Jewish Taliban because women wear burqa-like robes and are confined to household tasks. Sainte-Agathe Mayor Denis Chalifoux said the women from the community never ventured downtown to the shops.
In 2004, Helbrans was granted refugee status in Canada on the grounds that he would face persecution in Israel for his anti-Zionist views. The federal Minister of Citizenship appealed but lost. The judge in that case noted that Helbrans teaches that the existence of Israel is an insult to the Bible, that Israel should cease to exist and that Jews must accept Arab domination of the land.
“They are a sect,” he said. “They are not reflective of Judaic values or any stream of Judaism. They are completely out of the norm.”
In Canada, the sect managed to remain mostly below the radar until 2011 when authorities intercepted two teenaged girls sent from Israel to join Lev Tahor. An uncle in Israel had obtained a court order to have the girls returned based on fears they would be harmed by Lev Tahor and forced to marry.
Denis Baraby said his office began paying closer attention to the group after that incident. But it was a specific complaint channelled through a Jewish community social services agency in Montreal this year that prompted intervention in August.
Children were suffering
The 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. Concerns about forced marriages and teen pregnancies were passed along to provincial police, Baraby said.
He said community members were cooperating and slow progress was being made, but three families representing 14 children were facing court hearings this week. He said the hearings were not to remove the children from custody but to ensure continued child-protection access.
The mass departure came as a surprise, he said. During visits last week, his workers saw no signs of an imminent move.
Reached by phone in Chatham, Lev Tahor director Mayer Rosner denied that his group had fled to avoid child-protection authorities. He said they left in the middle of the night so it would be easier for the children to sleep on the long journey.
Ontario respects It’s all about schooling
The real sticking point, he said, was schooling. “To learn the full curriculum in Quebec exactly like in the public school is a problem for religious people,” he said. He said parents were co-operating with youth protection and making progress.
“They are not reflective of Judaic values
or any stream of Judaism.
They are completely out of the norm”
In Ontario, he said, “they are respecting freedom of religion,” and he is confident his community’s schooling system will be accepted. “We didn’t run away,” he said. “Three or four months ago we checked out a property in Chatham, because we were planning to leave anyway.” He denied that girls in Lev Tahor are forced into marriage.
David Ouellette, public affairs director at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Montreal, said Jewish community services had been active in exposing concerns in Lev Tahor. “They are a sect,” he said. “They are not reflective of Judaic values or any stream of Judaism. They are completely out of the norm.”