Lev Tahor (Hebrew: לב טהור – pure heart) is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group headed by Shlomo Helbrans (born Erez Shlomo Elbarnes), formerly located in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, now relocated to Guatemala. Their basic requirement is ongoing, dedicated worship and service of God. They pray for long periods and adhere to strict rules in kashrut (diet), education, marriage, and manner of dress.
The group was formed in the 1980s by Shlomo Helbrans, an Israeli citizen. Helbrans moved to the United States in the early 1990s and settled in Williamsburg, an ultra-orthodox enclave of Brooklyn.
While living in Brooklyn, Helbrans was convicted and served time in prison for kidnapping a boy. The boy had been sent to study with him in preparation for his Bar Mitzva but he persuaded the boy to reject his family and become intensely religious. Helbrans was released after serving two years. He then ran a yeshiva in Monsey, NY and was eventually deported back to Israel. Soon afterwards he moved to Canada.
The group settled in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, but in November 2013, all members of the group left Quebec for Chatham-Kent, southwest Ontario. Quebec authorities have been taking steps to prevent the 127 children from leaving Canada.
On March 5, 2014, nine members of the group, including six children, left for Trinidad and Tobago in an attempt to flee to Guatemala. They were returned to Canada days later. The six children were taken into foster care, four of them were later returned to the group, while the hearing for the other two children is scheduled for May 27, 2014.
Terminology and practices
According to Ontario Superior Court Judge Lynda Templeton, “The religious beliefs of the Lev Tahor include but are not limited to (a) a rejection of the concept of Zionism; (b) a belief that God is present in everything and controls everything; (c) a rejection of Darwinism because it is based on a concept of randomness and mutation that suggests a lack of direction by a higher power; and (d) an acceptance of science generally but an interpretation of scientific principles that accords with their religious beliefs.”
An unidentified man believed to be a member of the Lev Tahor sect from Canada is seen walking with an empty stroller in the village streets in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala
The main requirement is ongoing, dedicated, worship and service to God. The community claims the way they live is within the boundaries of the Halacha and Jewish tradition. They assert that their lifestyle is not new or different.
According to Judge Templeton, the traditional way of life of members of the Lev Tahor community is not “merely a matter of personal preference, but one of deep religious conviction, shared by an organized group, and intimately related to daily living. … Religion is not simply a matter of theocratic belief but pervades and determines their entire way of life regulating it with detail through strictly enforced rules of the community. … The adoption and practice of the Torah to the extent perceived by members of Lev Tahor as desirable or necessary in their daily lives include the type of clothing to be worn at all times; their food preparation and consumption; their language; their moral and social conduct; and, their education. All members of Lev Tahor, regardless of age or gender, adhere to the practices and tenets of their faith-based beliefs.”
An unidentified man believed to be a member of the Lev Tahor sect from Canada is seen walking the village streets in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala
Many of the community’s customs are also practiced by other Hasidim, but far less stringently. In the Lev Tahor community, prayers are twice as long as the norm and they pronounce each word loudly, slowly, and with great emphasis. They have a strict diet that is based on the familiar laws of kashrut. However, their interpretation of these laws is much more strict, limiting certain foods that their Haredi peers allow. Most of their food, including their bread and wine, are therefore home-made.
Lev Tahor group believe that the state of Israel, as it now exists, has no spiritual validity. Within that context, the group was labeled the “Jewish Taliban” by the Israeli press. The label originated within the Israeli media and was later adopted by Canadian newspapers and broadcasters, giving rise to reservations and rumors both locally and provincially.
Members of Lev Tahor in Chatham, Ont
Helbrans may have used false evidence to obtain refugee status, paying the kidnapped boy to testify on his behalf.
In an interview with Blackburn Radio on March 31, 2014, MP for Chatham-Kent-Essex, Dave Van Kesteren described the Lev Tahor saga as a “political issue”. He added that the issue has been brought up within the Southwest Ontario Caucus, but noted those talks are confidential.
Child protection investigation
In 2011, the Lev Tahor group came into conflict with the local school board with respect to the education of their children. The school board took issue with the fact that the children of the group had not been registered in the local schools, and the children were not educated in accordance with the curriculum required by Quebec law. The group unsuccessfully attempted to work with the school board to resolve their concerns. in April 2013, the leaders of the Lev Tahor community developed a contingency plan in the event that the authorities would initiate action and seek to apprehend the children.
Lev Tahor Children
August 6, 2013 is the day the community calls “the raid”. On that day, twenty one child services workers began knocking on doors. According to Denis Baraby, director of youth protection services in the area, they discovered some houses that were dirty, had 4-5 children sleeping in one bedroom, some mattresses soaked in urine, and children with fungus on their feet. They began weekly visits.
On November 18, 2013, every family of Lev Tahor with children under eighteen moved from Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts to Chatham, in Ontario, while the department of protection of youth in Quebec is investigating alleged mistreatments. Leaders of Lev Tahor categorically denied the allegations.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013, a Quebec court ruled that fourteen children of the group must be placed in foster homes. Arrangements were made for the children to be placed in Yiddish-speaking foster homes.
Monday, February 3, 2014, an Ontarian judge decide to upheld the order of Quebec court to remove thirteen children from the religious group Lev Tahor, but give them thirty days to appeal the decision.
On Friday, February 21, 2014, a Quebec court ruled the group did not have the right to appeal the previous ruling of Quebec court, because they failed to file the appeal within a thirty-day period. In March 2014, the Canadian authorities sought to remove all 127 children from the care of the Lev Tahor members.
Six children believed to be members of the Lev Tahor sect from Canada are seen taking cover from the impending rain in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala.
On March 3, 2014, about fifteen members of the group took a flight to Guatemala. A group of nine people was intercepted at Trinidad and Tobago. A day later, on March 4, 2014, at least two adults and six children from the group arrived in Guatemala. On Thursday, March 6, 2014, an Ontarian judge ordered that the fourteen children of the two families that fled be placed in foster homes in Ontario, while they wait for the appeal to be heard in court. Two days later, on March 8, 2014, six children of Lev Tahor from two families, their parents and another adult were repatriated in Canada, after fleeing to Trinidad and Tobago.
On March 9, 2014, a mother, not of age, with part of her family, tried to flee to Guatemala. She was arrested in [Calgary] and brought back to Ontario with her baby. On Friday, March 14, 2014, three adults and six children that fled to Guatemala appeared before a judge in Panajachel. The judge decided to leave the children with their family.
On March 17, 2014, a judge in Guatemala ruled that six children who had fled would be allowed to remain in Guatemala, provided that they check in with the Canadian embassy within three days. This requirement was later overturned on appeal on March 26, allowing the group to stay without conditions for up to three months.
On April 2, 2014, seven Lev Tahor members were arrested in a raid performed by Canadian border security. Three of those members were ordered to be deported to their native Israel, but given the option to appeal and apply for a stay during the appeal process.
On April 27, 2014, the young mother was reunited with her baby in foster care. Ten days later, on May 7, 2014, four other children were reunited with their parents.
Lev Tahor Women
A community of 230 Orthodox Jews from several countries, reportedly belonging to the Lev Tahor sect, began leaving the Guatemalan Indian village where they have lived for six years on Thursday after claims and counterclaims of discrimination and threats.
• Global News TV has run a documentary on Lev Tahor, Feb 28, 2014.
• The TV programs 16 x 9 and The Fifth Estate have each covered hourlong documentaries on Lev Tahor, exposing their existence and way of life to the public.
• Mishpacha magazine has run a 15-page cover story on Lev Tahor.
• Ami magazine ran on its Passover 2014 edition a 32-page cover story on Lev Tahor.
Community response to media
Helbrans and the community say that all media coverage about them was unfair, and that reporters (both secular and religious newspapers) are quoting rumors and derogatory statements about them rather than attempting to learn the truth.