Professor who studied radical sect offers his perspective
MONTREAL — A Université de Montréal professor who has been in contact with the Lev Tahor community since it settled in Quebec says he never observed abuse of children in his visits to its former Ste. Agathe des Monts base.
Yakov Rabkin would not comment on whether the children are in danger, but he suggests that the “antagonism” toward the extremely anti-Zionist Jewish sect has originated with the Lev Tahor members’ secular relatives in Israel.
“I don’t know whether or not there has been abuse, but the times I went to visit the community – sometimes without notice – I didn’t see any violence. The boys appeared similar to other chassidic boys.
“However, in recent years, the girls and women started to wear veils and came to look different from women in other chassidic communities,” he told The CJN.
The women’s head-to-toe clothing has led some to dub the group the “Jewish Taliban
Rabkin, an observant Jew, is a professor of contemporary history and author of the 2006 book A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism. He visited the community on average once or twice a year.
Rabkin said Lev Tahor members almost all grew up in non-religious families in Israel, including its leader and founder, self-styled rabbi Shlomo Helbrans.
“While most Lev Tahor children were born in Quebec, the majority of adult members, about 50 people came from Israel, where they had been raised with the ideology of Zionism. Some are former officers of the Israeli army.”
Rabkin has been studying Lev Tahor since Helbrans settled his followers in Ste. Agathe in 2001 from Israel, where Helbrans had been deported from the United States after serving a jail term for the second-degree kidnapping of a child.
A few years ago, for a film project, Rabkin interviewed several members – men and women – about their background and motivations for joining the group.
During a visit last summer, Rabkin learned that Lev Tahor had been planning for several months to move to Ontario because they would not comply with Quebec’s education laws.
The vast majority of the approximately 250 members left Ste. Agathe Nov. 19, ahead of a youth court hearing into allegations of child abuse and neglect. They’re now living in Chatham, Ont.
On Nov. 27, a Quebec youth court judge ordered 14 children to be immediately placed in foster care for at least 30 days because they were at risk of harm.
Local children’s aid workers are seeking a court order to take custody of the 14 children, who remain in Ontario. Their two sets of parents appealed that request Dec. 11. The case will be heard Dec. 23.
Rabkin believes it’s the formerly secular Lev Tahor members’ rejection of Zionism, as much as their extreme religious practices, that has aroused such rancour against them in Israel.
“I understand the antagonism Lev Tahor generates in Israel,” Rabkin said. “The relatives of those who joined Lev Tahor are almost all secular Zionists. They are horrified by the new lifestyle of their children and by the education given to their grandchildren…
“They protested outside the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv and mobilized Israeli authorities, which put pressure on child protection agencies in Canada.”
A Knesset committee has been hearing testimonies of ill treatment of children, including physical abuse and forced marriages of girls, from these relatives and ex-Lev Tahor members, including one of Helbrans’ sons.
Rabkin believes that’s why Quebec youth protection officials began investigating the group earlier this year.
“For several months children were checked for signs of beatings and homes, including refrigerators, were inspected almost daily,” he said.
Although living conditions in Ste. Agathe were humble, even squalid, the group has not been without means. In a Dec. 7 investigative report, the Toronto Star uncovered that Lev Tahor has benefited from sizeable donations from unknown donors since it set up in Canada, and had amassed about $5.6 million in land and property assets at its peak.
The money was received under two registered tax-exempt charities: Congregation Riminov, which lost its charitable status in 2007, and the Society for Spiritual Development, established in 2004 which last year transferred its assets of $3.3 million to another charity, the Canadian Friends of Holy Land Institutions.
Helbrans (also known as Elbarnes) entered the U.S. illegally in 1990 from Israel. In 1994 a Brooklyn, N.Y., court convicted him of kidnapping a 13-year-old boy whom he held for two years at his yeshiva against his mother’s wishes.
After spending two years in jail, Helbrans and his wife, Malka, who was convicted on lesser charges, unsuccessfully appealed the kidnapping conviction.
They were deported to Israel in 2000. The following year, Helbrans came to Canada on a temporary visa with about 30 families and settled in Ste. Agathe, a Laurentian resort town, and they began building homes and a synagogue.
He applied for refugee status, claiming he’d be in danger if returned to Israel because of his opposition to the state. An Immigration and Refugee Board panel in Montreal granted him asylum in 2003.
The federal government appealed the decision, but the Federal Court of Canada threw out the case. Prominent civil rights lawyer Julius Grey represented Helbrans.
In 2003, the Vaad Hoaskonim, the rabbinical council of Orthodox communities in New York, warned that Helbrans’ group “constitutes a great threat, spiritual and physical, to the Torah observant community in general and to every individual in particular.”
In early 2012, a reporter for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz spent several days among the normally reclusive Lev Tahor in Ste. Agathe and published an in-depth series, weighing the horrific allegations against the group with what he saw, ultimately drawing no firm conclusions.