MONTREAL — When Eluzor and Vita Moscowicz welcomed five young foster children into their home about six months ago, they were shocked by their appearance and demeanour.
The kids, ranging from infancy to seven years old, had been entrusted to them by Quebec’s youth protection officials after they were removed from the controversial Lev Tahor chassidic sect, then based in Ste-Agathe des Monts, Que.
Eluzor Moscowicz said the children were not clean and wore shoes that were so ill-fitting that they were not walking normally.
Even the toddler girls were attired from head to toe in the black chador-like cloaks and kerchiefs that all female members of the sect are required to wear.
Disturbing as well was their suspicion and timidity, even about taking a shower or using soap that might have a scent, and the boys’ fear that their heads would be shaved with a straight razor, as was the custom each Friday among the Lev Tahor.
Moscowicz was struck by the children’s habit of talking against one another, behaviour that he persuaded them was not right, reassuring them they were all now loved and safe.
His wife sent written testimony about the children to a Knesset committee, which has been hearing from Israeli relatives of Lev Tahor members who are worried about what is going on within the group.
Allegations against it include forced underage marriage, failure to provide adequate education and inappropriate discipline of children using force
Moscowicz said in an interview that the foster children’s father ran afoul of Lev Tahor chief leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, when his unhappiness with the sect became apparent. He made plans to leave and bring his family with him.
Rabbi Helbrans had already split up the family, placing the children among other families in the community because he felt they were not being brought up according to his notions of proper Jewish practice.
Moscowicz said the authorities got involved after Lev Tahor leaders called in the police, claiming the father was acting violently, including abusing his kids.
The father lodged a complaint with youth protection that his kids were not being adequately cared for by the Lev Tahor families they were with.
Moscowicz, a marriage counsellor and social worker, came into the picture when a rabbinical council serving Outremont-area chassidic communities asked him to interview the couple to see if their troubled marriage was salvageable.
Today, the five children live in the Moscowiczs’ comfortable house in Mile End, in the heart of a chassidic neighbourhood. The couple have six children of their own, with five still living at home. Their eldest teenaged daughters have been a great help.
How long they will be in foster care has not been determined, Moscowicz said.
Three of the children were seen by a visitor one day. They appeared healthy and happy, flourishing under the care of this gentle couple who clearly love children. One laughing toddler repeatedly came in to show her foster father a new bow in her hair.
Their father, who no longer belongs to Lev Tahor, lives in Montreal and visits his children almost daily, Moscowicz said. Their mother remains with Lev Tahor, which last November resettled in Chatham, Ont.
She has had health problems, Moscowicz said, and has little contact with the children.
Moscowicz’s claims that the children were not cared for well within Lev Tahor were refuted by the group’s spokesperson, Uriel Goldman.
Goldman told The CJN that Moscowicz is making assumptions based on hearsay.
“He never was in Lev Tahor, ever. He never came to meet with us,” Goldman said.
Moscowicz is the descendant of a rabbinical dynasty of one of the smaller chassidic groups, and identifies today most closely with the Satmar and Belz communities. He wears the traditional earlocks and short pants. He was born and grew up in Montreal, and left for Israel where he married and lived for around 15 years before returning to Montreal about five years ago.
When the rabbinical court approached him last year he said, he knew little about Lev Tahor. “I heard people talking about them. It was very scary. But it was not my business, what could I do?” He was reluctant at first when the rabbis asked him to speak to the couple, whom he met separately.
Since fostering the children, Moscowicz has been contacted by former Lev Tahor members who have told him about life on the inside. He never visited their former Ste-Agathe enclave himself.
Moscowicz said he personally has met three women who were forced to marry while underage, and has heard reliable information about others.
Goldman denied that members are cowed by their leader. Goldman, who has been with Lev Tahor for more than 20 years, said he comes from a prominent Israeli family – his father was a surgeon – and served in the Israel Defence Forces.
“These are ridiculous allegations. Rabbi Helbrans is a straight guy. He says exactly what he thinks. You can ask him anything directly… about why you are doing this… Every single point is discussed.
“But we believe that if you practise Judaism, it has to be the right way. This is very reasonable.”
As for the order by a Quebec court in November, upheld on Feb. 3 by an Ontario court, that 14 children from two Lev Tahor families should be placed in temporary foster care because of gross neglect, Goldman responded that the community was under investigation for two years and received “hundreds” of visits by police and child-welfare workers and “they found nothing… We were not charged with anything.
“It is very difficult to hide such a thing [abuse]. If small children are questioned a lot by a social worker, if there is a trauma like that, they will talk.”
It would be “impossible,” in any case, he added, because abuse is “against the Torah.”
He said Lev Tahor wants to go to court and be cross-examined on these allegations. “Take us to court. Let’s see if it’s true or not.”
Moscowicz said Lev Tahor believes, as is prescribed in the Zohar, that if at least one community of Jews in the world adheres “100 per cent” to Judaism then the Mashiach will come.
“For sure, the way they are acting is against the Torah, against everything it means for normal living,” said Moscowicz. “But [Rabbi] Helbrans mixes in a lot of Judaism, and they pray so well and long, but it is all forced. By us, no one is forced to pray.”
Moscowicz is worried about the 18-minute video Rabbi Helbrans released on Feb. 14, in which he accuses child-welfare workers, the courts and other authorities of persecuting Lev Tahor, going so far as to charge that they are the victims of attempted “genocide.”
Moscowicz has not seen the video, only heard about it, but said, “We have to answer that video. We are not fighting with Quebec, and Quebec is not fighting with us. Youth protection is not against Lev Tahor. They are trying to help the children, and we have to be thankful.”
Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs Quebec vice-president Luciano Del Negro said he is satisfied that the Quebec youth protection department has acted with thoroughness and sensitivity in dealing with Lev Tahor.
“Youth protection has acted in a responsible manner. It didn’t rush in… It did due diligence and ensured that any action taken was evidence-based,” he said. “And not one, but two judges has found the evidence compelling…
“A great deal of thought and care went into determining how to act in the best interests of the children and meet their specific needs.”