CHATHAM, Ont. — About halfway through our interview, Uriel Goldman received a call on his cellphone. Family service workers from Chatham-Kent Child Services had appeared at his home for a surprise visit. His attendance was required.
Goldman left to meet the two investigators, returning 30 minutes later. The unscheduled visit was nothing new, he explained. In fact, it was the third such visit that day. Since the group of 250 members of Lev Tahor, an ultra-Orthodox sect seeking to live a “pure” Jewish lifestyle, relocated to Chatham-Kent from Quebec in November, the visits have become an almost daily occurrence.
The Lev Tahor, Hebrew for “pure heart,” families are asked about their treatment of their children, their living conditions are investigated and, in at least one case, the child-care workers asked to see a mother change her baby’s diaper and then checked the infant’s body for bruises.
In addition, Chatham-Kent police have visited the community several times to reassure themselves and child protection officials that the children are appropriately cared for.
Nothing has ever been found, Goldman said, referring to the charges of child abuse or neglect that have dogged the group, first in Israel, then in Quebec and now in Ontario.
The complaints levelled by Quebec child protection authorities have included neglect, girls having fungus on their feet, physical abuse, giving children melatonin (an over-the-counter sleep aid) to calm them, and even a suggestion of mass suicide if they faced the prospect of losing their children.
Recently, an Ontario court held a hearing to determine whether the court had jurisdiction to uphold a Quebec court ruling to remove 14 children from three Lev Tahor families. On Nov. 27, 2013, a Quebec judge ordered the children be placed temporarily in foster care, undergo medical examinations and receive psychological support. But by then, community members with children had moved to Ontario.
Judge Stephen Fuerth of the Ontario court of justice will announce his decision on Feb. 3. Chris Knowles, the lawyer for Lev Tahor, suggested to reporters there might be an appeal against an adverse finding.
Lev Tahor members reject allegations of abuse or a suicide pact. Goldman and his colleagues, Mayer Rosner and Yakev Weingarten, laughed at the absurdity of the idea that the group would do themselves in. They say the allegation was based on the uninformed speculation of former Lev Tahor member Adam Brudzewsky, whose suggestion was repeated in court Nov. 27. His identity and testimony were only made public last week after a publication ban was lifted Jan. 16.
That former member is not credible at all, they said. Lev Tahor provided The CJN with an 11-page letter signed by four members of the Weingarten family, who knew Brudzewsky before they joined the group. The letter’s allegations about Brudzewsky, dating back to their acquaintance in Monsey, N.Y., bring his testimony into question, they say.
As for fungus on the feet, a Montreal dermatologist spent several hours at the Lev Tahor community in Ste. Agathe, examined 61 children and found nothing out of the ordinary. The minor skin conditions she discovered were nothing more than what you’d find in any population, she said.
Referring to another child worker’s allegation – that children were given melatonin – Weingarten said not every parent used the hormone, which is used to help them sleep, not to calm them. “You can see how ridiculous” the allegation is, he said.
As for other charges, which originated in Ontario, not Quebec, an Ontario judge has already overturned a removal order that had placed two children in foster care. In that case, a toddler was taken into protective custody over what appeared to be bruising on the face. It was nothing more than the remains of a permanent marker and the efforts of the parents to wash it off, the group’s spokesmen said.
In a 2-1/2-hour visit earlier this month to the Lev Tahor shtetl, located on the outskirts of Chatham, I found dozens of smiling children, curious about the newcomer and eager to have their photos taken. Boys were in school, studying Judaic subjects. Boys and girls are educated separately.
The children seemed happy and well-fed and showed no signs of fear or distrust. The boys wore the same sort of black garb, crowned with a type of pillbox hat.
The girls, from a very young age, were dressed in black robes and head coverings that have led some to dub Lev Tahor the “Jewish Taliban.”
The men wear long black coats and wide-brimmed hats, similar to those of other ultra-Orthodox groups. The women’s clothing was designed by Lev Tahor members after they researched traditional European Jewish clothing, Weingarten said. Bringing up some images on his laptop, he showed groups of European Jews wearing similar long-flowing robes, perhaps from the 19th century.
For Lev Tahor, those were the good old days. “We’re more old-fashioned,” Goldman acknowledged. “We go to the sources. We don’t believe in any compromise. We think it’s authentic Judaism. We want to go backwards. We understand that our great-great-grandparents were smarter than us.
“We can see in the old literature that the people were very, very clever. They saw that to serve HaShem, there’s no need to make a compromise.”
It was that refusal to compromise that drove Lev Tahor to Ontario, they explained. At the heart of the issue was their desire to educate their children as they saw fit, without being forced to include subjects anathema to them – evolution and homosexuality.
“There’s one curriculum that every child in Quebec must study, and there’s no exception. It’s against the Jewish religion and it’s not just our problem,” Goldman said, referring to other religious groups in the province.
Though Lev Tahor had been living in Quebec for nearly 20 years, their lives changed after a CBC radio documentary aired in October 2011.
“They said our schools don’t go the same way as the Ministry of Education. That invited the government to come. We knew we [couldn’t] comply exactly with them,” Goldman said.
“Evolution, homosexuality, that goes against our religion. Evolution means there’s no Creator. We can’t teach that,” he said.
The group researched other Canadian jurisdictions and determined that Ontario provided the best opportunity to home-school their children, teach them the required material while not violating their religious beliefs.
“Absolutely,” Goldman said when asked if the children are taught secular subjects. But they do “mix in Torah together.
“The Torah talks about a lot of subjects,” including geometry, mathematics, biology. “We do learn secular subjects in a religious way,” he said.
In April 2013 – long before the November court ruling in Quebec – the group hired a real estate agent to find a suitable location, Rosner said. A site in Chatham-Kent was found, consisting of a row of 15 to 20 bungalows, side by side. Community members with school-aged children settled there; others rented apartments in town, in close proximity to each other. The other members remained in Quebec.
The spokesmen reject suggestions Lev Tahor has the characteristics of a cult. In a cult, people “have been brainwashed to accept beliefs and practices, not in a logical way, [through] mind control,” said Weingarten. “Our message is open, and so, clean of all kinds of influences. We don’t hide anything. We’re so open with one message and it’s that we want to keep the Torah as given.
“People can understand it… with his own logical opinion, can accept or reject a part, but it’s a message that is clear.” He said there is no charismatic leader, no appeal to emotions or to irrationality.
“Here it’s clean and open,” he said. “It’s the Torah message.”
The group prepares all its own food from scratch. Lev Tahor members buy kosher beef directly from the slaughterhouse. They don’t trust the kashrut of meat sold in retail outlets, Goldman said.
The group’s members rely largely on contributions from outside supporters for their subsistence.
Asked to explain the bad press the group has received over the years, the spokesmen said it goes back to the group’s formative years in Israel. The group is openly anti-Zionist. They believe only the Messiah can establish a Jewish state.
That obviously goes against the grain in Israel and among Jewish communities around the world, for whom Israel is a centrepiece of their identity, they say.
When they first moved to Quebec about 20 years ago, an Israeli official expressed concerns to the Quebec media over the welfare of Lev Tahor children. The group’s founder, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, had been convicted in New York of kidnapping a 13-year-old boy he had been tutoring. He served two years in jail. He returned to Israel and the group coalesced around him.
Goldman said Israeli authorities opposed the group because it is anti-Zionist. They are also angry that Rabbi Helbrans was granted refugee status by Canada.
As for their reception in Chatham, it’s been only positive. “We’ve been received wonderfully,” Rosner said. “During Chanukah we invited [our neighbours] to join us and to say hello. Many came daily to say, ‘We support you.’”
“They feel we’re being persecuted,” Goldman said, adding locals from Chatham have attended court to show their support.