What do we know for sure about Lev Tahor, the reclusive ultra-Orthodox sect currently at the centre of child abuse allegations spanning two provinces?
Well, we know that founder and leader Shlomo Helbrans’s devotees adhere to a particularly strict interpretation of Jewish law, including mandatory full-body and head covering for women. We know the Israeli-born Helbrans once served a two-year prison sentence for kidnapping in the United States and that after his release and deportation back to Israel, he eventually settled with his followers in Ste. Agathe-du-Mont, Que. We also know that last month, the group abruptly picked up and moved to Chatham-Kent, Ont. Finally, we know that on Nov. 27, 14 Lev Tahor children ranging in age from two months to 16 years were slated to be taken into foster care in Quebec.
Of course, we have heard much more about what allegedly goes on in the Lev Tahor community, but it doesn’t exactly add up – indeed, some of the evidence directly contradicts other evidence. Throw in an overzealous sovereigntist government hell-bent on ridding Quebec of outward signs of religion and languages other than French, and the result is a confusing mess.
If you’re inclined to indict Lev Tahor, you will cite Helbrans’ criminal past, the Quebec court order to remove the children from the community and reports that the group lives in squalid conditions. More significantly, there are the allegations of physical and psychological child abuse – including the one-year-old girl found with a bruised face by an Ontario children’s services employee that prompted the young girl and her brother, 4, to be taken into foster care on Dec. 12. Former Lev Tahor members and relatives of current members also claim underage girls are forced into marriage.
But there’s another side to the story. Lev Tahor’s spokesmen and legal advisers insist there is no culture of abuse in the community, that the children are well fed and tended to, and further, that the Quebec order was motivated by the Parti Québécois’s language politics (Lev Yahor members speak Yiddish), not any tangible danger posed to the children.
You don’t even have to take Lev Tahor’s word for it: as The CJN’s Janice Arnold has reported, Université de Montréal professor Yakov Rabkin insists he never saw any indications of child abuse during his time studying the community. As for the wounded girl, an Ontario judge noted the bruise could very well have been the result of toddlers romping around (as they tend to do) when he decided to return her and her brother to their family after just five days in foster care.
If all this has left your head spinning, you’re not alone. Still, reasonable people can agree on at least one point: child abuse is an odious crime. If Lev Tahor members are perpetrating the horrifying acts they are accused of, they must be stopped. Ontario officials should undertake a thorough investigation, and the greater Jewish community has a responsibility to lend its support in any way it can. But if nothing turns up, Lev Tahor deserves to have what it wants: for everyone to just leave the group alone.