I, like many North American Jews, have been following the story of Lev Tahor in the media over the past few months.
The latest: on April 14, Ontario Superior Court Judge Lynda Templeton overturned an earlier court decision ordering 13 Lev Tahor children be returned to Quebec and placed in foster care.
Templeton also ruled that children’s aid in Chatham, Ont. will continue to investigate the families and the case will now go to provincial court to determine whether the children are in need of protection.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, headed by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, has been labelled a cult and referred to as the “Jewish Taliban” by those who condemn the group’s extreme religious practices and rules.
The allegations against Lev Tahor, which include underage marriages, a lack of proper education for its children and hygiene concerns, have not been proven in court, Templeton said, but they cause “grave concern about the health and welfare of these children and their protection.”
I agree with the judge that these innocent children should not be bounced from province to province, as the emotional consequences would be “disastrous,” but I am nonetheless shocked and disturbed by the accusations.
The controversy and uproar that surrounds Lev Tahor reminds me of a book I read in 2012. Titled Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, a memoir, written by Deborah Feldman, paints a picture of a woman who is raised in a strict chassidic Jewish community in Brooklyn.
After doing a bit of research, I made an interesting connection. The sect that Feldman grew up in was Rabbi Helbrans’ inspiration. An outright anti-Zionist, he has claimed to have modelled Lev Tahor after the Satmar movement.
In Feldman’s memoir, she reveals what her life was like when she was trapped in the chassidic American community that, according to her, values silence and suffering over individual freedoms and expressions.
I can draw many lines between what I know about the Satmar and Lev Tahor groups, and none are positive comparisons. While I initially wanted to be able to understand and accept the explanations that Lev Tahor leaders have presented as defences, I simply cannot sympathize.
I think back on Feldman’s words and still feel sorry for the children in the community who did not even realize they were victims. At an early age, the author came to conclusions that most of her peers would never realize.
From what she could read, to whom she could speak with, almost every aspect of Feldman’s identity was controlled. Married at 17 to a man she had only met for 30 minutes, she was unable to consummate the relationship for an entire year. Her ensuing anxiety went undiagnosed and was exacerbated by the public shame of failing to serve her husband.
In her emotional and powerful memoir, Feldman recalls how secret moments reading about empowered female literary characters helped her see an alternative way of life – one she knew she had to seize when, at the age of 19, she gave birth to her son and recognized that more than just her own future was at stake.
When I recently watched a documentary about Lev Tahor by the TV program 16×9, I tried to keep an open mind, but couldn’t.
I can’t justify the fact that the children of this sect are being “educated” by women who are unequipped to teach. I can’t justify the fact that these kids have developed fungus on their feet from a lack of bathing. I can’t justify the fact that girls who do not want to wear the standard black robe (which covers their bodies from head to toe) will be kicked out of the community.
It’s all too primitive for me. Perhaps I should not be judging a community I have not seen first-hand, but my instincts tell me that this way of life is oppressive.
As a Jewish woman who has freedoms and opportunities to work, travel and learn about the world at large, I am sad for the children of Lev Tahor. Something must be done to give these boys and girls a second chance at life.