A Quebec judge ordered the immediate removal of 14 children from the Lev Tahor Jewish sect and their placement in foster care for at least 30 days.
The Nov. 27 ruling by Quebec Youth Court Judge Pierre Hamel followed the opening that day of a youth protection hearing in St. Jérôme.
A publication ban has since been placed on evidence presented.
The children, ranging in age from two months to 16 years, are from two families. The parents defied an order to show up for the hearing, remaining with the rest of the community, which has settled in the Chatham area of Ontario, near Windsor.
The 14 children were still in Ontario late last week, and youth protection officials from that province and Quebec were conferring on what to do next.
The more than 200 Lev Tahor members, comprising about 40 families, left Ste. Agathe, where they had lived for almost a decade, overnight Nov. 17-18. The community had been under investigation by the Youth Protection Department for months.
Spokespeople for Lev Tahor have denied that the community’s children, who number about 130, are abused or neglected, and say the group complied with any requests from child-welfare authorities. The local YPD director Denis Baraby said it was concerned about the children’s hygiene and health, both physical and psychological, as well as lack of education. The children were being home-schooled, according to Lev Tahor’s extreme religious beliefs.
Lev Tahor says it left Quebec because it does not want to teach its children the province’s prescribed secular curriculum.
Meanwhile, the Ontario government was investigating allegations of neglect among the community there.
“At this time no children have been apprehended, and the families have provided access to protection workers for the ongoing investigation,” Child and Youth Services Minister Teresa Pirruzza’s office said in a statement Nov. 26. “They will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that child safety remains a foremost priority.”
In Israel, a parliamentary committee has been hearing horrific stories of abuse from ex-members and relatives of current Lev Tahor followers.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz, which conducted an in-depth investigation of Lev Tahor in Ste. Agathe 1-1/2 years ago, reported on Nov. 26 that families in Israel have since filed complaints with police of mistreatment of children, including forced marriages of girls as young as 14 to men, and the use of psychiatric drugs to control members.
Lev Tahor was founded and is led by Israeli-born self-styled rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, who was convicted of the abduction of a boy in the United States in 1994. He was granted refugee status in Canada on the basis of his claim that he would be in danger if he returned to Israel due to his anti-Zionist views.
Since moving to Ontario, the normally reclusive group has welcomed the media to hear its side of the story and has been posting regular updates on its website, dismissing allegations of wrongdoing as “blood libel.”
They say they wish to settle permanently in Ontario, where they believe the education laws will offer them a better chance of schooling their children the way they wish.
Jewish groups were quick to distance themselves from Lev Tahor, while expressing concern for the children’s welfare. Both the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B’nai Brith Canada denounced Lev Tahor as practising a “perversion of Judaism.”
Federation CJA’s social service agency Ometz has received complaints about what went on in Ste. Agathe over the years and reported them to youth protection, said Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs spokesperson David Ouellette. Ometz has also offered its assistance in trying to find foster homes that suit the children’s fervently Orthodox upbringing.
Years ago, several chassidic communities formally renounced any association with Lev Tahor and Helbrans, 51, who was raised in a secular family in Israel, where he founded the sect. They left for the United States in 1990.