The leader of the fringe ultra-Orthodox sect Lev Tahor (“Pure Heart”) reportedly drowned in a river in Mexico on July 7.
According to the local daily newspaper Diario Chiapas, Rabbi Shlomo Erez Helbrans’ body was identified after a strong current swept him along the Shujabal River into the town of Unión Juárez.
Rabbi Helbrans, 55, was reportedly carrying out a ritual immersion in preparation for Shabbat.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it was awaiting confirmation of the report from official sources.
Rabbi Helbrans led a community of Lev Tahor members for years in a village in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal.
They ran afoul of Quebec child protection authorities who alleged beatings, psychological abuse, forced ingestion of drugs and girls coerced into marriage. Fourteen children were ordered to be seized and placed in protection.
But before the order could be executed, about 230 members of the sect fled to Chatham-Kent, a rural area about three hours southwest of Toronto.
In 2014, the community fled again to Guatemala to avoid Canadian court orders to remove some of the children.
It moved in 2016 from the outskirts of Guatemala City to Oratorio, a village 50 kilometres east of the capital, but encountered more religious disputes with its neighbours and town officials.
Rabbi Helbrans was in Chiapas with a group of 40 member families, who according to Diario Chiapas, had entered the state in June after leaving Guatemala.
In the mid-1990s, Rabbi Helbrans was convicted in the United States for kidnapping a boy he was tutoring for his bar mitzvah, and served a two-year prison term before being deported to Israel in 2000.
Rabbi Helbrans was an Israeli citizen who was granted refugee status by Canada in 2003 after claiming his life was being threatened in Israel over his anti-Zionist teachings.
In April, an Israeli court found that Lev Tahor was a “dangerous cult.”