CHATHAM, Ont. — With their traditional garb, devotion to a golden age centuries in the past, use of the Yiddish language and history of living apart from others, you might think the members of Lev Tahor are stuck in a 19th-century time warp.
Well, not entirely.
In their modest office building that doubles as a school and mikvah, Lev Tahor spokesmen take calls on their cellphones and are as adept as anyone at using laptops to search the Internet.
Before they moved to Chatham, they researched online the education systems of all Canadian jurisdictions to determine which one best suited their needs. Ontario came out on top.
None of them work outside their community, a 21st-century shtetl on the edge of town. They rely on benefactors to support their lifestyle – though a couple of the guys trade commodities online. And they run a publishing house – called in Hebrew “Da’at” – that produces books on spirituality and Torah studies.
Most of the adults work within the community, teaching, organizing the synagogue or at the publishing house. A couple of guys during my visit were busily building the mikvah, installing plumbing and generally upgrading the building. They are self taught.
“We are well educated,” said Uriel Goldman, one of the group’s spokesmen. “If we don’t learn the Quebec curriculum we’re not analphabetic or… criminal. We can do business, sometimes better [than others],” he said.
Their lifestyle is modest to say the least. The furniture is hand-me-down, with its best days far in the past. They live in small pre-fab bungalows. Goldman, a father of 10, makes do in a structure that to many city dwellers might be considered over-crowded. But the sweet smell of home baked bread wafts through the air and none of his children looks to be hungry or unkempt. A big bin full of toys – none of them homemade – sits in the middle of the living area, with the girls rummaging through in search of something to play with.
In the office/school building, boys were at study when I visited. In one class, boys shokled (swayed back and forth) in their seats as they recited religious texts in a sing-song manner. In another room, youngsters around 12 or 13 were being instructed by a teacher who looked barely older than they are.
When asked what they wanted to do when they grew up, they looked puzzled. None of them spoke English well enough to understand the question. Their teacher translated for them in Yiddish and each – all seven – answered in turn, “tzaddik, tzaddik, tzaddik” (a righteous person). I don’t think the idea of an occupation occurred to them.
The girls study a limited Jewish curriculum, not nearly as extensive as the boys’. As a result, “the girls do better with secular studies,” said Goldman, the father of six girls. “They’re not as obligated to [do Jewish] studies as the boys.”
“Lev Tahor boys receive much less secular education [than] the girls, because they have [a] bigger burden of Torah studies,” explained Nachman Helbrans, one of the group’s spokesmen.
The girls and women all wear a black robes and head scarves that resemble the garb favoured by Muslim fundamentalists. Lev Tahor spokesmen say this is traditional European Jewish apparel.
When pressed on the point, the Lev Tahor spokesmen turn the tables and say it is people living in western societies who are being brainwashed into wearing the latest styles – high heels one year, low heels the next. It’s Hollywood celebrities and Parisian designers choosing what you should wear. Show some free will, they suggest.
As for the need to live together apart from the rest of society, one of their spokesman, Yakev Weingarten, said Lev Tahor is unlike other Orthodox communities. It is not based on the authority of a rabbi. “Our community is a college community,” he said. People have done their own research, asked their own questions and afterward, “people get together on the same path.”
“There’s no mind control,” said Goldman “It’s fiction. If a rabbi goes to another place, people won’t change their lifestyle.”
“Who said that to be the same is wrong, or that being different is freedom?” Goldman continued. “We think western society is brainwashed.”
Roles in the community are strictly defined. “In chassidic communities, the organization of the family, educating a family and seeing naches [satisfaction] growing the children and educating them, this is the life of a Jewish woman,” said Mayer Rosner.
Marriages are arranged, not forced, and girls can marry as young as 16, if their parents agree, they said. One of the young mothers, now 17 and with an infant, is facing the loss of her baby if a Quebec court order is upheld by an Ontario judge.
In an open handwritten letter, a copy of which was sent to The CJN, the mother expressed her anguish at the thought of losing her child. She was legally married, she writes, and despite numerous visits by child-care workers in Quebec, nothing was found.
“Our darling baby has a warm home – a mother and father living in beautiful harmony. And what? The CAS [Children’s Aid Society] wants to destroy it for her. What rudeness is this, child protection or child abuse? How can you do this to a wife and to her husband?”
Turning to a similar fate that may befall her sister and brothers, the teen writes that they “grew up in their warm loving home. And now the CAS is requesting to remove them from their parents. There were never found any concerns in my parents’ home, except fungus on some of their nails. Unbelievable!”
Lev Tahor addressed the issue, the group’s spokesmen say. Just a few months ago, a female dermatologist from Montreal visited the community to investigate allegations of widespread fungus on women’s feet, allegedly because they were required to wear socks or stockings all the time.
She found nothing out of the ordinary, just typical problems that are benign and that she encounters routinely in her dermatological practice, they said.
But wouldn’t her very presence and the fact she’s an accomplished professional and a Jew cause some girls to question the lifestyles available to them?
“Our children know there are so many differences, that this woman comes from another community. This is the way we chose to live, and we know we chose another life,” said Rosner. “And if one of our children want to do it [become a doctor], they can do it.”
“But we hope they stay,” added Weingarten. “Every parent want their children to be happy and wants their kids to stay, so that’s the best way.”
One of the grand rabbi’s sons left the community, and “nobody stopped him,’ he said.