’When you’re on the path of truth, you don’t care what others say’
In the second part of Haaretz’s investigation into the Lev Tahor Hasidic cult in Canada, Shay Fogelman speaks to the group’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, about his prison time in America and the community’s attitude to underage marriage, to a young man who managed to leave the religious extremists and to a mother who defend their hard-line way of life.
Waiting for the Messiah
Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans’ arguments for the proof of God’s existence go on much longer than planned. After two and a half days, he still hasn’t finished laying out all his points. We spoke each day for many hours – about his worldview, his community, his life. We debated quite a bit, mostly about God. But the conversations and interviews were generally pleasant, and laced with a bit of humor at times. He has a good sense of humor, and is able to laugh at himself, too. Once in a while, he said he was offended and tried to employ emotional manipulation. At times he was dramatic, at other times quite childish. He is a fascinating interlocutor. He has a great thirst for knowledge, and is attentive and curious.
Our talks took place in his office, whose walls are completely covered with bookshelves crammed with holy books. In the middle of the room is a large table covered with an embroidered tablecloth overlaid with a sheet of plastic. Helbrans sat at the head of the table on a wooden, leather-upholstered chair adorned with delicate carvings.
Most of the time, one of the new Hasidim from the community was also present; he recorded the conversations and wrote down the main points. Every so often an assistant came in and handed the rabbi the telephone or whispered something in his ear. One aide or another served us coffee and cookies for hours on end. In the evenings there was wine and a hearty meal.
Like all the other Hasidim in the community, the aides always walked backward while leaving the room. Out of respect, they will not turn their back to their rabbi. Entering or leaving the room, they kiss his hand. They consult with him on just about everything and always accede to his authority. They call him the Tzaddik or Admor, as is customary in the Hasidic world.
The community’s detractors say the honor shown to Helbrans is excessive and call him a power-hungry megalomaniac. They say his adherents mostly show him blind faith that derives from fear. I tried to test these claims, and to stretch the limits. At times I would joke about him with his Hasidim. When one of them spoke admiringly about the rabbi’s dancing at a wedding, I said to him: “That kind of surprises me. He looks pretty fat.” When they spoke reverently of his intellectual abilities, I said I thought he was “a little rusty.” I joked again and again that he was a nudnik. No one was fazed by my provocations. Sometimes they laughed with me, sometimes they stuck up for him, but not in any way that went beyond what one would expect to find in the personality cults of other Hasidic sects.
Helbrans’ critics also describe him as an extraordinarily charismatic manipulator and charlatan. They ascribe to him an almost demonic ability to brainwash people. In talking with him for hours, my impression was that these claims are quite exaggerated. He is an impressive man, no doubt, but not overwhelmingly eloquent. Though clear for the most part, his arguments are sometimes overly convoluted and tend to get lost in examples and anecdotes. Sometimes he forgets what he meant to say, sometimes he repeats the same thing a few times in the same sentence. Sometimes he exaggerates a bit, sometimes he gets boastful. Sometimes he is mistaken, or veers away from the truth.
Helbrans’ first book of halakha is entitled “Derekh Hatzala” (“Path of Salvation”). It is well summarized by the subtitle printed in gold letters on its blue binding: “An illumination of what is occurring right now in the Holy Land, and the approaching erasure of the state, and of the magnitude of the danger to each and every one who is found there and resides there, and the path of salvation for each one who is found there and resides there, and many more important matters.”
The book was published by the community in Canada and thousands of copies have been distributed throughout the Haredi world. Some are sent by mail but mainly they are passed from hand to hand, under the table, in synagogues and yeshivas. Most of the Hasidim who have joined the community in recent years came to it after reading the book.
The main inspiration for Helbrans’ doctrine as presented in “Path of Salvation” is drawn from the book that is a keystone for all the most extreme Hasidic sects – “Vayoel Moshe” by the previous Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. As in that 1961 work, Helbrans’ main arguments against the State of Israel are based on Biblical prophecies, on interpretations of halakha and, above all, on “the three vows.” In these vows, which appear in the Babylonian Talmud, the Jewish people vow to God not to migrate en masse and by force to the Land of Israel, not to provoke the nations of the world and not to establish independent rule. In the Haredi world, there is much debate surrounding these three vows. Helbrans, like the Satmar Rebbe, has chosen an interpretation that is vehemently opposed to the existence of the State of Israel. In a review of the book six years ago in Maariv, Adam Baruch wrote: “If only Yossi Beilin or Avigdor Lieberman could write such a modern, clearly and energetically argued intellectual political book.”
Lev Tahor Hasidim strive to avoid any contact with the State of Israel and its authorities. A few years ago, some of them appealed to the Canadian authorities to recognize them as refugees without a homeland. They observe the Fifth of Iyar (the Hebrew date of Israel’s independence) as a day of disaster and mourning, often burning Israeli flags. But unlike Neturei Karta and other anti-Zionist Haredi sects, Helbrans insists he would not wave the Palestinian flag. “I’m prepared to identify with the suffering of the Palestinian people in the same way I identify with the suffering of any human creature on earth,” he says. “But I have no opinion as to the justice of their cause or the way in which they are waging their struggle.
“A Jew who believes in the Torah cannot take a side in this struggle,” he says. “The Zionist state must be annulled and quickly, from the Torah’s point of view. Because of that same outlook, other peoples must not be enslaved. The Jewish people must wait in exile for redemption and the coming of the Messiah. I pray every day for this to happen, but I would be happy if it is done without any bloodshed.”
The Shin Bet enters the picture
Helbrans’ anti-Zionist stance was formed when he was still living in Israel. After embracing the Satmar Rebbe’s doctrine, he began taking part in Haredi demonstrations and pasting up street posters denouncing the state. And when the ideas turned to actions, Helbrans and his followers started appearing on the security service’s radar. A man who was part of the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division at the time says, “The alarms were actually set off by information that came from the other side. One day, people in the field, who were monitoring the activity of radical Islamic organizations, passed on information about a Jerusalem group of religious penitents who’d sought contact with sheikhs and Muslim clergy. In the past we’d seen ties between members of the Haredi movement and different leaders in the Fatah movement or other secular Palestinian organizations. The background to it was always opposition to the state. But before this, we had never seen a single case in which extremist Haredim made contact with Muslim extremists.” The official says that, for a long time, the Shin Bet was trying to get to the root of this connection and its motives.
Helbrans says that the connection was made in the summer of 1988, with what was then the Islamic Movement in Israel. “We had a problem with the Transportation Ministry,” he recounts. “They wanted to pave a road over ancient Jewish graves in Wadi Ara. From past experience we knew that it would be hard to stop them with protests and to prevent the desecration of God’s name. So we contacted Raad Salah, who had just been elected as mayor of Umm al-Fahm [Salah was first elected in 1989]. We held an urgent meeting with him and presented our case. There was much mutual admiration and respect between us as men of religion. He understood the problem and immediately offered to help. The next day, hundreds of young people from Umm al-Fahm came to the road. They showed us just how a demonstration is done. A few days later, the Transportation Ministry backed off the plan and the graves were saved.”
On the eve of the first Gulf War in 1991, Helbrans declared there was a real and immediate danger to the lives of Jews who remained in Israel. Together with two families and about 10 of his students, he flew to New York. There the small community was warmly welcomed by the Satmar sect, particularly the isolationist group known as Bnei Yoel. The hasty departure of the Lev Tahor Hasidim was the subject of much criticism in the Israeli press at the time. They were said to be “running away.” The parents of several of Helbrans’ followers accused him of brainwashing and kidnapping their children, and filed complaints with the police in Jerusalem. But because these people were not minors, the cases were closed.
The families’ pain was great. For some, the trauma is still ever-present. “They left many things that are dear to us. The land, first of all, but also the Jewish people. To say that they are right and everyone else is wrong is not the way of Judaism or the Torah. This separation is hard for me, but they are my brothers and I love them,” says Rabbi Gavriel Goldman, whose two brothers, Uriel and Michael, were part of the group who left Israel with Helbrans in the early 1990s.
The three brothers grew up in Jerusalem and were taught to love the Torah, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. They took part in youth movements and served in the army. They belonged to the religious-Zionist elite. Gavriel, the eldest, is now the rabbi of Kfar Adumim, and struggles to explain just what attracted his brothers to the Lev Tahor ideology and way of life. “It’s the way they’ve chosen and they seem happy. But it’s hard for me to accept,” he says. “I wish they would sit down and have this discussion with me here. I would invite them to live with me. I would try to show them my world, which is much more complex – a world that contains both the Torah and Israel. Sometimes there are contradictions and you have to find a balance between different needs. This does not mean it’s a way of compromise. It’s a quest for the middle way, which is the way of Judaism. This is the reality and it is never painted in just black and white.”
Gavriel has visited his brothers in Canada but he says it was hard to communicate with his young nieces and nephews, who speak only Yiddish. He calls them on holidays and birthdays and tries to maintain a good, loving relationship. Despite the resentments of the past, their parents also try to visit their children and grandchildren in Canada each year.
’Angels in black’
A number of other relatives of Lev Tahor Hasidim were interviewed for this article. Some have trouble accepting or understanding their children’s decision, but they respect it and remain in touch by phone. A.’s daughter became very religious when she was 14. A year ago, when she was 22, she joined Lev Tahor in Canada, with her husband and their two children. Since then she has assumed a different name. “I’m still not used to it,” says A., who lives in central Israel. In her daily phone calls to her daughter, she continues to call her by her original name. “It’s not easy for me to accept this change. It’s not easy to deal with the physical and mental distance, but I’ve been there twice and she seems happy. She has a supportive community that provides a lot of mutual aid. When I left I told all the women I met there, ‘You are angels in black.’”
A. was alarmed when she read stories about the community on Haredi websites, but her visits and talks with her daughter reassure her. “My impression is that the community is being unjustly denigrated,” she says. “It’s not a regular place and it’s not for everyone. But I think people who are searching for themselves can find answers in this community. As a mother, I can honestly say I’ve never heard my daughter’s voice sound as calm and peaceful as it does now. She grew up in a world of plenty. She never wanted for anything. But there was always this restlessness in her. She was always searching for something else. I’m sorry she had to find the answers in such a faraway place.”
Aside from the distance, A. says it’s also hard for her to accept the way her daughter dresses and the anti-Zionist attitudes that are prevalent in the community. However, she immediately adds, “I’m always telling myself I have to accept the choice that makes my daughter happy. Soon I’m going to start learning Yiddish, so I can talk with my grandchildren on my next visit.”
Over the years, the media have also reported stories about families who could not accept their children’s decision to join Lev Tahor. Just a few weeks ago, the supplement of the Makor Rishon newspaper carried an article about the Lev Tahor community. It told the story of Malka Masoudi, whose two sons, Aryeh and Yosef, joined the community more than 20 years ago. It reported that she had turned to the Lev Le’achim organization for help, saying, “Erez Elbarnes took my two sons and kidnapped them away from Israel to America without my knowledge or consent.” The article also said she did not contact the police “because the boys were no longer minors.” Aryeh and Yosef never resumed contact with their mother and they still live with Helbrans.
Another story in the article has been publicized several times before, mainly in the Haredi media. It is about a young man who spent several months in the community, about 20 years ago. His mother says that “Helbrans took him for a walk in the woods. The whole night he walked with him among the shadows and said: ‘I know what you did.’ He scared him so much that my son completely lost his self-confidence. Helbrans explained to him that only he could save him from evil.”
The article goes on to describe allegations of violent actions by Lev Tahor Hasidim against the youth’s parents, the police complaints and more. In conclusion, it says: “The method Helbrans has been using for the past 20 years is to influence the child to pressure his parents to allow him to learn in the yeshiva. And when this pressure doesn’t work, Helbrans pulls out the heavy artillery” – what the article describes as false depositions that children file with the police against their parents. After a protracted legal battle, the youth was returned to his parents’ home, with his mother describing him as “a broken vessel.”
Helbrans denies the accusations. “These lies started 20 years ago and they continue to evolve in different forms. There is no truth to them. There never was any truth to them,” he says, although he does acknowledge that, over the years, a few families have been torn apart. Excommunications have been declared. Two couples divorced when one spouse wanted to join the community against the other’s wishes. One Hasid told me he had burned all of his childhood pictures. Another Hasid left his parents’ home with nothing but the clothes on his back, and has not returned once in the 20 years since.
There have also been cases of violence. Parents and other family members have sometimes come to the community and tried to forcibly take their children back. Complaints have been filed with the police from both sides, each accusing the other of provocation. Helbrans says he has been hospitalized at least twice after taking a beating. There have also been appeals made to the rabbinical courts, primarily in the United States, in an attempt to excommunicate the community. To this day, most of the controversy surrounding the community has been aroused in the wake of struggles like these.
But Helbrans does not draw all his followers from secular or religious Zionist families. Currently, about a third of the community’s members are Haredim from other Hasidic sects in the United States. Another third are people with Israeli roots who’ve recently become more religious. And the last third is comprised of Hasidim from the first generation that grew up within the community.
The bitter struggles triggered by Haredim from other sects joining Lev Tahor have been even more fierce than those that have occurred in secular families whose children joined the group. In fact, most of Helbrans’ real conflicts with the Haredi world began after Hasidim – including some with very distinguished family pedigrees – left their Rebbes to join the court of Helbrans, who is derisively referred to as “the kibbutznik who found religion,” and who comes from a Sephardi background to boot.
In this particular arena, the language used in the struggle is especially crude and harsh. “Shlomo Helbrans tormented and shredded the hearts of men and women, and stole good and decent children from their parents’ homes, and turned them into beggars, and lunatics, who shame their fathers and mothers, and who tell their fathers and mothers: ‘You have not seen him [Helbrans],’ and do not heed them,” says one flyer that was distributed around Monsey and in New York City. At the bottom is a hotline number one can call with complaints about Helbrans’ behavior.
A similar flyer in the Satmar community concludes with the words: ”He is the biggest scoundrel in Jewish history. Let us put an end to the darkness. This same man who was born in impurity in the kibbutz of the Zionists shall preach no more. Please help before it’s too late!”
Helbrans now has at least four followers in his court who come from preeminent Hasidic families and who gave up their standing and high positions in other important Hasidic sects, including the Kasho, Boyan and Satmar sects. This has caused an unprecedented sensation in the Haredi world.
Allegations of corporal punishment
Helbrans is an excellent interviewee. Nearly every line he utters could cause a sensation. The State of Israel: “The worst sin of all.” Torah Sages: “Who decided that they’re the greatest sages? It’s all deals and politics.” Chabad: “The notion that the Rebbe is the Messiah is nothing more than idol worship in the guise of Judaism.” Haredi political parties: “A tragedy.”
He believes there is one eternal and absolute truth. And that anyone not following it acts in error. Of course, he purports to know just what this path is. His disciples harbor that same powerful sense of internal truth – otherwise they’d have nothing to look for here. Their criticism of the entire world, Haredi and otherwise, is coherent for the most part, and based on an elaborate and fully formed worldview.
However, Helbrans says he also ready to acknowledge that he could be wrong. “The search for truth is the purpose. And at its base there exists the assumption that one could also be wrong. Otherwise, there would be no search,” he says. “If you convince me I am wrong about something, and that there is another truth, I won’t be able to avoid embracing it. I strive to maintain an open line of communication with the Hasidim, to hear them, to accept criticism and to amend things if there are mistakes.”
The customs and lifestyle of the Lev Tahor community have been consolidated over the past 25 years. On occasion there were attempts to write down a code of regulations, as is done in other Hasidic sects, but the frequent changes and numerous additions have been preserved instead as a kind of Oral Code. Like the leaders of other religious groups, Helbrans also aspires to return to the sources, to the foundations of early Hasidism. He believes all the community’s customs, no matter how controversial, have a halakhic [Jewish religious law] anchor and historic precedent in the Jewish world.
One of the most serious allegations leveled at Lev Tahor in the past had to do with the use of corporal punishment. Publications of the Va’ad Shomrei Mishmarot Hakodesh in New York said that in his yeshiva, “Helbrans gave beatings to Hasidim who are his servants, causing them to pass out and to shed blood and more.” In a 2004 article in the Haredi newspaper Besha’a Tova, Natan Nussbaum reported: “Helbrans himself goes to the extreme, adopting this way in all areas of life. Especially in the area of repentance for sins. For example, on every day of the year, he adopts the custom that was practiced by Shlomei Emunei Yisrael on Yom Kippur Eve, to receive lashings (malkot), as a means of repentance. The community also practices this throughout the year, and their daily prayers are also similar to that of the High Holy Days and more. From time to time, Hasidim fall to the ground to absorb ‘malkot’ that are meted out by whip, in order to repent for their sins.”
Speaking by phone from America, the reporter retracts many of the things that were said in the article. His real name is not Natan Nussbaum, and he is a Breslov Hasid living in New York. “I didn’t really check into those things,” he admits today. “There was a lot of talk that this is what they do. I personally never heard any first-person testimony about it.”
Another article that was recently printed in Makor Rishon described similar things. Yocheved Ma’uda detailed how for weeks she would hide at night in the women’s section of the synagogue, in order to see what the Hasidim of Lev Tahor were up to during the time her son Sinai was there: “Helbrans’ method was to establish these small groups in which the students would confess their sins and flog one another.”
In addition, the Makor Rishon reporter also quoted several former Lev Tahor Hasidim who wished to remain anonymous: “The former students tell of indescribable suffering inflicted upon them by the Rosh Yeshiva – having to roll in the snow, hundreds of lashings that cut the flesh of their backs, and other types of severe harm.” Aside from these statements, in recent years there has been no direct and verified testimony that these things are indeed happening. Not from any of the dozens of people who were interviewed for this article. Nor have any complaints to this effect been filed with the police.
Helbrans also denies that any such policy was ever employed in the community, but he does say that he and some of his Hasidim have had experience with some of these things. “If you take Judaism seriously, you cannot ignore the whole world of the ‘righting of wrongs’ that is found in the kabbala and the books of Musar (spiritual discipline). It’s an ancient halakhic tradition and all of the kabbalists, without exception, discuss it. In all of the books of responsa, the greatest halakhic arbitrators are asked what the remedy is for this or that deed.
“Since the days of the Second Temple, the practice has been for things to be done symbolically and with desire and consent. We never deviated in these matters from the written halakha. There were a few incidents, that were done by a few people on their own. It was never a policy in the community and I can’t understand why such accusations are hurled at us. I can count on one hand the number of times in which Hasidim rolled in the snow as part of a tikun, for having transgressed a negative commandment. This is something that is very common today in many other places in the Hasidic world. Maybe it bothers them that we did it better than they did,” he says jokingly.
Helbrans also says that, as in other Hasidic communities, here, too, on Yom Kippur Eve they also receive 39 symbolic lashings, but he insists that beyond this there are no other tikunim that involve corporal punishment. “Today these things no longer have a place in the way Lev Tahor works. Because of the libelous accusations, they are officially prohibited. From my personal life experience and the community’s experience, I haven’t been able to find a way to bridge between these ancient traditions and our way of work, which is based on looking inward. With fasting and self-mortification, you can’t keep your head clear to look inward.”
Lev Tahor has also been accused of having minors enter into marriages. In the course of talking with various people involved in the community, the names of at least seven recently married couples came up where one or both of the couple was under the age of 16 (which is against the law in Canada). One former Lev Tahor Hasid says that in all of these cases, the marriages were not formally registered with the authorities until the minor reached the age at which he or she could be legally married. He says that other couples composed of minors were sometimes sent to Missouri, in the United States, where marriage is permitted from the age of 15, with parental consent.
Helbrans’ first reaction to these accusations is insistent: “Of course I support marriage at as early an age as possible. According to the halakha, if the two young people are ready, they can marry as early as age 13. If I could have, I would have married a number of couples at this age who I thought were ready. But this is against the law in Canada. Here the minimum age is 16 and we adhere to that. Meanwhile, there are also cases where couples are not ready even at this age.”
In the course of preparing this article, when I had already returned to Israel, at least one case came to light in which a wedding ceremony was held by Lev Tahor at which the bride was still two weeks shy of her 16th birthday. Helbrans’ response: “I’m in shock.” He says he knew nothing about it. “This is a mistake that was apparently caused by various elements in the community.” I requested photocopies of the passports of the couples who were alleged to have married under the minimum age permitted by law, but at press time, evidence refuting the allegation was only received in regard to one couple. Meanwhile, from other sources came several ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) proving that marriages of minors were in fact held in the community in recent years. Helbrans insists this is a mistake.
Helbrans and his followers say the accusations made against them are part of a persecution campaign by those who will not accept their path, or those that were ejected from the community because they did not adapt to its lifestyle. This is what they say, for instance, about the last Hasid who left Lev Tahor. He is Nehemia Benzion Brodowski, 27, and he “escaped,” as he puts it, from Sainte-Agathe in the middle of the night, together with his wife, Leah Shaindel. The couple now live in Denmark and their first child, a boy, was born about a month ago. Brodowski says he still follows the Lev Tahor path and that he and his wife still follow all of the community’s kashrut rules and way of dress. But he adds that, “in Lev Tahor, everything is done right, but through coercion. We could not live that way any longer.”
Brodowski says he joined the community two years ago. He has an Israeli mother and a Danish father and grew up completely secular in Denmark and then Sweden. At 19, he became religious and went to study at several Haredi yeshivas in the United States, which is where he first learned of Lev Tahor. His wife was born and raised in the community, the daughter of one of its most prominent families.
Brodowski says he secretly obtained a laptop computer a few months ago. He then conducted Internet research about the behavior of cults and religious extremist groups, and eventually concluded that Lev Tahor was “dangerous.”
“The place is controlled by brainwashing and fear,” Brodowski says. “I went through dozens of websites and studies about the subject, and I was stunned to discover how on every criterion Lev Tahor is run in a way that is typical of dangerous cults. People there have a blind and total yearning to please the Rabbi. They try their utmost to be good Hasidim and get lost along the way. They will do whatever they are told. They have no control over their lives. They have no free choice. They have no will.”
Brodowski describes a series of punishments meted out to community members who don’t live up to the strict code. He says he was forced to flee Sainte-Agathe with the aid of foreign elements after he was made to sign an oath in which he pledged to immediately give his wife a get (Jewish divorce decree) should the community’s Beth Din or Helbrans himself order him to do so. As proof, he proffers the oath that he signed “under threat.” For fear that he would be called upon to divorce his wife, he cut off all contact with the community.
Brodowski displays a version of the oath he was forced to sign by Lev Tahor: “I hereby take upon myself to be ostracized and … cursed with all the curses written in the Sefer Habrit given to Moses at Sinai, if I should knowingly, after being warned, transgress any one thing of what I signed today being of sound mind ... and should I speak or tell about this path with any person, whether in speech or in writing or in any other way, anything that could cause financial or bodily harm. And also not to do any action at all in any manner, either by my own hand or by means of a messenger or by means of any deceit or ply that could cause financial or bodily harm or mental anguish to the Admor … or to the Lev Tahor community … or to anyone affiliated with the community.”
Helbrans denies all the accusations. He confirms the wording of the oaths that Brodowski signed, but explains that the man constituted a threat to the community. Helbrans: “If I were to find that there are people that feel frightened or pressured, even though they are here of their own free will, I wouldn’t keep them here for one minute. We are fighting for a path and a method that everyone is committed to, but it is done without any brainwashing or pressure.”
He says of Brodowski: “This is a fellow with serious mental problems who never fit into any framework.” Helbrans rejected similar claims I presented to him from others in the community in the same manner. Discussing one woman whom he suspected had spoken with me, he said: “She’s retarded. Plain and simple.” About another woman: “She is totally disturbed. For a long time we’ve been considering whether to throw her out or not.”
During my visit to Sainte-Agathe, the gravity of the deeds ascribed to Helbrans and members of Lev Tahor weighed on my mind. My wariness never left for a moment. Besides the meetings I scheduled with Helbrans and some of his Hasidim, I also went into the streets of the community without any prior coordination, I went into the children’s classrooms and the synagogue. At night, too, suspecting that awful things might be happening, I would leave the hotel and observe the houses in the neighborhood, looking for lights that were left on.
Every foreigner who has visited the community in recent years, and who was interviewed for this article, described similar feelings. Relatives of Lev Tahor members, as well as Canadian journalists who’ve visited Sainte-Agathe, say they felt that, below the surface, other things were happening than what was presented to them publicly. I, too, often had the feeling that the community members were putting on a show for me. Not until I returned to Israel did I obtain recordings that were made in Helbrans’ office before a visit by an outsider. “There are things he doesn’t need to know,” the rabbi is heard instructing his followers.
From Christian neighbors in the area, I heard some complaints about the Lev Tahor people. The neighbors grumbled about the way their yards were neglected and about their peculiar dress that draws reactions from tourists, upon whom Sainte-Agathe’s economy is largely based. A large portion of the complaints had to do with the cultural differences. There was nothing about abuse, violence or illegal actions.
But the neighbors, like an outsider who pays a brief visit, cannot comment on one controversial institution that exists in the community, out of their sight. It’s called Ezrat Mishpacha (“Family Assistance”) and Helbrans says “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.” He relates that the organization is headed by one of the most dominant women in the community, but insists that he takes responsibility for every decision or action. He describes this organization as a kind of “communal welfare bureau,’ whose role is “to keep an eye on all the families and help those in need. If a woman is sick, for instance, we make sure to send help to her at home. Or if we get reports that there are certain problems in education that need fixing, or domestic problems – such as complaints from a wife about her husband, or vice versa – the righteous women of Ezrat Mishpacha will do everything to help and to solve the problems.”
Others in the community offer a different view of the organization. They describe it more as a type of “modesty patrol.” They say it’s really a punishment mechanism for those who don’t hew strictly to the community line. They say that each week at a meeting of all the women of the community, there are reports made about people who have deviated, however slightly, from the community’s strict code of behavior. Some say it is sometimes family members who do the informing. The punishments include the silent treatment, confinement to the house or being sent to other homes in the community for “reeducation.”
Helbrans contends that such depictions are nothing but a distorted interpretation of things. “There are no punishments in Lev Tahor,” he declares. “The only punishment is expulsion from the community.” Excommunications, he says, are only made “in the few instances when we think that someone must be removed from the community. When we think that he is unsuitable, and so he is forbidden to take part in the community or to use its institutions.”
He confirms that, at his instruction or the instruction of Ezrat Mishpacha, several community members have been forbidden from speaking with others. However, Helbrans says, “This is not a fine or a punishment. Certain people can hurt one another and if Ezrat Mishpacha sees that this is the situation, it can order them not to speak to each other anymore. For example, one Hasid said his wife was chatting with another woman all day long. He complained that she was neglecting the house and the children. She admitted it, and so it was decided that these two women would only speak to each other once every two weeks. This kind of thing happens very rarely and the reasons for it usually concern a lack of productivity.”
Regarding instances in which adult members of the community were sent to live in others’ homes for a period of time, Helbrans says: “Everything was always done with consent. These are cases in which Ezrat Mishpacha recommends to a couple that the wife go and stay with her mother for a while if she’s not feeling well, for example. Other cases occurred when we saw that a woman was developing a certain amount of mental stress that kept her from being able to function at home.”
As for the transfer of minors to different families, Helbrans confirms it, but explains: “When a woman gives birth, all the children are moved to other families until she fully recovers. It can sometimes take up to a month. And here, too, it is always done with everyone’s full consent and desire.”
Elior Chen comes to town
Over the years, Lev Tahor’s location at the extreme fringes of the Haredi world has attracted all kinds of seekers and fringe types to its ranks. This is also one of the important elements that make up the community. Helbrans categorizes those who join Lev Tahor in two groups: “There are people who come because they seek the truth. They’ve heard about the community and they know it is the only place where they can live in the way that is right for them. And then there are people who come because they are terribly miserable and no one else is ready to help them. Only here in this community will they receive attention, warmth, love, patience and brotherhood. Sometimes they change, they get onto the right path and integrate in our way of life. We have many such success stories. But sometimes they don’t succeed.”
With surprising openness, some of the Hasidim in Canada told me about their difficult childhoods in broken families. One related that his Haredi father had been sentenced to 30 years in prison in America for raping his daughter. Ever since the trial, the family was torn apart. The mother “lost it,” the sister left the Haredi world. Another Hasid said he was sexually abused as a child. Another was kicked out of every school and institution he’d ever been in. He came to Lev Tahor when he was 18, and his friends recount that he couldn’t even read and write.
Lev Tahor has also attracted Hasidim who were rejected by other Hasidic sects due to poor marital ties, their background or other deviations from the accepted norms in that society. Teenage girls from Haredi families who fall into distress, for various reasons, are also sometimes sent to the community to be married off there.
The community’s isolationism and remoteness has also sometimes attracted people with dubious histories, who thought they would find shelter there. Some left of their own will, others were expelled by the community. The most well-known example is that of Rabbi Elior Chen, who fled from the authorities in Israel after being accused of very violent and serious child abuse (he was dubbed “the abusive rabbi”). Four years ago, with the help of one of his followers, he fled to Canada and went to Sainte-Agathe. “He told us he was a scion of the Abuhatzeira family and that he was being persecuted by the Zionists,” says Helbrans about their first meeting. “I hugged him. We gave him food and a warm bed for a few days, until we started to get reports about the charges being made against him in Israel.”
Helbrans says that, even with all his opposition to the Zionist state and its laws, he could not give shelter to such a man. Not to mention that he was also placing the entire community in danger because Interpol was already on Chen’s tail. Chen was forced to leave and fled to Brazil, from where he was subsequently extradited to Israel, tried and sentenced to 24 years in prison. Chen told one of his associates he tried to find shelter with Lev Tahor after he came upon a copy of the book “Path of Salvation” at a cemetery where he slept while on the run from the police. That’s how he learned of the community’s existence, he said.
A number of other negative fringe phenomena from the Haredi world have been mistakenly attributed to Lev Tahor in recent years, though. Because of the way the women dress, the woman known as “Mama Taliban” has been said to be a part of the community, as have the women the press came to call “The Abusive Mother” and “The Mother who Starves her Children,” as well as some of the Sikrikim in Beit Shemesh. However, these particular cases and people have no affiliation with Lev Tahor.
A white shirt in prison
"Listen well, Shay, listen well. I’ll tell you very clearly. Anyone that I see has the potential to come back to religion, and I mean anyone, at any age. I will do my very utmost to see that it will happen,” Helbrans said to me in one of our conversations. His wife Malka, who was standing on the other side of the room, appeared to clutch her head in disbelief, and whispered in desperation: “Oh no, not again. Not again.” Helbrans looked at her and then turned to me, raising both eyebrows, and said: “What can I do? This is the truth.” The Rebbetzin muttered, “I can’t listen to this anymore,” and left the room. “Hey, look, now you’ve got the big scoop,” Helbrans said with a smile.
This dialogue may sound insignificant, but 20 years ago this kind of thinking got Helbrans involved in an episode that culminated with prison time and deportation from the United States. In February 1992, an Israeli boy named Shai Fhima Reuven arrived at Helbrans’ home in the Borough (aka Boro) Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Newspaper coverage of the story said the boy arrived there accompanied by his mother, Chana. Two years earlier, she had smuggled him out of Israel and away from his father, from whom she was divorced. This was a month before Shai’s bar mitzvah and the mother wanted Helbrans to prepare the boy to be called up to the Torah. A week later, Shai began studying in the yeshiva and slept there four nights a week, with his mother’s consent.
Shai was also given a bar mitzvah party by the Lev Tahor community. Newsday, which covered the story, reported that “more than 60 people attended, most of them Hasidim of the Rabbi, including Jackie Fhima, Shai’s stepfather.” With his mother’s consent, Shai stayed on to live and study at the yeshiva for another whole month. During this time, he grew closer to the community and also began to follow its religious ways. Several times he told Helbrans and some of his Hasidim that his stepfather and his mother beat him, and that for two years they had not allowed him to have any contact with his father, who lived in Israel.
When his mother came to pick him up, Shai refused to go home with her and announced that he was also no longer willing to go to public school and study together with goyim. The mother objected and took the child, almost by force, back to the shelter for battered women where she was staying at the time. In the following weeks, Shai ran away back to the yeshiva several times and was only returned to his mother under threat and by force. In early April 1992, he disappeared.
Helbrans was arrested a few days after Shai’s disappearance, but then released. “I don’t care what Shai or Helbrans say. As far as I’m concerned, he is responsible for the kidnapping. Throughout these two years [of Shai’s disappearance, from 1992-4], he knew where the boy was. He tricked all the investigators but that won’t help him any because I know the truth,” says Michael Reuven, Shai’s biological father, with anger that clearly hasn’t subsided at all over the years.
The New York police as well as the FBI investigated the case. And the parents also hired private investigators to try to find Shai. Helbrans’ phone lines were tapped, surveillance vehicles and hidden cameras were set up near the yeshiva. “Helbrans burned two years of my life,” says Reuven. “After I got divorced from Shai’s mother, I started a new family. Because of the struggle over Shai, I neglected my business and my family. In the end I sold my house and later I got divorced, too.”
Helbrans vehemently denies that he was involved in the boy’s kidnapping. He claims to have no idea who was behind it. “If Shai Fhima would have come to me when he ran away, I don’t think I would have refrained from helping him. But I would have done it differently,” he says. “Besides, I have nothing to say about the kidnapping. I have no connection to it.”
In February 1993, about a year after the boy’s disappearance, Helbrans was arrested again, and this time his wife was arrested with him. The Jewish Advocate reported that Malka Helbrans was suspected of trying to prevent the child’s mother from obtaining custody of him, and Helbrans was said to have tried to purchase custody of Shai from his mother. Hundreds of Lev Tahor and Satmar Hasidim came out to protest the arrests, which were made on Shabbat eve, and the fact that Malka Helbrans was separated from her infant son.
An organization from Brooklyn called the Central Rabbinical Congress raised $250,000 to make the bail payment for Helbrans and his wife. Helbrans’ trial began in January 1994 and lasted five weeks. According to the indictment, he was facing a possible 25-year sentence. The New York Times, which gave the story extensive coverage, reported: “Throughout the trial, the rabbi insisted that Shai fled to him because of beatings he was receiving at home. And his mother, Chana Fhima, insisted that her rights to the child had been ignored. ‘You brainwashed him! You brainwashed him!’ she shouted out in the courtroom. The rabbi insisted, clutching a prayer book to his chest, that he had nothing to do with the boy’s disappearance and that he himself had tried to search for him.”
Eight days after the start of the trial, Shai suddenly appeared at the Rockland County Sheriff’s Office and asked to testify in court. He was questioned for many hours but would not reveal where he had been hiding for the last two years, for fear that “it would hurt the people and the families who helped me.” Regarding Helbrans, he had this to say: “I told Rabbi Helbrans about the abuse I experienced at home and that I just ran away. I never wanted to go and learn in his yeshiva. I went somewhere else.” He gave similar testimony twice in court.
Shai now lives abroad. He is not religious and declined to be interviewed for this article. He visited the Lev Tahor community about 10 years ago and remained on good terms with Helbrans and some of his Hasidim, even after he abandoned religion. In an interview about a decade ago with The New York Times, Shai was said to “still insist that he was not kidnapped or brainwashed by Helbrans. ‘I was going after the religion, not after Helbrans.’” The piece goes on to say that “He does not speak with his parents about the two years when he was missing. ‘They think I was brainwashed. I don’t. So we just let it go.’”
At the end of the trial, Helbrans was convicted but not on the charges for which he had originally been arrested and sued. The New York Times reported that a settlement was reached with the Brooklyn District Attorney, in which Helbrans was charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping in the fourth degree. According to the prosecution, Helbrans was recorded proposing to Shai’s father that he would handle negotiations with the people with whom Shai was hiding, and so he therefore knew who they were and where they were. He was sentenced to six to twelve years in prison, additional time on probation and 250 hours of community service. All the charges against his wife were dropped.
The prison rabbi, Herbert Richtman, told The Jewish Week about Helbrans’ time behind bars: “Helbrans wears only white shirts. I had to make a special effort for him because here, on Rikers Island, only guards wear white shirts ... The prison system decided that I would give him a white shirt each day and he would return it to me at the end of the day. This way, no one could use a white shirt to escape from the prison.”
Helbrans received other religious privileges while in prison. For the first time ever in the New York prison system, a prisoner was excused from being photographed for the prisoners’ album. Prisoners are photographed clean-shaven and Helbrans refused to shave his beard for halakhic reasons. In a precedent-setting decision by the New York State Court, a computer-generated portrait was permitted instead.
On the recommendation of the parole board, Helbrans was released after two years. The New York Times reported that the District Attorney launched an investigation to see whether he was released in wake of a personal appeal from a Hasidic fund-raiser for New York Governor George Pataki. Newspaper reports also said there was an investigation into whether Helbrans was given special treatment by officials during his incarceration and if they had any hand in his early release. The New York Times reported that records show prison officers transferred Helbrans to an open framework of working, even though he didn’t meet the criteria for it. The investigator said the prison officers told him this was done at the instruction of senior officers. A spokesman for the Prison Authority called it a minor administrative error. Helbrans was returned to prison to complete his sentence.
Helbrans rejects the claims that he received special privileges in prison. “I might have been the first Haredi rabbi in this place,” he says. “The system was dealing with someone it wasn’t familiar with. But I didn’t get any breaks. I paid a heavy price for something I wasn’t involved in. My family also paid a heavy price.” He says that one of the hardest moments was when his young son saw him in prison uniform and cried in alarm, “Tateh goy!”
Reuven, Shai’s father, is not willing to accept Helbrans’ denials of responsibility, but he does shed some new light on the story: “In retrospect, I can say that to a certain degree I was the one who led Shai to end up in Helbrans’ arms. After his mother smuggled him out of Israel, I didn’t hear from him for two years. After I exerted pressure on her family in Israel, she allowed me to have a brief phone conversation with him. This was two or three weeks before the bar mitzvah and I requested that he put on tefillin. I told him: ‘If you see some Hasidim, those guys with the black clothes, go up to them and say: “I’m about to be bar mitzvahed and I want to put on tefillin. My father wants you to help me.” They’ll take care of you.’ I don’t know where things could have ended up. Shai was involved with a bad crowd at the time, maybe he would have ended up involved in worse things, like drugs.”
God in colored markers
In the 1980s Helbrans was a rising star in the movement of getting people to “return to religion.” He worked independently as well as with his friend Rabbi Yagen, as part of the Arachim (“Values”) movement. Newspaper reports from the time describe him as “having tremendous persuasive powers,” and say that “religious penitents in Jerusalem say he is impossible to resist.” One widely known legend had it that once, while waiting at a bus stop, he managed to convince a secular soldier to turn religious. “One soldier? Lots of soldiers!” he says now. “Every time I got on a bus I looked for a ‘victim.’ Sometimes I even got him to get off at some yeshiva.”
Helbrans’ proofs of God’s existence were disappointing. I was expecting a complex theological debate, and what I got instead was the familiar series of arguments used by rabbis who bring people back to religion. He presented, for instance, the prophecies of the destruction of the Second Temple as they appear in Chapter 28 of Deuteronomy and the fall of the Kingdom of Babylon as prophesied by Isaiah and Jeremiah, maintaining that these prophecies came true exactly as predicted. He also presented several more Torah verses and examples that he says prove the eternality of the Divine truth as it appears in the Bible. In making his points, he referred to other books and drew on an erasable board with colored markers. His handwriting was practically illegible.
Helbrans is not aware of the power of the Internet. He hadn’t heard of Wikipedia, and using satellite pictures from Google, I challenged his claims about the destruction of Babylon. I showed him the results of archeological excavations that were done there. The fact that Saddam Hussein reconstructed some of the buildings also stood in contrast to the biblical prophecies as he presented them. The conversation turned into a discussion about the smallest details. We found ourselves arguing over different interpretations of the meaning of the vision of the eagle that appears in the prophecy of the destruction of the Second Temple, and even about the structure of the bee’s digestive system. Because he purports to present an absolute truth, I insisted that it be beyond any reasonable doubt. So far he has not succeeded. For the time being, we declared it a draw.
I’d already talked for hours upon hours with Helbrans and some of his Hasidim and still I had great expectations ahead of the final interview in the Lev Tahor community – an encounter with the women. This was supposed to answer many of the questions I still had. Over five days in Sainte-Agathe I’d occasionally seen then walking on the street, usually in groups. Often I saw them peeking through cracks in the window blinds or from behind doors. In Lev Tahor, the women aren’t just kept out of the public sphere, they seem practically absent altogether. Whenever I came to the home of one of the families, they hurried into another room. When I passed them on the street, they would slip into one of the nearby yards. They usually remain inside the home and do not come out in public or among strangers. Even with their husbands they try not to be seen in the public space. They keep up their strict dress code even when alone at home. Taking the interpretation of women’s modesty to the extreme, they also hardly speak; they have adopted a soft tone of speech that is nearly a whisper.
We met in the evening in the living room of one of the Lev Tahor families. The children had gone to bed, the men had returned from the synagogue, the women had finished the housework. Outside it was snowing. Inside it was pleasant. They introduced themselves: L., 34 and a mother of 11; M., 35 and a mother of 9; Z., 22 and a mother of three; and H., 26 with one child.
They described their daily routine. They say most of the women in the community are full-time housewives. Three also work as teachers. Other women in the community work at home as seamstresses. All defined their main work first of all as “worshipping Hashem.” They say they are good friends and that all the women in the community are very close, that they help one another with housework and child care. They all get together at least once a week for a Torah lesson given by one of the women. H. says she feels like they are “one big family.”
The women always give birth at the hospital in town. They also make sure that the children are vaccinated on time and receive any medical care they need.
L. and M. grew up in the Satmar Hasidic sect in America and came to Lev Tahor after they married. H. was born in the U.S., but before joining the community she lived in Israel for about a decade. Z., who became religious later in life, joined the community with her husband two years ago.
They say they’ve heard a little about the controversy that has grown lately in Israel surrounding the issue of the exclusion of women from the public sphere, but they say they have no interest in getting involved. L.: “It doesn’t concern us. We respect the society in which we live and we expect everyone to respect the society and the customs in the place where they live. Generally speaking, I think it was chutzpah on the part of that young Israeli woman to stir up anger and disputes. [She is referring to Tanya Rosenblit, who refused to sit at the back of a public bus in December.] If those are the society’s laws, people need to respect them and behave accordingly.”
They are familiar with the concept of feminism but M. says it has nothing to do with them. “It was meant for the outside modern world, not for Jewish women,” she says. “It’s not for me. I’m not looking for rights in order to attain political positions or to vote on policy. I’m not looking for equal rights in the workplace. That’s not the way of the Torah. That is what I follow, and only then can I be at peace with myself.”
As for the blessing that men recite each morning, thanking God “who did not make me a woman,” they say it actually attests to a flaw that exists in men. “I was created exactly in accordance with God’s will,” says L. “I say, ‘Blessed is He, who created me in accordance with His will.’ This is His perfection. Woman was created complete with no need to compare her to any other creature. Hashem created the world and woman’s nature. He did not create her so she should be unhappy with His creation. A woman who walks in the path of the Torah is one hundred percent happy with this.”
They told me about the handicrafts they do, about their hobbies and about the Yiddish books they read. They say they were the ones who wanted to introduce the dress code that is followed by the women in the community, even though there was resistance at first from the men, including Helbrans. They say they love the burka – that it’s comfortable – and they speak excitedly about the white robes they wear on Shabbat and holidays.
Their attire is made up of two dresses, a jacket with buttons, an apron tied on top of that, and on top of that a long robe and veil. L. insists that “the foundations of the community are not the way we dress but how we follow the path of Torah. And this attire is part of the Torah’s way. Sometimes I see women dressed in the style of the Western world and I don’t understand it. How can they walk in the streets like that? It’s so unrespectable and unworthy.
“Sometimes I feel the attention that my attire attracts,” L. adds. “People find it odd. We look different. But when you know exactly why you are doing this or that, it’s a lot stronger and more satisfying than all the judgmental eyes and the criticism. When you’re on the path of truth, you don’t care what others say.”
Throughout the interview, their responses are polite but formal. They were articulate and courteous, and never once interrupted one another. When I asked, all of them said they were happy. But throughout the interview with them, my attention and focus was often drawn to the green curtain with a floral pattern that was hanging in front of me. I couldn’t see the faces of the women who were sitting behind it. Nor their body language or hand gestures.
The green curtain was the condition that was imposed by the women in order to hold the interview. And this wasn’t the only curtain that I strained to see through during my visit to the Lev Tahor community. Their extreme worldview and way of life endlessly challenge liberal thinking. But even more so, Lev Tahor poses a challenge to the Haredi world. In many senses, it is putting forward new standards for this world, and defying the existing order.
The women’s attire is a good example of this. It may still be a marginal custom only practiced among the most extreme communities, but it is spreading and threatening some of the larger communities in the Haredi world, perhaps more than any other phenomenon that has arisen in recent decades. Because similar dress was adopted by a number of Jewish communities throughout history, to this day there has not been a single halakhic ruling from a prominent rabbi prohibiting it. The controversy around the women’s attire has become so great in the Haredi public that, in the last months, there have been a number of riots and demonstrations on this issue in Haredi enclaves in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.
The visit to Lev Tahor is unsettling. Days later I still had more questions that I knew neither Helbrans nor any of his Hasidim would ever be able to answer. They are closed off and isolated within themselves and have no possibility or ability to examine their lives in relation to the world around.
My attitude toward the community and its ways also shifted a number of times over that period. One minute the things they said sounded logical and legitimate; the next minute it all seemed very strange and unreasonable. In terms of the halakha, I couldn’t express criticism of Helbrans or find fault in the community’s way of life. I simply didn’t have the tools to do so. On the human, ethical and legal level, I found more than a few faults.
As if to add to the journalistic difficulty and emotional weight, during the research for this article I was also contacted by some family members of people in Lev Tahor, who asked me to help rescue their relatives. I also received a good number of phone calls from people who introduced themselves as opponents of the community and wished to warn me against writing anything positive about them. They claimed to have evidence of the terrible things that are happening in the community. I spoke with dozens of them. Most of the evidence was about the same controversial episodes from 20 years ago. Helbrans and some of his Hasidim also called several times, curious to hear my impressions.
For weeks I struggled to remove the fluttering curtains before my eyes, until proof came of the marriages of minors, as did the story of Brodowski and his wife who had fled, with which it was hard to argue. Perhaps we, perhaps I, have a side in us that wants to believe in something, perhaps it’s the side in me that wanted to believe Rabbi Helbrans, too. The rabbi and his Hasidim who called me after the visit tried to provide answers and explanations in response to the arguments I raised about their alleged illegal actions. By this point, I could barely sense the curtain fluttering before my eyes.