The saga of a cult of ultra-Orthodox fundamentalist Jews whose controversial practices have led them to wander the world – from Israel to the U.S., Canada, Guatemala and finally to Mexico – could be heading into a dramatic final chapter.
Mexican media outlets are reporting that the charismatic leader of the Lev Tahor sect, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, drowned in a river.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman told Haaretz that an official from the Israeli consulate in Mexico is headed to the country’s southern region to confirm the death and identify Helbrans’ body. According to Mexican media reports, Helbrans, 55, was overtaken by river currents in the southeastern state of Chiapas while taking part in a ritual immersion.
The fact that members of the group, ruled a “dangerous cult” by an Israeli court, were living in Mexico was little-known. Oded Twik, an activist for the families of Lev Tahor members, said that Helbrans had quietly led his followers out of Guatemala several months ago, crossing the border into the Chiapas, where they were seeking asylum status, without alerting the media. The Mexican government, he said, had allowed Helbrans and his followers to temporarily remain in the country for 180 days, and the group had already begun a campaign to convince the Mexicans to let them stay longer.
When the news of Helbrans’ drowning first broke on Saturday, Twik thought perhaps they weren’t true and it was some kind of a ruse. “I suspected that he staged it” in order to evade authorities who were chasing him, he said. But over the course day on Sunday, he checked with his contacts in the region and the reports appeared increasingly credible.
Twik was told that Helbrans was not yet been buried and that his body was in refrigeration, awaiting official identification, but his family members would not permit an autopsy. The activist, who extracted his own family members from Lev Tahor in Guatemala two years ago, said he was concerned about ensuing actions by the group’s leadership following Helbrans’ death. He also worried that distressed members could harm themselves: “These are people in a cult who have lost their spiritual leader. The reaction could be extreme.”
There is little that isn’t extreme about Lev Tahor, comprised of an estimated 250 members (though the precise number of adherents is unknown).
The group is known as the “Jewish Taliban” in the Israeli press because the women wear head-to-toe black robes, reminiscent of what women in Afghanistan had to wear during Taliban rule. The group’s name means “Pure Heart” and reflects the philosophy of Helbrans, who preached that members must purify themselves from the corrupting influences that defile the rest of the world – including other ultra-Orthodox groups, from which many of his followers came. He dictated a closely supervised, spartan way of life and rejected modern technology, going beyond the decrees of even the strictest ultra-Orthodox streams. He did share with them an anti-Zionist philosophy and a belief that the State of Israel is an evil and illegitimate entity.
Twik and other relatives of Lev Tahor members charge that the cult keeps its members in line with cruel and extreme methods, including physical violence, psychiatric drugs, the removal of children from their parents and forcing underage girls to marry older men.
Helbrans was born into a secular Israeli family. As a teenager, he became religious and joined the anti-Zionist Satmar Hassidic sect. In the late 1980s, Helbrans developed his own following, preaching the future apocalyptic destruction of the State of Israel and basing his predictions on biblical prophecies. In 1990 he moved his followers to the United States, and founded a yeshiva in Brooklyn. Four years later, he was convicted of kidnapping a 13-year-old who was sent to the yeshiva to study for his bar mitzvah by convincing him to become ultra-Orthodox, sever ties with his family and join Lev Tahor.
After serving two years in prison for the crime, he was granted parole and moved with his followers to Monsey, New York, where he again ran a yeshiva, but the local ultra-Orthodox community became hostile toward the group. In 2000, the United States deported Helbrans back to Israel, but he and his followers soon moved to Quebec, Canada, seeking – and receiving – refugee status from the Canadian government. Helbrans claimed he was persecuted by Israel for his anti-Zionist views. The group remained in Canada for a decade, but their troubles with authorities followed them, with allegations of child abuse mounting over the years. In 2013 the scrutiny of the Quebec child protection services drove them out of that province and to Ontario, but they remained on the radar of Canadian authorities – and the Canadian media, which reported on their severe practices extensively.
After several of the sect’s children were placed in foster care and it appeared that group's leaders would face criminal charges, members fled Canada in 2014, heading for Guatemala.
After an initial stay in Guatemala City, the group moved to the village of San Juan La Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlan, but they were soon forcibly driven out after clashing with the villages’ Council of Indigenous Elders. The town’s former mayor ended up with a year-long prison sentence for forcing them out of the town.
After the expulsion, Lev Tahor members moved back to Guatemala City, but after authorities there raided the sect’s compound amid allegations of physical and mental abuse of their children in 2016, they moved once again, this time to Oratorio, a village 50 miles southeast of Guatemala City.
On April 25, 2017 a ruling by an Israeli court declared that the sect was a “dangerous cult” that abused children. The court was petitioned by families of Lev Tahor devotees to increase pressure on the government to repatriate Israeli children living with the sect abroad and try to prevent others from being taken out of the country.
Evidence showed “the Lev Tahor community treats the children of the community ... with severe physical punishment, with underage marriage ... with spouses who sometimes have age differences of up to 20 years," wrote Judge Rivka Makayes wrote in her decision. She added that “there is a punitive policy toward members of the community that includes the separation of children from their parents – even in infancy – and the transfer of children to be raised in another family; the prevention of formal education and isolation from the outside world and all external sources of information.”
According to the Foreign Ministry, the mandate of the diplomat headed to Chiapas is strictly to confirm Helbrans' death, not to investigate the state of the Israeli Lev Tahor members there.
Twik says Israel has turned a deaf ear to the appeals of families of Lev Tahor members over the years, and has not done enough to help the children he believes they have abused. He said that he “took the matter into my own hands” two years ago and “rescued” his family members by force from Guatemala himself after concluding that “the state wasn’t going to do anything.” Twik’s sister and her children now live in New Jersey. He said they were in “complete shock” at the news of Helbrans' death.
He said he was not at all certain that the death of the group's founder would mark the end of Lev Tahor. Although the loss of the spiritual leader will cause “cracks,” Twik believes that overall, the organization is a “well-oiled machine,” and that other powerful members of the group, including Helbrans’ son Nahman, are capable of taking over the leadership role. He noted that during the times Helbrans was detained or imprisoned, the sect – made up mainly of Israeli and American Jews – continued to function.
Israeli officials “should go there now, talk to the people, calm them down, check up on them. There are Israeli children there,” said Twik. “It’s a crazy group with crazy practices. I look at my family and they were abused badly – not just by Helbrans, but by powerful families in the group.”
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