Who Is Lev Tahor, the 'Jewish Taliban'?

This tiny sect has attracted disproportionate attention because of its extreme ways and allegations of child abuse. Here are the facts.

A member of the Lev Tahor community praying, in the Guatemalan village of San Juan La Laguna, August 24, 2014.
Reuters

Last week Lev Tahor, a small ultra-Orthodox sect that has become a reluctant globe-trotter, found itself challenged in its most recent refuge – Guatemala. While it ponders its next move, this is a good time to look at some truths, and misinformation, about extreme Jewish sect.

First and foremost, it bears saying that any comparison between this movement, which the yellow press dubbed "The Jewish Taliban," and the fundamentalist Islamic movement in Afghanistan, is categorically unfair. Lev Tahor is a pious, arguably overly pious, group of Jews. The Taliban has been associated with extreme violence and destruction in pursuit of imposing its views on the people under their control.

In fact, the only reason the Israeli press dubbed the group the “Jewish Taliban” is that the women of Lev Tahor clad themselves in black robes from head to toe, which is how the Taliban prescribe women should appear, if appear they must.

Lev Tahor, presently consisting of some 250 members, gets its name - literally “Pure Heart” - from the Biblical passage: ״Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me״ (Psalms 51:10). That well describes the philosophy of Lev Tahor leader Shlomo Helbrans, who says the group aspires to attain the utmost purity by shedding the corrupting influences that, he says, pollute mainstream ultra-Orthodox groups, let alone other forms of Judaism.

This zeal to keep an extremely pious lifestyle takes on many forms. Lev Tahor adherents practice extreme kashrut regulations, making their own food from scratch to the best of their ability. They do not consume chicken or chicken eggs, which they (like some other extreme ultra-orthodox sects, such as Neturei Karta) consider non-kosher because of genetic manipulation – in other words, the birds are not as the Lord made them. Indeed, arguably chickens have undergone profound change through selective breeding, for instance to increase their thorax muscles because of the human fondness for chicken breast.

They will however eat geese, whose genomes they believe remain much as originally created.

Regarding meat, they only consume animals slaughtered under Helbrans' personal supervision. They do not eat the skins of vegetables - even tomatoes – lest they harbor microscopic agents of foulness, such as fungal spores. They eschew rice for fear that tiny insects are concealed in it and for the same reason they only eat lettuce on Passover – when they have no choice but to partake, because it is one of the holiday's mitzvot. But for that occasion, to maintain the required purity, the lettuce undergoes washing in a process that lasts hours.

Their praying sessions are longer and louder than those in other Jewish denominations. They carefully and slowly articulate each word of prayer with great concentration and often shout the verses.

As said above, their modesty in female dress is extreme even by ultra-Orthodox standards. For men, dress is nearly identical to that of other ultra-Orthodox Jews, especially to those of Satmar Hasidic sect.

As for religious doctrine, Helbrans picks and chooses from different streams of Jewish sects, accepting certain traditions from the Hasidim, the Misnagdim, and Mizrahim, from which he arbitrates the most appropriate practices. The core of his doctrine is that of the extremely pious Satmar Hasidic sect, taken to the extreme.

Apocalyptic prophesies

The group’s leader, Helbrans was born in 1962 as Erez Shlomo Elbarnes. He was raised by secular parents in Jerusalem, but "found religion" during his teens and left to study at yeshiva.

After moving between different ultra-Orthodox schools, he found himself in the Satmar sect. He also adopted the anti-Zionist Satmar ideology, which is why he changed his name to Shlomo Helbrans, shedding the Zionist name Erez and taking a more diaspora spelling of his last name.

In the late 1980s, Helbrans began to attract a following in Jerusalem, mostly among secular Jews converted to the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. By the decade's end he was preaching the destruction of the evil State of Israel, based on biblical prophesies.

Spurred by these predictions, in 1990 he moved with a few dozen yeshiva students to Williamsburg, New York, where he founded a small yeshiva. Israeli media at the time reported that he left Israel because of an investigation into his alleged contacts with agents of extremist Islamic organizations hostile to Israel.

But his stay in Williamsburg was cut short. In 1994, he was convicted of kidnapping a boy sent to study for his bar mitzvah with him. Helbrans had convinced the boy to become ultra-Orthodox and sever ties with his family.

He was paroled after two years and moved with his followers to Monsey, New York, where he again ran a yeshiva. However, the local ultra-Orthodox were extremely hostile towards him, and fresh allegations started to appear in the local and Jewish press.

In 2000, the United States deported Helbrans back to Israel, but he didn’t stay. Together with his followers he moved to Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, in 2000.

Helbrans sought and in 2003 received refugee status from the Canadian government, claiming he was being persecuted by Israel for his anti-Zionist views.

But once again allegations of child abuse surfaced, and in 2013 after the scrutiny of the Quebec child protection services, most of his followers left the province and settled in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Their stay there was to be short. A number of the sect’s children were placed in foster care. The group then decided to flee Canada and settle in the village of San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala, but even there, its unusual ways were contested. Just last week a council of local natives demanded that the group leave, or face being cut off from the electrical grid. A member of the group told Reuters last week that they will be seeking another Guatemalan village in which to settle.

Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans
Shay Fogelman