A group of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Quebec have attracted media attention – and some serious concern – with reports of extremist religious behavior and communal coercion that go way beyond the standard behavior of even their most devout co-religionists.
The cloistered sect, known as “Lev Tahor,” which means “pure heart,” is led by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, a 50-year-old baal teshuva who – in addition to having no tangible proof of his rabbinical ordination – spent six years in prison after being convicted in 1994 of kidnapping a 13-year-old New Jersey boy for the alleged purpose of ensuring that the child would be raised in an Orthodox environment. Deported to Israel in 2000, Helbrans moved to Canada three years later, where he cultivated a community that would conform to his super-religious beliefs.
According to an article just recently published in Israel Hayom, Lev Tahor consists of 45 families who reside in Sainte Agathe des Monts, an area sixty miles north of Quebec. The approximately 250 individuals, including 100 children, live in a mountainous area that has them fully separated from the outside world. The Israeli daily’s investigation of the sect – which many have dubbed the “Jewish Taliban” – has revealed that their leader and his assistants essentially control every one of their adherents’ actions, and have created a climate of fear and intimidation.
Gleaning its inside information from former Lev Tahor members as well as relatives of current residents, the newspaper learned that the community’s leaders regularly employ harsh physical and mental measures to impose their will on Helbrans’ followers. These measures include forced marriages and divorces between community members, arranged marriages between minors as young as age 14, and administering beatings to children. The probe also discovered that, in order to ensure the compliance of residents to the communal hierarchy’s behavioral demands, leaders have engaged in such punishments as forcing people to wear shoes that are too small for them, separating parents from their six-month-old infant children, and requiring group members to ingest psychiatric drugs.
The ability of Helbrans to keep the members of his fringe community within the fold is explained by the fact that many of them are baalei teshuva who desperately want to be an accepted part of an Orthodox environment. Additionally, some Lev Tahor adherents have struggled with difficult personal backgrounds, and Helbrans uses his charisma to overwhelm them with so much caring and “love” until they are convinced to completely cut ties with their families. At that point, according to insiders, Helbrans employs the ultimate form of mental intimidation, admonishing his newfound followers that they will lose their share in the world to come and be afflicted with all of the curses described in the Torah in the event that they dare to leave the fold.
The media inquiry has further revealed that communal standards within Lev Tahor require every female member from age three and up to wear black garments that completely cover their bodies from head to toe, leaving only their faces visible, while every boy from age three must have his head shaved each week, with the exception of their payos. In keeping with directives set out by the community’s autocratic leadership, female members are only given permission to leave the immediate area when they have to give birth; even then, the “laws” state that they must be accompanied by another female community member who supervises her charge’s actions to ensure that the woman does not engage in any conversation with the hospital’s medical staff that is not absolutely pertinent to relevant health issues.
“Rabbi” Helbrans is said to have the power to officially name every newborn baby in Lev Tahor, and he sometimes orders a name change for his adult members as well. Furthermore, sources claim that both parents and teachers regularly use physical means to punish children, hitting them with their hands, belts and even wire hangers.
Israel Hayom’s shocking probe also uncovered the unsettling fact that Helbrans routinely arranges matches between the children of his community once they reach age twelve or thirteen. These marriages are not legally registered with the Canadian government until the couple reaches the age of eighteen.
Helbrans has the power to carry out recriminations on any youthful member who refuses to submit to marriage with their “ordained” partner; according to one source, a fourteen-year-old girl who rejected her official match was punished for an extended period by being forcibly confined to a basement where the temperature averaged about twenty degrees below zero.
The investigation further shed light on Helbrans’ tightfisted control over the eating habits of his followers. The Lev Tahor head has determined that both chicken and eggs are to be considered nonkosher, based on his belief that genetic engineering has so significantly altered the internal makeup of chickens to the extent that they are not the same animal. Helbrans has additionally declared that those under his domain may only consume peeled vegetables, because of an alleged concern that the peel may have come in contact with a nonkosher food item. In a related matter, Helbrans recently declared for the first time that corn and soybeans can be considered kosher.
The group reportedly has small communities of followers in Israel, Europe and the United States as well.