Lev Tahor is an ultra-Orthodox sect comprised of predominantly Israeli Haredi extremists who leave their families behind in Israel as part of a wider boycott of Zionism. The group is widely considered to be a cult for its extreme conduct which adheres to the strict word of Jewish scripture.
The authorities arrested the leaders of the sect and also took dozens of Israeli children and babies in their possession. Since the raid, Israel has established contacts with Guatemala to coordinate the flight of the children back home.
The cult, which is headed by Shlomo Erez Helbrans, who 10 years ago was recognized as a refugee in Canada, consists of 230 members, 150 of whom are children. Until 2013, they resided in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts in the province of Quebec but were forced to move to Ontario.
Two-and-a-half years ago the Canadian authorities thwarted an attempt by the sect to send its adherents to Guatemala after the Canadian courts decreed that some of the children be transferred to foster families due to evidence proving that they were suffering serious abuse.
However, the sect succeeded in transferring a number of the children to Guatemala giving rise to a legal battle over the last few years to expel them back to Canada.
According to social services in Quebec and Ontario, they have evidence of instances of abuse including beatings, child marriage and illegal education.
One former member of the faction ‘A.’ described the prevailing culture of brainwashing by the leader. “People would follow us for him and report back to him. He would then take me and others for discussions which lasted for hours. The aim was to break your independent thought and to prove how big he was,” A. recalled.
According to the Guatemalan authorities, “Lev Tahor” said that members of the cult were under national police surveillance.
Evaluations indicate that Helbrans made a decision to secretly transfer the cult to Guatemala after Canadian authorities began waging a legal battle against it and demanded that children be placed in the care of foster care. According to families in the cult in Israel, Helbrans abused the children with clubs, coat hangers and iron rods and would sometimes lock them in basements. Moreover, social services in Quebec received reports that the children were forced to marry as young as 14.
The raid in the group’s yard came at the request of the Israeli government. According to a statement by the Guatemalan authorities, the evidence compiled showed cases of, among other things, of “marriage between children, physical and emotional abuse against members of the community and against children. This evidence raises concerns about the physical and emotional well being of dozens of Israeli children currently residing in Guatemala under the sponsorship of the community.“
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, State Attorney’s Office, the Welfare Ministry and the Israel Police have been tracking the group’s development for a number of years and are all in contact with the relevant bodies, both in Canada and Guatemala.
“I hope this will be the end of the nightmare for many people and children,” said A. He added that while he never witnessed any violence during his time in the cult, he heard about serious misdeeds.
“I heard screaming from different houses of the cult members, and eventually I heard members telling about threatening acts such as humiliation, violence and whippings. One mother received orders to hit her child in the presence of others,” the former member recalled.