8 Dec 2010

Child protection policies improving in some Orthodox Jewish communities, but not in ultra-Orthodox ones

FindLaw - April 29, 2010

How Other Religious Organizations Echo the Roman Catholic Church's Rule Against Scandal, A Precept that Entrenches and Perpetuates Cycles of Child Sex Abuse: Orthodox Judaism, Part Two in a Two-Part Series [Part One]


In the past two weeks, there have been yet more revelations about the Catholic Church's mishandling of child sex abuse, with, for example, European bishops forced to resign. In my last column, I described, based on church documents and case law, some of the pitfalls in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' approach to child sex abuse within the organization. In this column, I will address the struggles of institutions within the Orthodox Jewish community on these issues.

Like Other Faiths, Orthodox Judaism Is Wary of Secular Authority – But There Are Exceptions

Like the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews have certain beliefs that tend to create a separate world from which child sex abuse victims cannot escape. The key question with respect to every religious organization that is dealing with hidden, ongoing, or persistent child sex abuse is this one: What will it take to liberate the victims? External pressures from sources such as the media and the legal system can make a difference, but it may also take some re-examination and soul-searching with respect to some of the institution's religiously motivated practices. The Orthodox Jews are making steady and promising progress in this arena. The ultra-Orthodox Jews, unfortunately, are not.

The Jewish law of "Chilul HaShem," which means literally "a desecration of God's name," warns believers not to bring shame on the community. This is the closest analogue in the Jewish tradition to the Catholic rule against scandal. And, there is the Jewish law against "mesira," or informing on another Jew to the authorities. Roughly translated, according to Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University (my home institution), it means "Don't go to secular authorities," and thus can be used as a reason not to report child sex abuse to police or civil authorities. The law against arka'ot, or proceeding in secular courts, also has presented barriers.

As with all important Jewish concepts, the meaning of each these precepts lies in particular interpretations. According to Rabbi Blau, the prohibition against mesira, though widely honored, may not be relevant in democratic societies. The purpose of the law was to protect Jews from tyrannical governments, such as Nazi Germany's. Thus, the prohibition was created to protect Jews from the government. The same reasoning does not apply in a legitimate democracy.

Moreover, there are exceptions to mesira – for instance, when circumstances are such that the religion's internal mechanisms cannot deal with an internal problem. And a perfect example, according to Blau, is child sex abuse. But observant Jews may not be willing to act in contravention of a law like the prohibition against mesira without first consulting a rabbi on whether the exception actually holds in the particular case, which can delay, if not forestall, reporting.

Yet, the Rabbinical Council of America at its Convention this week issued a resolution that would seem to open the door to reporting abuse:
[The RCA] reaffirms its unqualified condemnation of all forms of child abuse.
It reaffirms its halakhic position that the prohibitions of mesirah and arka'ot do not apply in cases of abuse.
It will regularly issue on its website and to the media appropriate statements of condemnation when public attention is drawn to a case in which Jews are either victims or perpetrators of abuse.
It will regularly evaluate the competence of its members in understanding and responding to issues of child abuse and initiate training and continuing educational opportunities for all of its members in this area every year.
The members of the RCA address the issues of child abuse in their communities in at least one sermon, lecture or article within the next twelve months, and that contact information for local abuse services be displayed in a public place in all synagogues, schools, and Jewish community institutions serviced by its members.

Other Aspects of Jewish Law May Also Make It More Difficult for Child Sex Abuse Victims to Find Justice

Unfortunately, the prohibition against mesira is not the only precept of Jewish law that has made it difficult for child sex abuse victims to get help. There is also the prohibition of "lashon hara," which means "evil tongue," and forbids speaking badly of others. It creates an impediment to survivors even telling members of their own communities about the abuse, let alone the civil authorities. Some supporters of adults who have been accused of abuse also have invoked lashon hara to prohibit others from telling outsiders.

There are also cultural elements at play. "Shidduch" means "finding a spouse," and in some circles, the drive to find a marriage partner is a very powerful force. For the most part, religious Jews enter into arranged marriages in which one's lineage and family reputation determine desirability on the marriage market. Making a good match, or "Shidduch," is of paramount importance within these communities. The stigma of being a victim of abuse can deter marriage partners. Therefore, there is strong incentive for the entire family to stay mum about the issue, and for the victim himself, or herself, never to mention it.

In addition, there has been strong communal pressure in Orthodox communities to keep the problem internal. This element has decreased in the Orthodox community, which is divided among diverse synagogues and congregations, but it remains a force in the ultra-Orthodox community, as I will discuss below.

Finally, there has been the problem of denial. Of course, we see denial in many child sex abuse situations, whether the context is religious or secular. The difference here is that, in the Jewish community, denial regarding clergy child sex abuse has been worsened by the belief that one should keep the halakh (Jewish law), which plays an important role in creating a self-identity for the Jewish communities. Living an observant life is transformative. An Orthodox Jew believes he or she will become a better person by keeping the laws, and that belief can translate, for some, into a decision generally to ignore modern studies or media on any issue, because the modern information could have the capacity to call into question their entire lifestyle. When the issue is child abuse, the consequences of that belief can be tragic.

In sum, within Orthodox Judaism, some adhere to a set of internal rules the effect of which is to prevent child sex abuse victims from speaking about their abuse, getting help, or filing criminal charges against perpetrators. Fortunately, however, secular law has provided some of the pressure that is needed to establish a pathway out for the victims. The recent scandals (and convictions) involving Rabbi Yehuda Kolko and Rabbi Baruch Lebovits were a result of the victims bravely coming forward even despite community pressure, and they are surely an indication that the tide has been turning.

Orthodox Jews Should Be Praised for Openly Debating What Should Be Done About Clergy Child Sex Abuse – and Acknowledging that It Occurs

Moreover, there has been a healthy and open debate among Orthodox Jews regarding what to do about this very serious problem. The Flatbush Shomrim announced this last week that child sex abusers should be prosecuted, and advised fellow Jews to report sex abuse directly to the authorities. Ben Hirsch, the President of Survivors for Justice – the first organization of its kind in the Jewish community – praised this move in an op-ed for the Jewish Star.

As with the Catholic survivors' movement, Hirsch explained that secrecy has been in the leaders' interest, not the children's:

"[O]ne does not have to be a cynic to conclude that the rabbinic establishment has a vested interest in keeping reports of abuse within the community. For leaders who could be facing criminal and civil liability, invoking concepts like mesira and chilul Hashem to stop people from reporting is little more than a form of self-protection. Self-protection that, as the past 40 years have shown, has come at the expense of the protection of our community's children."

Hirsh then likened the Jewish situation to that of the Catholics:

"[T]he cover-ups have resulted in hundreds of victims whose abuse could have been prevented. Dealing with reports of sexual abuse internally covers-up the crime, usually with catastrophic results when the pedophile strikes again–something we are hearing about daily in reports about the Catholic Church and frighteningly in our own community as well.

The Torah teaches us to avoid offering counsel in situations where we may be a nogea b'dovor (an interested party). This applies equally to rabbis, whom the Torah nowhere exempts from this rule. As such, because of their inherent conflicts of interest in this issue, I respectfully suggest that rabbis be precluded from being involved in this issue except in very limited ways–namely, encouraging people publicly and in private to go directly to the authorities and supporting them practically, emotionally and socially in that process."

Hirsh offers persuasive arguments, and remarkable conclusions, that bode well for child sex abuse victims in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the ultra-Orthodox, or Chasidic, Jewish community, which as of now is far from being able to aid the victims within the community. A recent announcement in New Square reiterated the principle that abuse should not be reported to the authorities, although it did at least establish a path for reporting the abuse to an internal committee.

As we know from the other universes within which child sex abuse has been a problem, keeping the issue internal is never the best – or even a good, or acceptable – path for the victims. In addition, there is another impediment to justice in this community: Rabbi Blau noted that Chasidic community members defer to the Jewish Laws of Tzniut, which command modesty in both dress and speech and in turn forestall discussion regarding private body parts and improper touch. Victims therefore may lack even the basic vocabulary to report the abuse. And the community is so closed off that communal pressure to keep the issue secret is extraordinary, with few, if any, openings for outside forces such as police, prosecutors, or the media to bring the victims some relief.

Still, there are glimmers of hope from within even the ultra-Orthodox community. Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv has ruled that the Jewish law not only does not bar reporting, but rather "one should report (an abuser) to the secular government authorities [police, etc.]; and in this there is benefit to society . . ." Thus, the exception to the law against reporting is actually quite strong. That means the barriers to reporting in the ultra-Orthodox universe are more cultural than legal.

Of all of the religious organizations facing these issues, the Orthodox Jews appear to be moving most quickly to the position that the child victim's needs must trump the organization's preferences, even when it means re-examining common interpretations of certain religious prohibitions. For that, the community deserves praise.

Marci Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of  Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Her email is hamilton02@aol.com.

This article was found at:



Children in London's ultra-Orthodox community have no personal, intellectual or religious freedom

Ban of Orthodox blog by rabbis could change views on handling sex abuse

New York Catholic Conference and Orthodox Jewish officials lobby against proposed Child Victims Act

Fundamentalist interpretation of Jewish law in orthodox communities stops many from reporting rabbinical sex abuse to secular authorities

Concealing sex abuse in Orthodox Jewish communities from secular authorities through intimidation

'Orthodox child abuse' claim by Reform rabbi

Child sex abuse claims divide Orthodox community

Expose child sex abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community

Exposing child molestation in Jewish Orthodox communities no longer a quiet process

N.Y. Judge criticises Jewish Orthodox community for protecting pedophiles but blaming & punishing victims

NY Rabbi who abused boys and told them to lie to police gets light sentence in plea deal

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York increasingly turning to secular courts for justice in child sexual abuse cases

Ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel wary of authorities hide child abuse from social workers

Israel's ultra-Orthodox cults indoctrinate and intellectually abuse children, and shun those who manage to escape

Investigation of famous Israeli rabbi for sex abuse reveals power of charismatic clerics over vulnerable young people

Simmering sex abuse scandals in Orthodox communities heats up with allegations against high profile Israeli rabbi


"Children in London's ultra-Orthodox community have no personal, intellectual or religious freedom"


  1. The Orthodox Sex Abuse Crackdown That Wasn’t

    Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson ran on the promise that he’d clean up the office’s problems with prosecuting ultra-Orthodox sex offenders who preyed on children—but so far he appears just as lax as his predecessor.

    by Emily Shire, The Daily Beast October 7, 2014

    After initially facing up to 32 years in prison for eight counts of child sexual abuse, Baruch Lebovits walked out of Riker's Island last week a free man. He had served just under 16 months of total prison time.

    That Lebovits, a cantor from the ultra-Orthodox Borough Park section of Brooklyn, was even convicted is seen as a victory considering the difficulty of prosecuting abuse in that community. However, his release is disappointing, if not surprising, for those who hoped Brooklyn district attorney Kenneth Thompson would be the man to end decades of ultra-Orthodox sex abuse cover-ups.

    Thompson beat out Charles Hynes for Brooklyn DA, ending a reign that last more than 23 years. Towards the end of his time as DA, Hynes was scrutinized for his perceived unwillingness to prosecute crimes against the ultra-Orthodox, especially in regards to sexual abuse. At best, his administration appeared exceptionally lax, and at worst, it willfully obstructed justice. He was famously reluctant to release the names of convicted sex abusers in the Orthodox community. His office let Rabbi Yehuda Kolko get away without jail time or registering as a sex offender. Instead, Kolko received a plea deal that allowed him to plea guilty to child endangerment. The DA claimed the alleged victims—first graders in Kolko’s class—were unwilling to testify, but chief of the Kings County sex crimes division, Rhonnie Jaus, publicly said that their parents had been willing to put the kids on the stand. It was one of many cases that raised questions about Hynes' willingness to prosecute ultra-Orthodox sex abuse.

    Many critics of abuse and corruption in the ultra-Orthodox community hoped and believed Thompson would bring justice to Brooklyn. For his part, Thompson openly criticized Hynes’ record on crimes committed by the ultra-Orthodox. “Every community in Brooklyn has to be treated the same,” he said during a 2013 interview. “When I become Brooklyn DA, I’ll make sure there’s equal justice for everyone, under the law.”

    In fact, days after Thompson was elected last November, he requested that Hynes freeze any new ruling on the Lebovits case. Thompson said he wanted to ensure a “full opportunity to review the Lebovits matter and participate in the decision to take the case to trial or dispose of it by way of a guilty plea.” The Jewish Week reported that sources said Hynes was expected to dispose of the case with a lenient plea deal. Ultimately, Thompson did the same, if not worse.

    According to a transcript of the plea deal hearing from May 16, 2014 reviewed by The Daily Beast, Lebovits served even less time than was proposed during negotiations. Judge Mark Dwyer told Lebovits:

    I am also asking that you waive early release. Our understanding is that you normally would be released after 16 months. The waiver of early release we think might have the effect of keeping you in some months more, not more than 24, but some more months than 16.

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  2. And yet Lebovits served barely 16 months—13 less than his original conviction. He re-entered jail on July 9 and was released the night of September 29.

    “My client is not surprised,” said Niall MacGiollabhui, the lawyer for Samuel Kellner, whose son was allegedly abused by Lebovits. “This is what he's gotten all along from that [the Brooklyn DA’s] office, but certainly we thought once Thompson came in, it would be different. It’s business as usual in Brooklyn.”

    Kellner himself was indicted by the Brooklyn DA’s office under Hynes. The charges against him are a window into a case as complex as it is disturbing.

    Lebovits was convicted of eight counts sexually abusing a child in 2010, but the case against him first emerged in 2008 when Kellner’s son said Lebovits had fondled him. Kellner says he was told by officials that Lebovits was unlikely to serve jail time as a man with a clean record, or even be prosecuted by the DA's office, according to the Jewish Week. He became determined to locate other victims who would testify to abuses that could put Lebovits behind bars. He found one man, who testified in court that Lebovits had performed oral sex on him multiple times as a teenager. The man’s testimony helped lead to Lebovits’s 2010 conviction and an initial sentence of 10-2/3 to 32 years behind bars.

    However, Lebovits’ conviction would ultimately be overturned—though he wasn’t acquitted outright—in 2012. His defense team (led by none other than Alan Dershowitz) convinced an appeals court that the trial had been prejudiced by the prosecution’s failure to share a police detective’s note about one of the witnesses expected to be called by the defense. While the court said Lebovits was denied his right to a fair trial, it also noted that there was sufficient evidence to prove he was guilty of the same crimes.

    Meanwhile, the DA’s office indicted Kellner for supposedly bribing a different alleged victim—who testified before a grand jury but not in the trial that lead to Lebovits's conviction–who later claimed Kellner had paid him $10,000 to speak out against Lebovits. Kellner was also charged with attempting to extort the Lebovits family. The alleged evidence against Kellner was gathered by Lebovits supporters and family members. The alleged victim who recanted was deemed “wildly inconsistent” by the assistant district attorney, Kevin O’Donnell. Days before the trial against Kellner was supposed to begin the prosecution discovered that the witness had only recanted after accepting financial support from Lebovits’ supporters.

    In fact, Hella Winston at the Jewish Week reported that the Sex Crimes Unit had evidence the alleged victim had been intimidated into recanting and turning against Kellner. Winston had a native Yiddish speaker listen to the Yiddish audio recordings brought to the DA as supposed evidence that Kellner was trying to extort the Lebovits family. That speaker concluded that the audio just showed “Kellner's desire to see Baruch Lebovits plead guilty” and “determined that many of the exchanges critical to the overall meaning of the conversation were distorted in the translation.” Ultra-Orthodox insiders argued that Lebovits’ family had falsified or misrepresented the evidence.

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  3. Thompson himself slammed the charges against Kellner during his campaign for the Democratic DA nomination, attending a rally in support of dropping the charges. But after he won the nomination, he refused to comment on the case.

    Thompson dropped the charges against Kellner in early 2014, which was a victory of sorts for advocates against ultra-Orthodox sex abuse. However, critics still argue that Thompson let Lebovits’ supporters off easy by failing to probe the fraud and intimidation allegations.

    “As bad as Hynes was and as bad as that office was, they were making some attempts to investigate what happened,” Kellner’s lawyer, Niall MacGiollabhui, tells The Daily Beast. “Once Thompson came in, the idea of investigating what led to my client's arrest ended, even though they admitted criminal behavior led to my client being framed. This DA is doing nothing to investigate and prosecute those who blatantly obstructed justice and intimidated victims.” When asked about the knowledge of Kellner being framed, the Brooklyn DA told The Daily Beast it is the “policy of the District Attorney’s office not to confirm or deny investigations.”

    For activists, the alleged failure to investigate the evidence presented against Kellner perpetuates the dangerous message in the ultra-Orthodox community that whistleblowers will be severely punished. “How do you count against fabricated evidence being given to law enforcement and the DA to destroy someone's life? That's not a minor offense,” says Shmarya Rosenberg, the man behind the blog Failed Messiah, which exposes corruption and abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community. “Thompson will say 'we're investigating'. Fuck you! You have all the information. It's out there. There's no question what happened. The only question is, why is Thompson taking so long? Why is there no prosecution?”

    Thompson’s problems with the ultra-Orthodox community go beyond the prosecution of sex abuse. In April, the DA sparked local outrage when his office gave another lenient plea deal to a man who threw bleach in the eyes of Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, an activist against sex abuse in the Satmar sect of the ultra-Orthodox community. The suspect in the attack, Mellech Schnitzler, got off without any prison time. He plead guilty in a plea deal and was punished only with five years of probation. "We changed the DA but we didn't change any behavior in the DA's office," Rosenberg told the New York Daily News. "Where is our protection?"

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  4. Part of the reason activists have hoped for major change under Thompson is because he didn't rely as heavily on ultra-Orthodox support to secure his position. Thompson won the Democratic primary, which effectively killed Hynes' campaign, without support from the vast majority of Brooklyn Orthodox leaders.

    To a certain degree, Thompson made up for what was perceived as his predecessor's tacit protection of sex abusers in the community. He released the names of defendants in Orthodox sex abuse cases, which Hynes had refused to share with the public.

    Even Thompson's critics admit Thompson isn't necessarily going after any group in Brooklyn, but that lax attitude perverts his “equal justice for everyone” vow. For example, with the case of Schnitzler throwing bleach in the rabbi's eyes, it is Thompson's office’s position that “a felony conviction with a no prison deal is worth it,” says Rosenberg (of Failed Messiah), even with “cases that have nothing to do with Orthodox community.”

    Still, Rosenberg faults Thompson for not taking a stronger stand to fix perceived past errors, when he appeared to promise to do so in his campaign. “He was clever because his words were meaningless. There's no barometer. All cases are treated the same way, all badly mind you. But he did treat them all equal,” says Rosenberg. “That he did it wrong and did it in a horrible way is a different story.”

    Unwillingness to change the status quo in Brooklyn may be Thompson’s bigger fault. MacGiollabhui doesn't suspect any underhanded favors stopped a probe into Lebovits' supporters’ alleged efforts to frame Kellner; he just thinks the DA's office doesn't care. “They couldn't give a shit about kids from that community,” he says. “There's a certain attitude of leaving people in that community to their own devices. [The DA's office] couldn't care less.”

    Still, others say the DA’s prosecutions will do little to stop the problem of sex abuse in the insular community. Michael Lesher, a lawyer who has been investigating sex abuse in the Orthodox community for decades, doesn't believe the DA makes a critical difference. “The real problems facing sex abuse prosecution is systemic. It doesn't depend crucially on who the DA is. It's still a message of if you're going to come forward and accuse people of sexual abuse, you're still taking a risk. The community will find ways if they can to tarnish your reputation and get you prosecuted,” he said, though he added, “It seemed to a surprising extent in this case is the DA is willing to get along with it.”

    Thompson may be no worse than Hynes, but his first year has been frustrating for advocates who once had high hopes for his tenure. “I don't think Thompson is an inherently bad guy,” says Rosenberg. “But he's an extreme disappointment.”

    To read the numerous links embedded in this article go to:


  5. NOTE: The following article concerns the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor. There are dozens of previous related articles on this group that are posted in the comments section on the following page "Children in London's ultra-Orthodox community have no personal, intellectual or religious freedom" http://religiouschildabuse.blogspot.ca/2011/03/children-in-londons-ultra-orthodox.html Also see the hyperlink list at the end of the main article above.

    Lev Tahor children's best interests not respected by public system: report


    It took youth protection officials far too long to intervene in the case of 127 children who were part of the Lev Tahor community living in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, a report from the Quebec human-rights commission concluded.

    In November 2013, about 250 members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect fled the Laurentians town to avoid a hearing in youth court. The group was facing allegations of child abuse and neglect from Quebec’s youth-protection department — such as corporal punishment in school, underage marriage, sexual abuse of minors and squalid living conditions.

    The commission made public a report into the case on Thursday morning, which noted several failures in how the system handled the case.
    Camil Picard, the vice president of youth issues for the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, said the delays in this case were “incomprehensible,” considering the fact it took 17 months for youth protection officials to move to seize the children after the problem was first identified.

    It also took school board officials 15 months to move to get proper schooling for the children in the community. The children were receiving a strictly religious education, and spoke neither English nor French. Picard said children have the right to receive a proper education, and if they don’t get that, youth officials must intervene.

    “In this situation, it’s clear that the (actors) systematically failed in their role to protect the children, including health services, the education department and youth protection,” Picard said.

    Jacques Frémont, the president of the Quebec human-rights commission added that the youth protection department should have been much more proactive, and sharply criticized a decision to delay its intervention by three months at the request of the Sûreté du Québec.

    “It was the prerogative of the department to refuse the delay,” Frémont said. “It could have given the SQ a couple of days (to collect more information on a criminal investigation), and it could have said, ‘no way, will I accept a delay of three months.’ During these three months, the kids in question suffered, and their rights were violated every day by the community.”

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  6. He said perhaps in this case child authorities should have seized the children immediately at the first sign of trouble, and then investigate whether they could be returned to the community.

    “Of course, it’s not a decision taken lightly; it’s difficult, and after the fact it’s easy to say they should have been taken away,” Frémont said.

    He admitted, however that even if child protection authorities had acted more quickly, they still might not have been able to prevent the group’s flight. He said the community acted fast — moving out three days after it became clear the children might be removed.

    The Lev Tahor members left for Chatham-Kent. There, Ontario courts ruled against a Quebec court order to place 14 of the children in foster care. Child services in Chatham-Kent also refused an order to remove all 127 children from the community.

    The report recommended Quebec act swiftly to come to an agreement with Ontario so youth court cases can be applied in that province as well. Currently, Quebec has similar agreements with all eight other provinces. Picard said it’s possible the children would have been immediately returned to Quebec if they had fled to any other province.

    The report also recommended that the province develop a guide on best clinical and administrative practices for youth protection interventions within sects or “closed communities,” and that the guide be widely distributed to all actors.

    It recommended better co-ordination between youth protection officials, the courts, and other authorities to act when children are threatened.
    “This must not happen again,” Frémont said. “Our role is to provide Quebec with a wakeup call, and that’s what we’re doing. We dearly hope this will not happen again.”


  7. Ontario weakest link in Lev Tahor case says Quebec human rights commission

    Ontario was the “weakest link” in a child-welfare saga involving the Jewish sect Lev Tahor that fled Quebec in 2013, according to the head of Quebec’s human rights commission.

    By Allan Woods Quebec Bureau, Toronto Star July 09 2015

    MONTREAL—Ontario was the “weakest link” in a child-welfare saga involving the Jewish sect Lev Tahor that fled Quebec in 2013 because the province has no way to enforce protection orders issued outside its borders, according to the head of Quebec’s human rights commission.

    Jacques Fremont released a sweeping review of the years-long case that resulted in 200 people from 40 families who were members of the isolated group ultimately fleeing to Guatemala from Canada and the scrutiny of police, education and child welfare officials.

    The conclusion is that the competing mandates and priorities of Quebec’s director of youth protection, which wanted to take children into its custody, and the Sûreté du Québec, which wanted to gather evidence for its criminal investigation, meant the Quebec government was unable to ensure the protection of some 134 underage, at-risk children.

    After numerous isolated investigations of Lev Tahor in Quebec stretching back to 2006, including allegations of inadequate school conditions, suicide attempts, unsanitary living conditions and sexual abuse, the Lev Tahor probe had to re-start from scratch in for Chatham-Kent, Ont., when the group fled Quebec on the night of Nov. 18, 2013.

    “A chain is the weakest at its weakest link,” Fremont said. “Ontario was the weakest link and that’s where (Lev Tahor) went. Was it by chance or deliberately? I don’t know.”

    The review recommends that the Quebec government urge Ontario to change the laws so that court orders issued by judges outside of the province can be executed in Ontario.

    “If (such measures) had been in place, it’s possible that in the days following their escape, the children — if not the rest of the community — would have come back to Quebec,” said Camil Picard, vice-president of the human rights commission responsible for youth.

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  8. Instead child welfare investigators in Chatham Kent received a crash course from their Quebec counterparts in the history of a reclusive group, which is labelled by some as a cult. The group aspires to live according to a literal reading of the Jewish law as dictated by its leader, Shlomo Helbrans.

    In practice, that means extreme dietary restrictions, long hours of prayer and isolation from the wider community in which they live. Ex-members speak of corporal punishment, children forcibly removed from their parents and Helbrans himself diagnosing wayward souls with psychiatric conditions.

    The group has denied doing anything wrong and says it has been persecuted.

    Upon Lev Tahor’s arrival in Chatham-Kent, social workers began monitoring and rebuilding the child welfare case against Lev Tahor families.

    Quebec’s child-protection authorities began showing their frustration when the crackdown took too long to materialize. When Ontario officials showed signs they were ready to move from study into action, and when border and passport officials started poking around for visa violations or denying the group travel documents, members fled once again, this time for Guatemala.

    The conclusion of the review is damning. From the beginning of the case until the end, said Picard, “we lost sight of the interest of the child.”
    The review is particularly harsh on the different organizations in Quebec that had a hand in the case, noting that it took 17 months before the province’s director of youth protection first began investigating and the time it was ready to take action to protect 134 Lev Tahor children deemed to be at risk.

    The findings regarding the 134 children came after an August 2013 raid of the community, which rented houses in a town north of Montreal. Despite long-standing suspicions, the raid itself was delayed by four months when police investigators lobbied for more time to conduct their criminal probe.

    While court documents have revealed police were investigating suspicions that Lev Tahor leaders were involved in human trafficking and forgery, no criminal charges have ever been laid.


  9. Canada Didnt Want Them

    Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Sect Vows Never to Return As Abuse Allegations Linger

    By Rachel Browne, VICE News July 13, 2015

    Members of Lev Tahor are used to running away from trouble.

    The small ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect settled in northern Quebec in 2003, after its founder Shlomo Helbrans, a self-proclaimed rabbi, fled Israel and successfully claimed refugee status there on the grounds he would be persecuted back home for his anti-Zionist views. In the mid-1990s, he had been deported back to Israel after serving jail time in New York for kidnapping one of his students.

    The insular group of about 200 people — sometimes dubbed "The Jewish Taliban" because women have to wear black garments that cover them from head to toe — follow a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism and believe in traditional roles for men and women.

    They lived a quiet existence in a small town in northern Quebec until 2012, when allegations of child abuse and neglect intensified and Quebec law enforcement and child protection services launched an investigation.

    No criminal charges have been laid. Lev Tahor leaders have long maintained they do not abuse their children and say the government is going after them for their religious beliefs.

    They were back in the news last week, with the publication of a new report from the Quebec human rights commission that slams police and government officials in Quebec and Ontario for failing the Lev Tahor children by not intervening sooner.

    But it's too late now anyway, since the group plans to never return from Guatemala, in spite of ongoing immigration and child protection cases.

    According to police documents disclosed in 2014 and testimony from ex-members, Lev Tahor leaders subjected children to physical and sexual abuse, including forcing young girls to marry older men, confining them to squalid basements, and beating them when they misbehaved. Quebec officials also say the children were not provided a proper education, and the children could not speak English or French.

    At the time, Quebec was ruled by the staunchly secular Parti Quebecois, which commissioned the report and was pushing its controversial Charter of Values bill that would have forbid government employees from wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols.

    In 2013, the entire group escaped in the night to Ontario a few days after Quebec law enforcement and youth protection services threatened to put some of the children into foster care. Since Ontario is not obligated to enforce child welfare decisions from outside the province, members of Lev Tahor could breathe a sigh of relief. But when Ontario child protection officials started pursuing its own protection orders against the children in 2014, they fled to Guatemala, far out of reach.

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  10. But according to the new human rights report, youth protection agencies did not react quickly enough to the child abuse claims — letting 17 months go by from when they learned about the case to when it conducted an investigation. And legal red tape and competing mandates among agencies Ontario and Quebec made it easier for the children to fall through the cracks.

    "It appears that other considerations affected the interventions, taking more time, and losing track of the best interest of these children. Freedom of religion cannot - in any circumstances - be used as a pretext for abuse and neglect," the commission's president, Jacques Frémont, said at a press conference in Montreal.

    Denis Baraby, head of youth protection for the region in Quebec where Lev Tahor members lived, told reporters that even if authorities had acted quicker, the outcome might not have been different. "I don't know if we could have succeeded in preventing them from leaving." Baraby said.

    The report makes several recommendations to agencies in Quebec and Ontario, including that they agree to uphold each other's child protection orders, but Lev Tahor's legal representative in Toronto, Guidy Mamann, told VICE News the report just further proves the group's claims that they do not abuse their children. The reason it took so long for police and child protection to respond, he said, is there was nothing for them to go on in the first place.

    "The findings are remarkable because the commission acknowledged that [child protection services] was involved in investigating the Lev Tahor community for 17 months and they still found no evidence they considered actionable. They also confirmed that the police conducted a criminal investigation and the criminal investigation came up empty," he said. According to Mamann, the commission did not contact him or anyone from Lev Tahor for the report.

    "That points to the fact that they're not looking for answers. They're looking for someone to blame," he said."They seem determined to continue in this theory that they were being abused, when this is nothing but hocus pocus."

    There are currently no members of Lev Tahor left in Canada, he said. Most of them now live in Guatemala.

    When they first moved to San Juan La Laguna, a small beach town in Guatemala, last year, Lev Tahor members clashed with the locals over cultural and religious differences. Seeing men and women dressed in all black and speaking Yiddish was a new and confusing sight.

    Mamann, who says he is in touch with the group regularly, said things are better for them now; they are fitting in and want to live a quiet life free from government interference.

    "Certainly their children are no longer under attack like they were in Quebec. Now, nobody is telling them that their education system is inadequate or inappropriate," he said. "You cannot compare Guatemala to Canada, a first-world country, but Canada didn't want them."


  11. Stamford Hill rabbis back fund-raiser for ‘child abuse’ group

    By Josh Jackman, Jewish Chronicle July 14, 2015

    Leading Charedi rabbis have supported a fundraising event for Shlomo Helbrans, whose strictly Orthodox group has previously been investigated for child abuse.

    Helbrans is a convicted kidnapper who heads Lev Tahor, a cult of around 50 families which settled in Canada in 2003. The entire group emigrated to Guatemala last year to evade an investigation by child protection services.

    The event in Stamford Hill, north London, on Monday night was aimed at raising money to support Helbrans’s group, and was backed by Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, head of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (UOHC).

    In a flyer which was distributed in synagogues throughout the Stamford Hill area, Rabbi Padwa told community members to donate to the group.

    He wrote: “The congregation ‘Lev Tahor’, whose dwelling was in the land of Canada, and suddenly the anger of the local government fell upon them, with the aid of informers ("mosrim"), and they began to interfere and make decrees, and to interfere with matters of educating boys and girls, so that they were forced to uproot from their dwelling and they went to the state of Guatemala, fleeing.

    “And there in their new place they are in a dire situation and have almost nothing.”

    The other leading rabbis who made appeals on behalf of Lev Tahor - which means ‘pure heart’ in Hebrew - were Elyokim Schlesinger, Yochanan Wosner, Yosef Binyomin Wosner, Eliezer Dovid Freidman, Azriel Schechter and Dovid Halpern.

    Known as ‘The Jewish Taliban’ because of the head-to-toe black garments its women wear, Lev Tahor allegedly forced children into marriages and trapped them in basements, beating them when they misbehaved.

    Chanoch Kesselman, UOHC executive coordinator, said he had no knowledge of the event. He added: “I am unable to comment.”

    Another UOHC senior figure, who asked not to be named, said: “The Union have not made any stance. The Union has no comment on it. Rabbi Padwa has endorsed it.”

    He said the fundraising campaign was the responsibility of Rabbi Padwa, but was separate from the organisation.

    “It wasn’t discussed by the Union. He’s not required to get executive permission for something like this from the Union. The feeling in the Union is that you can’t let people starve. Some of them know about the cult, and in no way does the union endorse the activities.

    “People don’t always do due diligence themselves and will rely on whoever else has endorsed it. The people who’ve endorsed it are respected rabbis.”


  12. Report on Lev Tahor

    Info-Cult Press Release July 13, 2015

    The recommendations in the report on how youth protection handled the case against Lev Tahor indicate government awareness of the necessity and urgency to act in this area. Info-Cult is the only organization of its kind in Quebec that provides information, analysis and assistance concerning high control and extremist groups and related subjects. In its 35 years of operation it, has dealt with similar problems where the well being of children were involved. Carolle Tremblay, Info-Cult's president and a lawyer in family law, has in her legal career dealt with families with children in high-control groups including Lev Tahor. She had this to say, "Lev Tahor is not the first group nor sadly will it be the last where children will suffer at the hands of an authoritarian leadership and who will see their fundamental human rights ignored or denied. It is time now to implement the recommendations in this report and to do it in a comprehensive manner that includes all relevant expertise from those in diverse fields”.

    Mike Kropveld, the founder and executive director of Info-Cult and court recognized expert, acknowledges that "cultic phenomena is ever-changing and it is not realistic nor reasonable to assume that those in youth protection and other related agencies will be at the forefront of knowledge in that area. Youth protection workers are experts in the area of child abuse and how to intervene when situations of that nature occur”. The cult phenomenon is where Info-Cult has developed a unique expertise and has proven its vital role as a resource to all sectors of our society. Info-Cult has garnered a world-wide reputation and possesses the most recent knowledge in this field. Info-Cult is committed to take an active role in working collaboratively to prevent future human tragedies

    SOURCE Info-Cult

    Information: Carolle Tremblay, President, Info-Cult, 514-871-2800, www.infosecte.org / www.infocult.org; Mike Kropveld, Executive Director, Info-Cult, 514-274-2333

    English version of Info-Cult press release http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/1569599/rapport-sur-lev-tahor

    Original version in French can be found here: http://www.newswire.ca/fr/story/1569599/rapport-sur-lev-tahor

  13. Former Hasidic Jewish Woman Jumped to Her Death After Being Shunned by Parents: 'She Was Never Good Enough in Their Eyes'

    BY CAITLIN KEATING, People Magazine July 22, 2015

    Not even an hour before Faigy Mayer jumped to her death from a rooftop bar in New York City, she shared a photo album of old family pictures on Facebook.

    "My family refuses to allow me to have my baby pictures so finding these pics were cool!" the caption read.

    Witnesses recalled seeing the 29-year-old jump 20 floors to her death from the top of 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar on Monday evening.

    "There was a big corporate party up there and she kind of ran through them and jumped," witness Becky Whittemore told the New York Post.

    Another witness, Dale Martin, told the newspaper that he was walking across the street when he saw her falling.

    "You can tell it was a lady. She had on shoes and a dress," he said.

    Wanting to Be Free

    Mayer walked away from her ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community five years ago, numerous friends of the young woman tell PEOPLE. For that reason, her family refused to let her back into her childhood home in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

    Mayer's close friend, Pinny Gold, who said Mayer had been hospitalized three times in the past for depression, bumped into her on the train just two weeks ago.

    "She was going to her parents' house to pick up her Apple Watch that she had shipped there because she didn't trust her roommates," Gold, 30, tells PEOPLE. "She put on a dress over her pants, covered her arms with a sweater – so she wasn't showing skin – and even then her mother wouldn't let her into her house."

    Mayer had to wait outside to get her package.

    "This was just one thing she was dealing with. She was never good enough in their eyes," Gold says. "She had a lot of struggles."

    "I'm hoping this is the last suicide in our community, but I sadly know it won't be," he adds.

    On April 10, Gold went to visit Mayer at the psychiatric unit of Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

    "She really wanted people to come visit her," he says. "And she wanted me to bring her chips and tea. I was also helping her with housing issues because her roommates were trying to get her evicted."

    Mayer had also reached out to a group of people she knew from Footsteps, an organization that helps former members of the ultra-Orthodox community transition to secular life.

    "She was very open about her mental health issues," Ari Mendel, 32, who also left the Hasidic community, tells PEOPLE. "She wrote from the hospital on this Google document that we are part of that she really wanted people to visit her and would like a home-cooked meal."

    continued below

  14. Search for Happiness

    On June 19, Mayer joined her friend Libelle Polaki at the Swedish Midsummer Festival in Battery Park.

    Polaki went to high school with Mayer, but it wasn't until 2011 that they became friends.

    "We both broke free from our community," Polaki, 27, tells PEOPLE. "So we suddenly had a lot in common. We supported each other. No one outside of our community understands what it's like to leave."

    At the event, Mayer seemed happy and went out of her way to meet new people.

    "We joked about our current lifestyles and how we were dating guys who weren't Jewish," Polaki says. "That's the worst thing you could do where we are from."

    They also talked about Mayer's passion for coding and creating apps. She had been working on an app that would help former Hasids navigate life in New York City.

    "She just wanted to pursue her own passions and be free," Polaki says. "But finding work for people like us is hard. We didn't get credit for going to high school that we could use for college. We never learned math or simple algebra. We had to start all over again when we left."

    Trying to Cope

    At Mayer's funeral on Tuesday, her father cried, apologized to the English speakers in attendance for mainly speaking Yiddish and said, "We tried our best."

    But her close friend Chaim Levin says her family tried to keep her friends out of the service.

    "They wouldn't tell us what time the funeral was. They said noon, then they said it was 2 p.m.," he tells PEOPLE. "When we got there, the family said they wanted a private service, but there were so many of us that we just piled in."

    According to Levin, Mayer always tried to be positive.

    "She would post on Facebook about some sushi event or wanting to bring people together," he says. "She wasn't going to settle with being sad."

    On July 12, Mayer, who went to an all-girls Hasidic Jewish school, sent Levin an essay about her upbringing that she wanted to publish.

    "I didn't even know that leaving the faith was an option until the age of 23," she wrote.

    She also wrote about her three nephews and how "it isn't fair to them that they have to live the lives they do. The most fun they have is to color with crayons. Even if I was allowed to be in their lives, they would not be allowed to play games on my iPhone."

    And when she watched Roger Federer play at Wimbledon, she wrote about asking her friend questions about the rules, while thinking that her nephews would never see the sport being played.

    "Thinking analytically when it comes to basic life decisions is something new to me and something I still struggle with five years after leaving," she wrote.

    Polaki says that Mayer and those with similar backgrounds spend their entire lives trying to catch up academically and socially.

    "She held out for as long as she could," she says. "I think that if she didn't have such great friends, she would have jumped sooner. She tried to cope the best she could, but it was just too much for her."

    Polaki also feels guilty that she hadn't seen Mayer since their afternoon together in Battery Park.

    "You don't think that someone you care about will disappear," she says. "I know I was a good friend, but she really just wanted her family. We all want to be close to our family, and when she left them it was like she landed on another planet."


  15. Ex Hasid’s death bares anguish of leaving ultra-Orthodox sect

    By Maureen Callahan New York Post July 26, 2015

    On July 12, Faigy Mayer, a 30-year-old New Yorker who left Hasidic Judaism five years ago, sent one of her last messages to a close friend. She tried to explain how foreign the world was to her — even though she grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

    “I feel as though Hasidic Judaism shouldn’t exist at all,” Mayer wrote.

    She went on to detail things about the ultra-Orthodox that most secular people know — “arranged marriages, strict segregation of the genders, the wife shaving her head, the couple having sex with the wife wearing a bra in the complete dark (hole in the sheet, anyone) but still producing thirteen children generally throughout her lifetime, working for cash only so that Uncle Sam can help with food stamps, Section 8 and Medicaid.”

    Then there are things the secular world doesn’t know, things that make leaving seem insurmountable. Imagine not knowing that the sun is a star, or that there’s a solar system. Imagine not knowing what a human cell is, or what menstruation is, or, until you’re 18 and three weeks away from your arranged marriage, what sex is and how it works. Imagine never asking for a puppy growing up, because dogs bark, and that means they are beasts and demons. Imagine you have been told for your entire life that in the secular world, people mainly rape, pillage and murder, that it’s all a lawless meaningless free-for-all, and you are safe only in your little enclave, where these things do not happen.

    You do not have an iPad, a TV, a battery-powered radio, because all secular culture is forbidden.

    Now you have a sliver of a sense of what it is to leave — to become “OTD,” initials for “off the path” in Yiddish, or “XO,” for ex-Orthodox.

    “Thinking analytically when it comes to basic life decisions,” Mayer wrote, “is something new to me and something I still struggle with, five years after leaving.”
    She also wrote that she didn’t know leaving was even an option until she was 23, “when a secular relative told me I could.”

    Last Monday, Mayer went to the rooftop bar at 230 Fifth Ave. It was about 6:45 p.m. She had just posted childhood photos to Facebook. “My family refuses to allow me to have my baby pictures,” she wrote, “so finding these pics were cool!”

    Minutes later, Mayer jumped to her death. A source close to her family says Mayer suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but several OTD members tell The Post the community commonly makes such claims about those who leave. Whether Mayer did have a mental illness, it’s clear from her writings — and from others who have left ultra-Orthodox Judaism — that the consequences of renunciation can be dire.

    “Faigy was very independent from the time she was a child,” says Pearl Reich, who left her ultra-Orthodox sect years ago and knew Mayer through Footsteps, a group that helps those who leave. “That kind of child is a threat, and the parents treat them differently — I heard that from her. She comes from a very, very fanatical group. I am extremely upset that the media is saying she died from a mental illness. This is a cult.”

    The largest concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States lives the New York metro area. According to a 2011 study by the UJA Federation of New York, upward of 400,000 are ultra-Orthodox.

    To most secular New Yorkers, it seems incomprehensible that even the most devout, observant ultra-Orthodox Jews would be so cut off from the modern world — after all, they walk the streets of New York, are exposed to advertising and storefronts, to the subways and roads, to the shared outside stimuli.

    continued below

  16. Yet the ultra Orthodox do all they can to insulate themselves. Most do not have secular jobs. They are married at 18 years of age, arranged marriages all — falling in love is a sin. Women are expected to have at least six children, preferably 12.

    Children don’t go to secular schools: Boys study only religious texts, while girls, at least, get the rudiments of math. Many don’t finish high school, and those who do have no transcripts. College is forbidden, and so there are no ultra-Orthodox doctors.

    “One of my first transgressions, when I was 24 or 25 and got my first car, was to take a drive to the local public library,” says Shulem Deen, who chronicled his excommunication from the Hasidic community in his recent memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return.”

    “I accidentally wandered into the children’s section and discovered the World Book Encyclopedia. Those books seemed to contain all the information the world could ever need. I’d be sitting there next to a little boy reading the Berenstain Bears, going back and back to the encyclopedia.”

    At the time, Deen was married to a Hasidic woman. They had three children and lived in a Hasidic community in Rockland County, but the more curious Deen became about the outside world, the more the marriage foundered. Deen’s spiritual drift played out over years, each transgression a brief portal into an unknown world.

    “Next, we had a Panasonic cassette player with a radio attached,” he says. “Radio is forbidden. If you bought that kind of cassette player, you were supposed to break off the antenna, put masking tape over the channel indicators, and Krazy Glue the play button.”

    Deen had never disabled the radio, and one night, while his family was sleeping, he surreptitiously plugged in a pair of headphones. “My mind was blown,” he says. “There was a whole world out there — a blowout mattress sale in Paramus! Traffic backed up on the BQE! All these mundane things — they were very seductive to me.”

    After the radio came the computer — a Hebrew-language word processor that happened to come with a three-month AOL trial. “Suddenly, there’s this world of shopping and movies and chat rooms,” Deen says. “And the chat rooms were amazing. The idea that I could sit in my little Hasidic village and talk to people I’d never ever meet who have different religions and world views . . . I kept going to the library.”

    Once Deen graduated to the adult section and discovered comparative religion, he was done. His wife left him, and he was summoned to a rabbinic tribunal. “I wasn’t just told to give up my synagogue membership,” he says. “It’s, ‘Pack up your things and sell the house.’ The community came together and raised a ton of money for my wife. They made a case that because I wasn’t dressing the way I used to, it was confusing and damaging to the children. I grew very depressed. I was hospitalized for a time. For the 14 years up to that, fatherhood was my primary identity.”

    Today, he is 41 and still feels alone. His two oldest children will not speak to him.

    Mayer, too, had been hospitalized at least twice since leaving, most recently in April. Just a few weeks ago, she told a friend she needed to find a job and was about to be evicted from her apartment. Her family wanted nothing to do with her, and she was sick with worry over a sister who had also left the religion.

    “There is a stigma that if you leave, you’ll never succeed,” says Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps. “ ‘You’ll become a bum.’ That’s what they’re told. And not knowing general life skills: How to order off a menu.

    continued below

  17. The people who decide to leave are bright curious about the world and largely self-determined. But they are immigrants to a country they already belong to.”
    Author Judy Brown was excommunicated in 2010, after the publication of her young-adult novel, “Hush,” which dealt with the sexual abuse of children in the ultra-Orthodox world. (Her memoir, “This is Not a Love Story,” is out this week.) “I always say it’s not like moving countries,” she says. “It’s like moving to a different planet — like you literally walked off the edge of Earth and into space.”

    Growing up, Brown had a couple of friends who were sexually abused and who were told it was all their fault.

    “The painful, painful betrayal of sexual abuse was a knife in my heart,” Brown says. “Two years ago, I was meeting with young men who were going to the fourth and fifth funerals of friends who had ‘overdosed’ — which has become the euphemism for suicide of a sexual-abuse victim.”

    Once she left, Brown began writing articles for the Jewish daily The Forward describing her struggles with the secular world: the day that, as a 25-year-old mother, she watched “Sesame Street” for the first time and was scandalized by a woman dancing. “My past teachers’ warnings flashed through my mind,” she wrote. “ ‘It begins with children’s movies, and ends in porn.’ ”

    Brown writes of a clueless adolescence in which girls are never taught the word “breasts.” Instead, they are “mounds” or “lumps” — inconvenient growths to be endured, used only for nursing. When a female rabbi explained sex to her three weeks before her wedding, “it was quite the shock,” she says. Until that moment, young people are taught that sex is something only amoral gentiles do and enjoy.

    As a young wife (she is now divorced), Brown was scolded by her husband and rabbi after a male neighbor saw her in her backyard, in the summer, with her feet in the kiddie pool. Word had spread that Brown wasn’t wearing pantyhose — she was, but no matter.
    In the ultra-Orthodox world, pantyhose isn’t just pantyhose.

    “If you don’t want to wear stockings,” says ex-member Pearl Reich, “you’re told, ‘Oh, that’s immodest. You’re turning men on. You’re bad.’ And that, you internalize.”

    Faigy’s family held her funeral on Tuesday. It was a traditional Orthodox service, and of the hundreds of mourners, at least 150 had left the community. Asked for comment by reporters, Faigy’s mother said: “I don’t want to say anything. What am I supposed to say — that she’s a wonderful person? No, we don’t want to comment.”

    There’s no data available on the number of ex-ultra-Orthodox in the metro area. Santo, the director of Footsteps, says her organization keeps the specific location of its lower-Manhattan office secret; the wrath of the community can be devastating. “Leaving is very risky,” Santo says. “If they haven’t told their families, if they have children, the social and emotional consequences can lead to economic ones.”

    In the days since Faigy’s suicide, there’s been much debate in and outside the community: Was she really mentally ill? Was she suffering from loneliness, guilt, an inability to survive in the secular world? Could it have been both? And if so, will the ultra-Orthodox community re-evaluate the way it treats those who leave?

    Brown, for one, doesn’t see that happening — with any form of fundamentalist belief, Christian or Muslim or Jewish. “Short of Earth becoming paradise, denial will remain an incredibly powerful force,” she says. “Because that’s what religions need to thrive. It’s universal — the basic human operating system.”
    Faigy said as much in her last note.



  18. Hasidic to heretic leaving the ultra-Orthodox community

    by Rachael Kohn ABC Online July 27, 2015

    The tragic death of Faigy Meyer, a former Hasidic Jew who plunged to her death last week in New York, has shed light on the difficulty faced by many Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews who try to leave their tight-knit communities.

    The tragic death of Faigy Meyer, a former Hasidic Jew who plunged to her death in Manhattan last week, is not the norm for people who leave the tightly controlled life of New York’s Hasidim. But feelings of alienation and despair are often difficult to handle for those who leave, and making it on your own is not easy without a great deal of support.

    ‘I now have to make choices every single day,’ Meyer told a National Geographic documentary. ‘I know that sounds liberating. And it is. But at the same time it is also very scary.

    ‘It was so challenging, like emotionally, the whole transition. And my parents they were, like, point blank, you have to get out of here, we’re just cutting you off: “We’re not supporting you because you’re not religious.”’

    Shulem Deen is on the board of Footsteps, an organisation based in New York that helps ex-Hasidic and ex-ultra-Orthodox Jews adjust to life in mainstream society. From group therapy to college scholarships, it has provided a range of services to more than a thousand people who have sought its assistance.

    Deen knows firsthand how challenging the transition to normal life can be.

    ‘Coming from an environment like this requires a real deep taking stock of what you believe in,’ he says.

    Raised in the Hasidic community of Borough Park, Brooklyn and educated and married at 18 in New Square, a Hasidic village 30 miles north of New York City where only Yiddish is spoken, Deen was judged a heretic at age 30 and forced to leave his wife and five children behind.

    His unacceptable behaviour involved listening to the radio, watching TV and using the internet. He secretly topped-up his woeful secular education, which amounted to grade five maths and spelling in the community’s yeshiva, by secretly visiting a library and reading a children’s encyclopaedia.

    When he gave encouragement to a young Hasidic man from the village who sought his advice about leaving the community to pursue a college education, Deen was brought in for questioning as a destabilising element.

    continued below

  19. It is not that the Skver Hasidic community, one of the many Hasidic sects, did not have its attractions to Deen. As a young man, the communal experience of prayers and celebrations often late into the night had an ecstatic quality that forged deep bonds between the young men.

    ‘There is something very dramatic about the visuals of it,’ he says. ‘There is singing and there is stomping on the floor and dancing along with it.

    ‘It is a very sensory experience, you hear and you feel … and you are completely enveloped in the that whole experience … that was something that was very transformative as a young teenager.’

    The sensuality of the all male celebrations, called ‘the Rebbe’s Tish’ (the spiritual leader’s table) were in high contrast to the sexual repression practised when it came to girls and women, with whom all contact is forbidden. Averting one’s eyes from any girl over the age of 13 was mandatory, even if she was a neighbour you grew up with. Boys were not allowed to walk down the New Square street on which the girls’ school was located.

    Sexual repression went hand-in-hand with early arranged marriages. Deen describes the shidduch or arranged meeting with his proposed bride as being the most awkward experience imaginable. After no more than seven minutes of excruciating shyness, the two were pronounced a good match, and the spiritual leader’s blessing was sought.

    But nothing—not even the groom instruction session that he was hastily given prior to the wedding—prepared Deen and his bride for the duties of the marriage bed. A midnight phone call to the rabbi instructor was required. Eventually they would have five children in quick succession.

    For Deen, the most painful part of leaving the community has been the loss of his children, who were initially allowed to see him as arranged by him and his estranged wife, but were later turned against him by a community that saw him as a corrupting influence rather than as their father.

    Deen has no contact with them, was not invited to his two sons’ bar mitzvahs or to his oldest daughter’s wedding two years ago. It is at this point that our conversation slows to a deeply emotional pause.

    ‘I do have to think what effect this will have on him, and to what degree I was responsible for it, and so I do have a measure of guilt,’ he says.

    Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a community activist, a board member of Footsteps, and has a blog,unpious.

    Hasidic to heretic

    Listen to this episode of The Spirit of Things to hear Shulem Deen speaking about growing up Hasidic in New York State and and being cut off from the world.
    The Spirit of Things explores contemporary values and beliefs as expressed through ritual, art, music and sacred texts, and focusing on the nature of spiritual meaning in our lives.


  20. Hasidic Village Makes Parents Choose: Smartphone or Children’s Education


    Most schools forbid the use of cellphones by students during class, but in the Hasidic Jewish village of Kiryas Joel, New York, it’s the parents who are being required to power down.

    At the end of July, a notice was sent to families in the haredi Orthodox community about 50-miles northwest of New York City detailing strict parental prohibitions on smartphone use as a pre-requisite for their children’s enrollment at the yeshiva.

    “Make sure to put your devices in order and send in the filled out rules form for both parents (enclosed) before the above date, in order to avoid inconveniences,” read the announcement, unearthed by Shmarya Rosenberg on his Failed Messiah blog. “Remember: we will not provide acceptance cards if you are not in order with the technological rules.”

    The notice went on to list several digital commandments: Men may use a smartphone if deemed essential to business and, in that case, only with an approved filter; women may not use a smartphone, only a basic cellphone. Home computers may not be connected to the Internet. All members of the community must have a stamp of approval from religious leaders on their devices, even “kosher cellphones” that have been inspected by rabbis and whose web browsers have been deactivated.

    After detailing the exact devices that each person in the household possesses, and the level of restriction (email only, basic apps, browsing with filter), the parents are required to sign the following affidavit:

    “We the parents are confirming in writing that our cellphones/smartphones are in accordance to the rules of the community and yeshiva, according to the guidance of our holy grand rabbi and the judge. We also confirm that we do not possess in our home another cellphone/smartphone except for the ones mentioned above.”

    Kiryas Joel was established in the 1970s by members of the haredi Orthodox Satmar Hasidic community who had moved to the region from Brooklyn. The insular village of approximately 22,000 residents has faced numerous legal battles with its neighbors over the years, one making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994 over the question of whether district boundaries had been unfairly drawn to accommodate a religious population.

    In the 2010 census, Kiryas Joel was named the poorest city in the United States, with nearly 70 percent of its population living below the poverty line.

    Founded in Romania at the start of the 20th century, the Satmar are considered among the most religiously stringent of the Hasidic sects. They are also one of the fastest growing, with over 100,000 adherents and counting. Committed anti-Zionists, they reject the political state of Israel because it was not established by the messiah.

    In creating a self-sufficient and isolated community, the Satmar Hasidim of Kiryas Joel and similar enclaves manage to operate in a world largely untouched by modern temptations. They see technology as a potential puncture to their carefully constructed bubble — the recently released school mandate referred to smartphones as “extremely dangerous.”

    Even for a community heavily regulated by religious decrees, the school’s smartphone requirements are notable for threatening punishment of the children (non-enrollment) for the sins of the parents. For those whose parents comply, the new school year begins on August 16.


  21. The Plight of Children at Risk in the Ultra Orthodox Jewish Communities and the Failure of Government and Pandering Politicians to Protect Them

    by MARCI A. HAMILTON, Justia Verdict SEPTEMBER 17, 2015

    Children in the United States are routinely sacrificed on the pyre of their parents’ faith by pandering politicians without a moral compass. Children don’t vote but insular religious communities often vote as a bloc mandated by the male officials at the top, and that fact is not lost on power-hungry politicians like those in Utah who let the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) patriarchs marry off girls and abandon boys so that the men will have a better place in heaven. The same relationship between elected officials and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities exists: there are known risks to children but these politicians look the other way as they are feted by the rabbis and a community that keeps children at risk.

    It is the time of year when Jews observe a series of important religious holidays beginning with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I submit this column as a subject to be pondered in the midst of celebration and reflection.

    As with the FLDS, the ultra-Orthodox communities have put children at risk due to inadequate medical treatment, educational neglect, and mostly undeterred child sex abuse. In an interesting twist, the gender most severely affected in this community is male. Boys are at risk of herpes infection from metzitzah b’peh, or MBP and boys are less educated than girls because their education is focused on the Torah rather than secular subjects. Both, however, are at risk of sexual abuse. As in every community, that risk is significantly higher for the girls than the boys. Therefore, boys and girls in this community need prompt attention from the authorities, and politicians pandering for bloc votes need a conscience check.

    MBP Rule Repeal: Leaving Mohels to Use Oral Suction Following Circumcision

    Last year, I wrote here about the risk posed to male infants in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community who are subjected to the religious practice of MBP: the practice of following circumcision by a mohel with the mohel engaging in oral suction on the wound. The practice creates a foreseeable risk that the infant will contract herpes, which at such a tender age can be deadly or cause permanent disability. At the time, the New York Health Department had issued the weakest of prevention strategies by requiring mohels to produce an informed consent form to the parents as a prerequisite to doing the procedure. It was a typical political grandstand by which Mayor DiBlasio and his Health Department were saying they intended to protect these children at risk while they created an unenforceable and toothless policy they knew the community would ignore.

    In fact, some in the community did pay attention and filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of religious liberty. The Second Circuit mistakenly agreed in Central Rabbinical Congress v. New York City Dept of Health & Mental Hygiene, because the policy was specific to one faith. So the Department went back to the drawing board for the protection of this voting bloc and not infants, and simply repealed the MBP informed consent rule.

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  22. There is no reason to expect the Health Department to do anything else for these at-risk infants. They have sailed to the bottom of the slippery slope of unaccountability. Therefore, prevention seems out of the question.

    The only hope for these children is if doctors report such infections in young infants recently circumcised to the authorities and then the authorities choose to investigate and prosecute when a child dies or is permanently disabled. Former Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes made noise about such an investigation but he never pursued it, which brings his treatment of this issue into line with his studious refusal to prosecute child sex abuse perpetrators in the community. The other possibility is a serious public information campaign, but that is hampered by the next problem.

    Educational Neglect: Failure to Teach English and Other Secular Subjects

    The reporter who deserves a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering risks to children in the ultra-Orthodox communities, Hella Winston, recently released her in-depth reportage on the failure of the ultra-Orthodox to educate their children in secular subjects, including English. She tells the story of boys who can’t speak English, do simple math, or know any history or science, because they spend the vast majority of their school day studying Torah, or religious texts, instead of even the basics in secular subjects.

    The result is that children are deeply disabled from being able to function in the larger community, and have virtually no chance of ever making their own decisions regarding faith or community.

    The failure of most New York and New Jersey officials to ensure that these children are educated is attributable in part to the wrongheaded free exercise decision at the US Supreme Court, Wisconsin v. Yoder. As I have discussed in God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and elsewhere, this is the only decision in which the Supreme Court applied strict scrutiny to a neutral and generally applicable law (Wisconsin’s compulsory education law).

    The result is that the Supreme Court cleared the Amish to take their children out of school after eighth grade and to move them into an agrarian life. The decision is based on unrealistic and foolish assumptions about the unfailing goodness of the Amish (which is not to criticize the Amish per se but rather to point out they are human). Unfortunately, all religious parents gained a toehold on refusals to adequately educate and a route to incapacitating their children. Children in these communities are virtually walled off from the outside world, and the ones who do choose to leave suffer dearly for their lack of education.

    Yoder, however, does not stand for the proposition that children have no rights. Prince v. Massachusetts before it stated baldly that parents may not make “martyrs” of their children. Elected officials have an obligation to ensure that they do not.

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  23. Much of the educational neglect in this community has occurred with federal, state, and local officials fully aware of what is happening. Finally, New York City is looking into the issue. For the sake of the children and our future as a society, may New York do significantly more for these children than it has on the MBP issue.

    Sex Abuse: Weak District Attorneys Put Children at Risk

    Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes was widely criticized for his failure to prosecute child sex abusers in the ultra-Orthodox communities for political reasons. It was a primary reason he lost to Kenneth Thompson, the current Brooklyn D.A. Last month, 107 rabbis signed a public statement agreeing to report child sex abuse directly to the authorities, with some arguably part of the ultra-Orthodox community.

    Agudath Israel, however, is notably silent on the issue. The community also has engaged in extreme practices to persuade those that do come forward to be quiet as I discuss here. Thompson has cut some sweetheart deals with defendants from the community that led many who had championed his cause to wonder if he will make a difference for the children being sexually abused in the faith, for good reason.

    For example, witness-tampering is usually deeply disfavored by prosecutors, and Thompson did initiate an investigation into it in the Lebovits sex abuse trial in April 2015. Yet, the investigation was closed without prosecution. The victims of child sex abuse in this community desperately need a champion in law enforcement.

    When a faith community follows a path that endangers children, those children have few if any defenses. Only other adults can help them. When their faith-filled parents can or will not protect them, in the United States they become the responsibility of the government and elected officials. When the government and vote-pandering politicians turn the other way, these children suffer.

    The time has come to rip off the rose-colored glasses and to treat children in every setting as humans with rights—even if religion is in the picture. Their suffering and disabilities are our problem.

    Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, and the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Libertyand Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. She also runs two active websites covering her areas of expertise, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, www.RFRAperils.com, and statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, www.sol-reform.com. Professor Hamilton blogs at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights. Her email address is hamilton02@aol.com.


  24. A Tale of the Pure at Heart

    By MAYA KROTH, Foreign Policy January 25, 2016

    In 2014, Lev Tahor arrived in Guatemala, the latest stop in a 20-year international journey. The ultra-conservative Jewish sect cries that it is escaping religious persecution. But to those left behind — in Israel, New York, and Canada — the group is a dangerous cult ducking accusations of brainwashing, abuse, and child marriage.

    Uriel Goldman’s bushy eyebrows knit together in dismay when he sees a cockroach skittering across the tiled floor near the entrance of his cramped Guatemala City apartment. Despite the warm spring weather, he is dressed in a heavy calf-length coat, velvet wide-brimmed hat, and bulky shoes with stockings — all black. He maneuvers his broad frame into the next room to grab a broom, careful to avoid a gantlet of obstacles scattered around the awkward space: a mini-fridge, a folded-up mattress, a basket of laundry, a bag of groceries. He gently sweeps the bug out the door and into an equally cluttered stairwell.

    Goldman, who is in his mid-40s, sits down in a blue plastic chair and sighs. “It’s the seventh month,” he says, “that we are in this terrible situation.” Seven months of pretending that a run-down office building that once housed Guatemala’s immigration directorate is a suitable place for 14 families to live, sleeping six or more people to a room. Seven months of dealing with scores of restless kids who are tired of being cooped up indoors because their parents think the city’s Zona 9 neighborhood, thick with traffic and peppered with sporadic crime, is no place for children to play.

    But they’re here, Goldman says of his family and friends, because they have no other choice.

    Goldman is a member of and spokesman for Lev Tahor (“Pure Heart” in Hebrew), an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that has been bouncing around the Western Hemisphere for the better part of two decades. Before winding up in Guatemala City, Lev Tahor lived for several months in San Juan La Laguna, a small Mayan village about 100 miles west of the capital. In August 2014, however, village leaders ordered the group to leave. They cited irreconcilable differences: Locals had complained that Lev Tahor’s men refused to touch the hands of female shopkeepers and that sect members bathed nude in the lake. According to Goldman, authorities threatened to cut off electricity and water if Lev Tahor didn’t go. So it did, with followers’ earthly belongings strapped to the roof of one of Guatemala’s iconic Technicolor “chicken buses.”

    Goldman insists that persecution has prompted all of Lev Tahor’s peregrinations — from Israel, where the group formed, to the United States, then to Canada, San Juan La Laguna, and finally Guatemala City. “It’s political,” he says. “It’s because of our political religious ideas.” The sect’s principles are controversial. On a philosophical level, it believes Israel should not exist because only God can proclaim a Jewish state, and only after the Messiah’s return. Lev Tahor is also deeply conservative. Its women cover their bodies and hair at all times (they wear burqa-like shrouds beginning at age 3), and all followers, of which there are about 200, limit contact with the outside world. Children are home-schooled, and the group’s leadership arranges marriages.

    But there is a different, more nefarious version of this narrative, one in which Lev Tahor’s moves have not been escapes from discrimination, but flights from justice. The group’s critics, including former converts, estranged families of followers, religious scholars, and law enforcement officials, say Lev Tahor is dangerous.

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  25. They describe sadistic behavior that goes on behind closed doors, including child abuse, brainwashing, drug use, and forced marriages of teenage girls to men as many as 20 years their senior. “It’s definitely a cult,” says David Ouellette of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a Canadian advocacy group that fights anti-Semitism and promotes Jewish interests. “There’s no question about it.”

    Government agencies around the globe, from Jerusalem to Quebec, have investigated Lev Tahor. At almost every turn, however, detectives and prosecutors have struggled to collect evidence from an insular group that rarely speaks with secular authorities. Competing agendas and a lack of coordination between police and child-welfare agencies, particularly across borders, have also slowed inquiries, in some cases giving Lev Tahor enough of a window to relocate before a solid case can be built. The exception to this pattern was the 1994 conviction of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, Lev Tahor’s charismatic founder, for kidnapping a teenage boy. Yet after serving a two-year prison term in New York, the rabbi continued leading the group. He remains in charge today. (Despite five requests, through his lawyer and Goldman, Helbrans did not make himself available for an interview.)

    Lev Tahor’s members, Goldman says in accented English, pray to HaShem (a Hebrew name for God) that Guatemala will be their final stop. He vehemently denies accusations of wrongdoing. “We don’t force anybody” to marry, he says. “Abusing people?... Tell me one name, let’s go to the family, let’s see!”

    With its competing claims of prejudice and criminality, the story of Lev Tahor reveals how the complexities of religious freedom can make it tricky to distinguish between radical devotion and dangerous extremism. Given religion’s important role in societies, “there’s a tendency in Western culture to overly defer to religious entities … and to assume that nothing will go wrong,” says Marci Hamilton, a Yeshiva University law professor who has followed Lev Tahor’s trajectory.

    However, the case also shows that even when the line between faith and transgression is clear, red tape can make it difficult — even impossible — for legal systems to protect people. “There’s no religious defense of violence,” Hamilton says. “The problem is that you have social, cultural, political, and constitutional factors that weigh in.”

    “‘Extreme’ is too mild of a word” for Lev Tahor, she adds. “They are their own universe.”

    Orthodox Judaism, which contains many subsects, is characterized by a strict adherence to guiding religious texts. Yet even within those devout strictures, Lev Tahor’s austere brand of faith is at the very conservative end of the spectrum, combining an obsession with spiritual purity with a virulent — and, in Judaism, rare — opposition to Israel.

    Helbrans explained the origins of the group to a reporter who writes for Haaretz, Shay Fogelman, in a 2012 interview. Born to secular parents in Jerusalem in 1962, Helbrans said he was attracted to religion from an early age: As a young man, he ran a yeshiva and was mentored by Eliezer Shlomo Schick, a rabbi and prolific religious writer who was once investigated for officiating underage marriages. (Schick died in early 2015.) Helbrans founded the Lev Tahor yeshiva in the mid-1980s, espousing a belief that modernity corrupts the spirit. He designed strict rules, many of which hold fast today. Members must engage in several hours of intense prayer each day. Boys study the Torah, while girls’ education is limited. Dietary restrictions prohibit the consumption of chickens and their eggs (said to be genetically modified and therefore not kosher), leafy green vegetables (which might be contaminated by bugs), and milk from any cow that followers have not milked themselves. Speaking Hebrew, the Zionists’ tongue, is often eschewed in favor of Yiddish.

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  26. Helbrans started small. “He had not more than 12 followers at the time,” Fogelman wrote in an email, describing Lev Tahor’s early days. But operating out of a tiny space in Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighborhood, Helbrans sought more converts by giving lectures and simply stopping people on the street; he bragged that he once persuaded a secular Israeli soldier to return to religion after meeting the man at a bus stop. “Every time I got on a bus, I looked for a ‘victim,’” Helbrans told Fogelman.

    Goldman claims he joined Lev Tahor in a particularly unusual way: As a young member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), he was sent to spy on Helbrans’s lectures and gather intelligence. “I could have gone [on to a] very successful career in the army,” Goldman says. Instead, he found Helbrans’s teachings persuasive and decided to “go all the way” with his newfound faith. He has been in Lev Tahor ever since; he and his wife have 10 children.

    An IDF spokesman wrote in an email that he could locate no records that would confirm or deny Goldman’s claims of spying. An anonymous source cited in Fogelman’s Haaretz article said Lev Tahor aroused government suspicions, specifically those of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, after it tried to make contact with radical Islamists. Helbrans told Fogelman that he had merely reached out to Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who at the time was mayor of the city of Umm al-Fahm but who would be convicted years later of funding Hamas. The rabbi insisted he wanted the mayor’s help in stopping the Transport Ministry from paving over ancient Jewish graves. (In a book he later wrote called Derekh Hatzala, or Path of Salvation, Helbrans states, “The Jews and Muslims are natural allies! Both are interested in maintaining the special and ancient character of their peoples.”)

    Fogelman believes Helbrans exploited the situation to advance a narrative of persecution. “As far as I know, [the Shin Bet] … were curious to understand his connections with radical Islamists, and not more than that,” he says. “They didn’t put any effort [into] monitoring his activities or following his people.”

    Helbrans soon decided his group needed to leave Israel, citing Torah prophecies that the territory would be “turned to desert and desolation.” By 1991, he had packed up and taken his flock to New York. The New York Times reported after the move, which landed Lev Tahor in the heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, that some community leaders believed the new arrivals had come “in part because of continued pressure by the Israeli Government over its extreme anti-Zionist views.”

    Whether probes, substantial or not, into Lev Tahor’s activities played a role in the group’s departure is uncertain. But its troubles were just beginning. Helbrans would soon become entwined in a controversy that would seize the attention of New York’s media and roil the city’s insular Orthodox community.

    Hana Fhima walked into New York’s 66th police precinct in April 1992, apoplectic over the disappearance of her 13-year-old son, Shai. His abductor, she claimed, was none other than Helbrans.

    Fhima insisted that Shai had been a regular New Jersey kid who liked girls, video games, and going to the mall. That is, until Helbrans, whom Fhima had sought out to prepare Shai for his bar mitzvah on the advice of an Orthodox aunt, turned the seventh-grader practically overnight into a budding Hasid, complete with shorn hair and nascent payot (side curls). Soon after his ceremony, Shai went to a study session with one of Helbrans’s other mentees. He never came home.

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  27. Four days after Fhima went to the police, Helbrans was arrested. Within hours, however, the district attorney dropped the charges, citing a lack of evidence. (Some observers, including reporters, later wondered whether this was because he was running for state’s attorney and counted many Hasidic Jews among his voting base; the district attorney’s office publicly denied any political influence.) Helbrans repudiated being involved in the disappearance, telling the Times that the accusation was “Mickey Mouse information.” The rabbi, who claimed he had no idea where the boy was, said Shai must have run away from home.

    Fhima isn’t the only person over the years to describe Helbrans’s powers of persuasion as both extraordinary and dangerous. Oded Twik, a 41-year-old Israeli from the town of Rishon LeZion, says his sister was raised in a secular household but, to his surprise, married a Lev Tahor adherent she met while working as an au pair in Brooklyn. Although she eventually parted ways with the group after 20 years, her brother tried to bring her home well before then. At one point, she told him that if she left, Helbrans would never let her come back. (She declined to comment for this article; Twik says his sister wants a quiet start to her new life.) Twik knows of many families with similar stories. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “[Helbrans] is running a terror organization.”

    Some families are frightened to come forward, worried that their loved ones in the group will be punished in retaliation. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Israeli man recounted how his 18-year-old son ran away to join Lev Tahor more than two decades ago, largely cutting off verbal contact several years later after his father criticized Helbrans’s religious views. “[The rabbi] could sit and talk to someone for 12 hours until he convinces them, and after that they’ll be his slave,” the man says. “He hypnotizes people.”

    Helbrans also struck a bad chord with U.S. federal investigators, who picked up Shai’s case in mid-1992. After an extensive, months-long inquiry and with Shai still missing, Helbrans was again charged with kidnapping; this time, he was brought to trial. The prosecution presented evidence that Helbrans had told Shai’s biological father, who lived in Israel, that he would pay for the father’s airfare to come see Shai, indicating he knew where the boy was. Lawyers also argued that Helbrans, “with the assistance of his followers, arranged to have two sets of letters emanate from Shai”; among other things, the letters informed the boy’s mother that he was living happily among Brooklyn Hasidim (though not specifically with Lev Tahor). The goal of the missives, according to the prosecution, was to discourage Hana Fhima and the police from searching for Shai.

    During the proceedings, in 1994, Shai suddenly materialized at a sheriff’s office in Rockland County, New York. He had shown up at the home of an Orthodox rabbi unaffiliated with Lev Tahor named Aryeh Zaks a few weeks prior. Zaks told authorities that Shai would not divulge where he had been for the past two years — only that he had left home voluntarily and had not been living with Helbrans’s sect. Shai testified in court that his mother had beaten him, and he spoke in support of Helbrans. “I never had a chance to know what a normal family was [until] I came to Rabbi Helbrans,” Shai said, according to the New York Times. “Once you see a normal life it’s hard to go to an unnormal life.”

    Nonetheless, Helbrans was found guilty of kidnapping and was sentenced to prison. He was released on parole in 1996 and returned to live among his followers. Despite several legal appeals, he was deported to Israel in 2000 due to his felony conviction. Helbrans didn’t stay long, however. Six weeks later, he flew to yet another potential home: Canada, where he claimed to be a refugee escaping persecution by Israeli authorities.

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  28. A Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) investigation has since reported that Helbrans “may have used misleading or false evidence,” including Goldman’s unconfirmed claim that the IDF tasked him with spying on the rabbi and a video recording of Shai denying his kidnapping. In a separate interview with CBC reporters, Shai recanted his long-standing defense of Helbrans, saying he had in fact been abducted and that Lev Tahor had paid him $5,000 to make the video shown to Canadian authorities. (Shai has not spoken to the media in several years; contacted via Facebook, he declined to comment for this article or to confirm his whereabouts.)

    However shaky its foundation, Helbrans’s case flew under the radar; no one challenged it before Canada’s refugee commission, so he was granted asylum. His followers joined him in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts (Ste.-Agathe for short), a small village near Montreal. They again sequestered themselves, living quietly for the better part of a decade — until accusations of abuse started seeping out of Lev Tahor’s normally airtight ranks.

    In 2011, two Israeli sisters, ages 13 and 15, whose parents had sent them to join Lev Tahor in Ste.-Agathe were stopped by Canadian immigration authorities and put on a plane back home. According to the Globe and Mail, the girls’ great-uncle had gotten an Israeli court to order their return, fearing they would be harmed. Of particular concern was that they would be forced to marry. Helbrans responded to the accusation in a sit-down interview with the Canadian newspaper; though girls in Lev Tahor did marry as teenagers, he said, partners were only “suggested.” He added, “The women here choose of their own will.”

    Yet the threads of that statement soon unraveled. In 2011, Quebec authorities noted that Lev Tahor wasn’t educating its school-age children, of which there were about 50, according to the provincial curriculum. (For instance, many couldn’t speak either French or English, Quebec’s official languages.) This sparked a visit to the group’s compound by child-welfare and education officials, who found the quarters to be dilapidated and cold.

    In May 2012, child-welfare officers reported having spoken with a girl from Lev Tahor who claimed she had been promised in marriage to an older man; soon after, authorities decided to remove her from the community. (She was eventually sent to live with an aunt in the United States.) That December, a 17-year-old pregnant girl from the sect allegedly told staff at a local hospital that she’d been beaten by her brother, sexually abused by her father, and married at 15 to a 30-year-old man. Authorities petitioned for the girl’s removal from her home, but the case had to be closed when she turned 18 just a few months later.

    Then, there was the account of a former Lev Tahor male devotee who joined the group in 2009 and, at age 25, married a 15-year-old girl. Because he spoke English and was Internet savvy, he spent time online doing research to help refute accusations that Lev Tahor is a cult. “I started having more and more questions … about the righteousness of what was going on,” he would later state in sworn testimony. He presented documents to the police that accused leaders of locking disobedient young girls in basements and drugging members to exert psychological control. (Lev Tahor’s alleged transgressions extended into other realms as well. While in Canada, the sect is believed to have accrued some $6 million in assets, including international donations collected by two charities affiliated with the group. Both charities have since lost their tax-exempt status and reportedly owe the Canada Revenue Agency more than $3.5 million in back taxes.)

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  29. Based on evidence of abuse, authorities raided the Lev Tahor compound in August 2013 to take reports on the health and safety of the group’s children. Social services had five kids removed and placed with a foster family. (Due to privacy concerns, Quebec agencies would not confirm whether these children remain in state care or have since been released.) During subsequent visits to Ste.-Agathe, officials identified another 14 children from two families as being in need of intervention. In November 2013, a summons was issued for the parents to appear in court.

    When authorities arrived at the compound with the summons, however, they found the place deserted and in disarray; a coffee pot had even been left on. Lev Tahor had fled in the middle of the night on chartered buses. With warrants, officers seized laptops, hard drives, bottles of prescription drugs, credit cards, and documents, including bank statements and wedding licenses from Missouri, where the legal age of marriage (with parental consent) is just 15. At a hearing in late November, a judge ordered the removal of the 14 children from their homes — but that would prove more difficult than expected.

    The same month, Lev Tahor came under scrutiny before another government body 6,000 miles away: the Israeli Knesset’s Committee on the Rights of the Child. Israeli authorities, it turns out, had also been collecting testimonies of abuse, but no charges had been brought. Knesset members and families of Lev Tahor followers decried the sluggish progress: “Every day that goes by is a horrendous crime,” one lawmaker said at a hearing. In response, the deputy state prosecutor cited the challenges of gathering evidence from a secretive sect and of prosecuting crimes allegedly committed abroad. Were the case based in Israel, local police would have had jurisdiction to investigate and collect evidence. In Canada, its hands were tied.

    Similar complaints arose when Lev Tahor resurfaced in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, a small town nearly 600 miles away from Ste.-Agathe near the U.S.-Canada border. With no jurisdiction in another province, Quebec authorities had to wait for an Ontario court to decide whether it would honor the earlier ruling and put the 14 at-risk children into custody — a process that dragged on for more than two months. “In Canada, each province is provincially responsible for child welfare,” explains Stephen Doig, executive director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services (CKCS), “so the reciprocal agreements between the two provinces around court orders is really gray, to say the least.”

    In February 2014, a judge finally ruled that CKCS could remove the children from their homes. Lev Tahor had 30 days to appeal. In the meantime, however, the 14 minors fled. Two of them were detained at a Calgary airport, while immigration authorities in Trinidad and Tobago flagged and deported another six; all were placed in foster care. The remaining children, as well as three adults, disembarked safely in Guatemala, where Goldman says Lev Tahor had friends in a budding Orthodox community.

    In Guatemala, yet another legal debate emerged: A spokesperson for the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Newsweek, “Until … abuse is proven in Guatemala, Canada cannot proceed to take them back,” and a local judge ordered that the children could stay. International law couldn’t force a change: As Martha Bailey, a Queen’s University law professor, has pointed out in a journal article on the Lev Tahor case, neither Guatemala nor Canada has acceded to a 1996 treaty on parental responsibility and the protection of minors that might have compelled the children’s return.

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  30. The law continued to work in Lev Tahors favor. As it began to set up shop in Central America, the group won its appeal in Ontario. Provincial authorities had no grounds on which to hold them, so six of the children in custody were released to their parents, while two more, both teenage girls with U.S. passports, left their foster home and crossed the border to be with family still in New York. “Although we had closer eyes on those two … we really don’t have the authority to physically detain them,” Doig explains. U.S. authorities subsequently determined that, as American citizens, the girls could stay put.

    In the end, then, all the legal wrangling added up to very little. A scathing follow-up report by Quebec’s Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission blasted all parties involved in Canada for their lack of coordination. Camil Picard, the commission’s vice president for youth affairs, called the legal process “incomprehensible.” Not mincing words, he said at a press conference, “It’s clear that the [agencies] systematically failed in their role to protect the children.”

    As government departments licked their wounds, Lev Tahor relocated most followers to Guatemala over the summer of 2014. As for why that country was chosen as a new haven, Doig has a theory that’s a far cry from Goldman’s explanation: Doig says Guatemala’s child-welfare agency is badly understaffed and that, at the time of the move, the legal age of marriage was 14, with parental consent. (Last November, new legislation raised it to 18.)

    “It’d be fair to say,” Doig guesses, “they didn’t go to Guatemala by accident.”

    A tattered curtain bisects the lobby of the building where Lev Tahor lives. The drab divider, in shades of white and gray, extends up the building’s stairwell, past empty 5-gallon water jugs, broken toys, and cinched-up bags of trash littering the halls. It ensures the strict separation of genders, one of the most essential rules in the Lev Tahor playbook. In the lobby, on one side of the curtain, girls dressed head to toe in black busily sort a huge pile of vegetables on the dirt-streaked floor. Upstairs, boys are scattered into two makeshift classrooms, some learning math as others read prayer books and chant loudly in Yiddish.

    Goldman receives me warmly with a plate of tropical fruit, but he explains that because I am a woman, he can’t shake my hand. After pausing to bless the fruit, he grows heated recounting what happened in Canada. “They wanted to change our religion,” Goldman says of Quebec authorities, his tightly wound side curls bobbing like springs as he becomes animated. “It’s so unfair what they’ve done to us … an investigation of two years without finding anything wrong.” He dismisses former members who’ve spoken about abuse in Lev Tahor as lying publicity-seekers.

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  31. While life hasnt been easy in Central America, from being kicked out of San Juan La Laguna to being squeezed into tight quarters in the capital, Lev Tahor is relatively free from scrutiny. Legal proceedings against it appear stalled. According to Caitlin Workman, a spokesperson for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, “Canadian officials are engaging with the relevant authorities in … Guatemala” — but it’s unclear to what extent those authorities are pursuing any sort of case against Lev Tahor. (Representatives for Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and immigration directorate did not respond to requests for comment.)

    Nothing has yet come of Israeli investigations into Lev Tahor, and Hamilton, of Yeshiva University, says global agencies that seem equipped to help are actually limited in their reach. “An international human rights force,” such as a body at the United Nations or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, could intervene, but “Guatemala is not a country where it’s easy for Western authorities to get cooperation on the ground. A combination of corruption and a lack of effective law enforcement against violent crime generally puts a strain on resources…. The level of crime, the level of poverty, and the level of corruption make it less likely that the government is going to focus on a small group like Lev Tahor, even if it is engaging in serial child abuse.”

    Meanwhile, Lev Tahor’s leaders want to build a forever home in Guatemala: They have their eye on some land in the country’s Santa Rosa department, near the border with El Salvador. Right now, it’s covered by mango trees, but they envision a compound complete with schools, a synagogue, and at least 40 houses — one for each family. “We are planning to do the whole place like a pueblo,” Goldman says. If getting there requires living with cockroaches for a while, it’s worth it. “I’m happy that I can educate my children,” Goldman says. “My children are the most important thing that I have.”

    Helbrans is not in the building; Lev Tahor is busy preparing for Passover, and the rabbi, Goldman explains, has gone away to a mikvah, a bath used for a purification ritual. But as I descend the stairs to leave, another of the group’s adherents pulls me into a two-room apartment. The 30-something woman, in a voice that’s barely more than a whisper, introduces herself as Udel and says she has been in Lev Tahor since she was 3 years old. Neither she nor her nine children — a handful of whom play at her skirts — have ever known life outside the sect. She too is looking forward to the new compound in the mango grove, a place where her children can play.

    “The rabbi never forced people to stay here against our will,” she says, unprompted. “Whoever wants to come here is welcome, and you want to go, you go.”

    When asked whether she has ever considered going, she smiles and shakes her head.

    “This is my life,” Udel says softly. “This is what God wants.”

    Maya Kroth (@theemaya) is a freelance journalist based in the United States and Mexico. Hannah Katsman in Israel contributed reporting. This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of FP.