LEV TAHOR HORROR: Tales of Beatings and Torture Emerge From Excommunicated Cult Members

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[NOTE: This article was updated on 11/15/18 with additional stories from survivors]

The horror stories involving the Lev Tahor cult, currently located in Guatemala, continue following the death of its leader Shlomo Helbrans in Mexico in 2017. Since then, the leadership has moved into the hands of his son Nachman Helbrans, along with Mayer Rosner, Yankel and Yoel Weingarten, who are even more radical and aggressive than the late founder.

Earlier this week, YWN reported on a mother who was excommunicated by the cult, and was attacked with knives, rocks and gunfire when she returned to try rescuing her children, including a 13-year-old daughter who is in a forced marriage and is reportedly 8 months pregnant.

Other horror stories involving the cult have emerged, from young members who were banished for one reason or another. One, a 17-year-old boy, was expelled for listening to music, which has been outlawed by the cult leaders. Another, a 15-year-old boy, was expelled for refusing a forced marriage to a 12-year-old girl.

According to the boy, his mother and Lev Tahor members drove him to Guatemala City – about 4 hours from where the cult is located – on the pretext of getting a passport. His mother dropped him at a hotel promising to pick him up in the morning. The next day, no one came to get him. Stranded and in a panic, he called his mother but no one answered. He tried reaching other members of Lev Tahor but his calls were ignored. As a last resort, he turned to the small community of ex-Lev Tahor members in Guatemala City, and they took him in.

According to the boys, cult leader Yoel Weingarten was once leading a four-hour prayer service when a 14-year-old boy giggled. After a severe beating, they threw him in an old, broken commercial freezer. The imprisonment in the confined space with no change of clothing or bathroom lasted three months. Weingarten reportedly told a group of boys that “he was a sinner and if he dies then that’s what he deserves.”

When the boy was released, Weingarten allegedly took a wooden chair and broke it over his head. He collapsed in pain. “Now you’ve done your Teshuvah,” he reportedly announced.

The boys spoke of the squalid conditions in the Lev Tahor grounds. Until recently the only area for bathroom use was the local river, which was also used as a Mikvah and had separate bathroom times for men and women. Members live under the hot Guatemalan sun in metal containers and tarp-covered tents. The only ones living in luxury are the Hanhala, who have air conditioning and other comforts.

They related that a young man under 40 years of age recently contracted a minor infection. Hanhalah refused to pay for treatment and sent him to a local hospital. He left in a body bag, leaving numerous children behind.

They also described the system for Malkos (lashes), dished out to adults and children alike. Malkos is a big event. A day before the ceremony, posters are placed announcing that at this and this time this person will be publicly flogged. Lev Tahor members are required to attend. Victims are then reportedly stripped to their underwear and whipped in front of men, women and children. One boy recalled that he couldn’t sit for three days after receiving Malkos from the swelling.

This description of Malkos was corroborated by a public Facebook post written by Rafi King (Refoel Koenig), who had received this punishment, and managed to escape the cult several years ago. In several voice notes that were made public, Rafi relates his experiences and the terrible abuse he witnessed and suffered under the hands of Mayer Rosner.

A 12-year-old girl was thrown out of the cult, and sent to Montreal, Canada where a family was willing to take her in. Lev Tahor only permits certain fruits and vegetables to be eaten, as well as whole wheat flour made into bread with a stone press. Proteins are not part of their diet. As such, the girl refused to eat food served in her foster parent’s home. After much discussion, the girl finally agreed to have a little vegetable salad on dishes and utensils that were kashered in front of her.

Every night, the girl tried calling her mother, who only picked up the phone once to tell her to call the “Hanhalah”. After numerous phone calls, she finally reached Yoel Weingarten who forbade her from speaking to her mother. He also refused to “authorize” her to eat food she served.

Another woman who escaped the cult described the Malkos system: “The rabbis in the cult felt that I had sinned so they ordered me to receive 39 lashes. Since 39 lashes can lead to death, they divided the lashes up into weekly sets of three. I had to go to my husband, request his belt, bring it the rabbi who was going to hit me and beg him to hit me with it. If I didn’t beg him, he wouldn’t hit me. They forced me to do this.”

She also said that women were also given punishments of not being allowed to speak for 40 days, and if they did so, even by accident, they would have to start their count over. They were also forced to fast once a week during their Teshuva period.

YWN has reported extensively on the Lev Tahor cult – with dozens of articles over the years.

Internal documents of Lev Tahor show that Shlomo Helbrans made his followers swear and sign to uphold the following principles among others.

(1) Everyone must negate his or her mind and mind thoroughly and completely, to the leader of Lev Tahor.

2) They must subjugate soul, spirit, and will.

3) Each man accepts upon his descendants and descendant’s descendants until the end of all generations to be subjugated under the will of Lev Tahor’s leader.. this should be said openly to the leader himself.

4) Everyone must be ready at any time and moment of 24 hours of the day, whether on the Shabbath and Yom Tov, summer and winter, healthy or sick, to do the will of the leader.

5) Whether the person is a young man or an old man, virgins and women they must accept to do the will of the leader.

6) They must agree to throw away all his physical needs, including eating sleep and rest until he fulfills the desires the leader.

7) It is the obligation of each of them at the beginning of the morning prayers to recite and accept upon themselves all of the above with full mouth and supreme joy.

Lev Tahor practices include women and girls wearing black head-to-toe coverings day and night, arranged marriages between teenagers, and a violent form of Malkos.

Former members of Lev Tahor (who either escaped or were otherwise expelled) do not recall learning Mishnah or Gemara, nor any Mitzvos Bein Adam LeChaveiro. They spend the majority of the day in deep prayer and are only allowed to study certain sections of the Chumash, with Lev Tahor commentary.

Some observers have written that these are signs of a cult. Indeed, this was the position of an author of an article that appeared in Mishpacha Magazine. Others, however, claim that there is nothing cult-like about the movement. Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter of Ami Magazine met with Helbrans and assured his readership that it was not a cult, even though a previous Ami article stated that it was.

In 2014 YWN ran an article titled “Cults and the War of the Jewish Magazines” in response to Mishpacha and Ami magazines running articles on Lev Tahor. Mishpacha Magzaine had run a fifteen page “expose” on the group, essentially describing Lev Tahor as a cult that has some serious issues involving medicating children, and behaviors that resemble child abuse. Ami Magazing claimed the exact opposite – and ran the following sentence below their headline “The unjust persecution of a group of pious Jews, and the unsettling silence of the Jewish community.”

Originally a citizen of Israel, cult leader Shlomo Helbrans went to the United States where he was convicted for kidnapping in 1994 and served a two-year prison term before being deported to Israel in 2000. He then settled in Canada.

In 1994 he was convicted in Brooklyn for the 1992 kidnapping of 13-year-old Shai Fhima Reuven, a Bar Mitzvah boy he was tutoring, and served a two-year prison term in the U.S. He was originally sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, but in June 1996 an appeals court reduced the sentence to two to six years. Three days later, he was placed in the work release program for prisoners less than two years away from the possibility of parole, where inmates are freed from prison if they have a job. After protests, he was moved back to prison.

The high-profile case drew much attention in the U.S., and gained further attention when Helbrans successfully convinced New York prison authorities to waive their requirement that all prisoners be shaved for a photograph upon entering prison, and to accept a computer-generated image of what he would have looked like clean-shaven instead. After the State Parole Board decided in November 1996 to release Helbrans after two years in prison, the case rose to near scandal with suspicions that the Pataki administration was providing him special treatment.

After his release from prison, Helbrans ran a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y., and was deported to Israel in 2000. He then settled in Canada, where in 2003 he was granted refugee status, claiming his life was being threatened in Israel.

Helbrans and his followers had arrived in Mexico’s southern Chiapas province after spending three years in Guatemala. They had travelled to Guatemala from Canada, where child-protection authorities were moving to seize children allegedly suffering from neglect.

The group had been established on the outskirts of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, north of Montreal, for more than a decade before Quebec authorities began paying close attention. As they prepared to move in to protect children in the sect in late 2013, community members left en masse overnight for Chatham, Ontario. Before the next summer, they had moved on to Guatemala.

Court documents used by Quebec police to obtain warrants alleged that Lev Tahor girls as young as 13 and 14 in the community were routinely married off to much older men. The allegations in the documents, which became public after the sect had fled and were never proven in court, included sexual and physical abuse of children.

(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)




51 COMMENTS

  1. Horrible story, well written article except for when mentioning “other opinion”. 2 points , second much more important in this case.
    1- in general, when writing or speaking a short point,one does not mention opinions that differ with your opinion,as it lessens what you want to say. Leave conflicting opinions for a Shiur or dissertation.Based on advice received from Rabbi Tatz and used constantly with extremely positive results.
    2. WHAT YOU WROTE CANNOT BE ARGUED ON AND WHO CARES IF THEY FIT THE LEGAL DEFINITION OF CULT OR NOT.With so much proof of murderous blows, letting someone die, conditions and rules that kill etc etc etc they are the epitome of evil. Anything the Rabbi you mentioned said he most certainly would retract if shown even half of your proof. If not he would be an accomplice to attempted murder or manslaughter, wrongful death, child abuse and neglect and a host of other felonies. So either discuss with him or don’t mention him, but do not give him the level of an opinion when your proofs are so strong against such an opinion. Also his opinion was based on the official way of life, without all the unspeakable horror that they brought with it. There is no way in the world that this can be condoned, and the title cult is of no consequence.

  2. Ok, so lema’ase, can YWN do something about it? What about opening up a campaign with tons of signatures requesting the Canadian government take action & at least rescue all those kids who were born in Canada and check whoever wants to leave the cult should have an option?

  3. I don’t get it if there’s even a suspicion that this kind of stuff is going on isn’t the law building up a case and by now invading their little community? Why is it that all the media knows about it and the outside world knows about it and the law isn’t lifting a finger? I can only hope that based on the local legal system where they are, they realize that when Canada busted them they did it the wrong way – so they are planning a smarter strategy before they lay siege and bust them for good. I sure hope so!

  4. Now we comprehend the meaning of a Johrzeit:- Every year on his Johrzeit, when Mr. Shlomo Helbrans gets rejudged, his suffering in next world, only gets worse, for all the extra damage that his ongoing influence has is causing followers to actively pursue.

  5. When will Frankfurter from Ami magazine apologize and ask mechila from all the victims of this vicious cult for the massive cover-up job that he did thereby enabling them to continue their horrific abuse?

  6. I’m sure the Lev Tahor people will say they were listening to their Daas Torah. That’s the excuse all people who let others make their decisions (or tell them who to vote for) say.

  7. In Israel the sikrikim would of taken care of this group a long time ago and their abuse would of been history. I also don’t understand why Satmar, New Square, Ger, or the big machers/askanim, etc…are not taking this seriously. If one of their own step out of line, they make sure the issue is resolved as soon as possible, vihamaivin yavin!
    They sure managed to free Yanky Ostreicher “illegally” from a rogue foreign Country. For some reason, they’re letting this one fly. I wish someone could explain why.

  8. If all this is true and not a gross exaggeration, then it is indeed horrible and those people should be rescued, but, I don’t believe it was ever as bad as this when they were still living in Canada under Rabbi Helbrans’ leadership. The current leaders are the real culprits of this craziness.

  9. The story as posted seems horrible and horrifying! But YWN has lost its reputation when it comes to negative reporting of Yidin: a la the boy who cried wolf story!

    But כבדהו וחשדהו may be the proper thing.

  10. hml, that is the problem…many naive Rabbonim ( sorry, I have to say that, but anyone who champions for their cause may mean well, but they are misguided and hurting innocent people) have taken up their cause to shtadel for them and that makes appear somewhat legitimate.

  11. The reason the police there can’t do anything is because in many of those countries, the police have likited power and are as corrupt as them. There are places in South America the police won’t go to because they would be killed.

  12. KShomron,

    They quote the verse B’reishis 33:9
    Proving There’s no need to heed leading rabbis

    So That doesn’t fly sorry nice try though

  13. Where is all the Askonim and organizations on this? This was the sort of complacency going on when 6 million Jews were killed and barely anyone in America lifted a finger to help. Only few courageous individuals did anything with the establishment busy with more ‘important’ matters. If this isn’t a case of al saamod a dam reacha I don’t know what is. If you think Helbrans just drowned naturally your dreaming. This has all the fingerprints in ending the way Jonestown did. Something needs to be done and soon. Who’s stepping up to the plate?

  14. If one moves away the masquerade of religion (which bears almost no similarity to Torah Judaism), this is a gang, not a cult. They are not different from the MS-13. They need to be either eliminated or rescued. But to allow them to continue with the massive amount of abuse is unacceptable. Leaders must be brought to justice, and victims rescued.

  15. Elvis was Jewish. Unfortunately he was also a shabbos ‘goy’ for his Jewish neighbours. Aish HaTorah arranged a minyan to say kaddish at his kever, I saw the video.

  16. To all you guys complaining that nothing is being done, as one commenter noted on another thread, there is an on going Charidy campaign at https://www.charidy.com/rescuethechildren

    I can’t vouch for it, as I’ve only found out about it here, but it seems legit. And so far they’ve only raised about $6,400.00 out of a modest goal of 50k.

    So do your research, donate if you can, spread the word, and stop complaining.

    The buck stops here.

  17. Simple question: with all evident acts recorded by former victims, why aren’t the leaders bought to justice? They may not cause any physical harm. They should press charges against the above names.

  18. Since Jews do not hold by “communion” (which clearly involves avodah zarah) one can not be “ex-communicated”. While these people may, or may not, be guilty of various crimes, no one has accused them of worshipping the Christian diety and participating in “communion.” There are some equivalent concepts in Judaism, such as “herem”, but a “herem” has nothing to do with being authorized to worship an idol.

  19. I am just wondering why the authorities never found out about the supposed horrendous beating. they were down their backs and searching for evidence, even stripping down the kids, but they didnt find anything? Why is everyone going on such a rant without any evidence? If there is truly abuse let one ex member post pictures of his abuse. Why was there only a car with shattered glass posted, which could have been any generic photo. Seems a bit suspicous that there is so much abuse and so much concern yet not one photo of an ex member has gone viral. anyone can make up any story about anything. Its evidence that makes the difference. IF you google ex chassidic people you will find countless of horror stories of what “supposedly” goes on in the Jewish Community. Dont swallow every story line hook and bait. Be intelligent, ask questions, demand evidence. Every person is innocent until proven guilty. I can make up any story about you and post it online and have horrified comments. It doesnt take much to vilify anyone.

  20. aku:

    I’m not so sure that one needs to identify with a xthian diety to have a problem of avodah zoroh. What they are doing with their “leaders” is closer to avodah zoroh than what Catholics do in their church. Worse is that they defile the Torah by claiming that their gang is following Torah with their abuse and nonsense. This gang is cancerous, and must be removed. The leaders should be arrested and confined so that they can be prevented from their abuse, missionary work and the chilul Hashem. the victims need to be rescued and given a lot of help.

  21. EfrayimJew: the Canadians were onto them which is why they fled to Guatemala.
    And most members stayed and have no way to “post photos” and are scared stiff. And scars heal. Not everyone got Malkos, there are different ways to abuse someone and they’re pretty good at covering their tracks. But enough has come out to shake us into action.

    If anything we’ve been complacent for far too long. As I posted earlier, there’s a Charidy campaign running, contact the people listed and ask questions. Then come back and share with us. When people’s lives are at stake there’s not necessarily time “to play it safe”.

    That’s also how the US child welfare system works. Remove th children first, verify later. Sometimes it’s cruel, but the alternative is to risk irreparable harm.

    Just claiming we’re too believing without showing proof to the contrary is utter foolishness in this case. And yes, where there’s smoke there’s (usually) fire.

  22. Mammele:
    Wow. I guess u were never aquainted with anyone who dealt with child social services. There is a reason why there is something known as trial by jury.ther ar way too many times smoke without fire. Let’s suppose u fire two empolyees. They decide to gang up against u and accuse u of child abuse, they also convince some friends to join the scheme. Social services arrive at ur door and say first we take away ur children then we decide if ur are guilty or nto. What would u say about that. I agree there are many angry people at Lev tahor but unless there is evidence of actual abuse I can’t say for certain that there is.

  23. EfrayimJew: so maybe it wasn’t the best analogy.

    Here there is proof, but you are relying only on Yeshiva World to spoon-feed it to you. Get out of your bubble and talk to the parties in the know.

  24. to mr efrayim jew
    you are either part of lev tahor
    or a babbling idiot
    this is obviously a cult
    who in their right mind would live in 2018 in these conditions and in guatemala
    there are plenty of chasidishe shtetlch to live in if you want to live a secluded life
    helbrans and gang are sick minpulators and play with these peoples mind and bodies
    they need to be clled out for what they are and dry up their means of support and all will fall apart

  25. Be carefully on the next fundraiser..it can be the cult pretending to be anti cult. A cult takes away bechira of people. (Rights to think and act on yohr own). Please somone.make a good fundraiser but by very serious people.

  26. To Everyone beleiving the story that everyone is dramtizing, there is no proof of anything, u guys are jus t jealous of their level of sanctity.

  27. IUseBrains, you posting name does not reflect your comments. How jealous do you think people are of these cult members?! They are cut off with no contact with their extentended families, living in a hole with no basic necessities, their mindfulness, creativity, and individuality, are all denied to them.

    A person is on a high spiritual level when they serve Hashem with their whole heart and soul. But these cult members have have their heart and soul stolen from them. They are mindless and robotic, knowing only about doing the bidding of their leaders.