[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)