Jewish agencies ready to foster Lev Tahor kids

A few Lev Tahor  children gather to play. [Paul Lungen photo]
A few Lev Tahor children gather to play. PAUL LUNGEN PHOTO

Jewish agencies in Montreal are ready to place 13 Lev Tahor children in appropriate temporary homes after an Ontario court ruling ordered them back to Quebec and into foster care, a Jewish community representative says.

Meanwhile, leaders of the controversial anti-Zionist haredi sect near Chatham, Ont., say they intend to appeal the Feb. 3 decision by Judge Stephen Fuerth of the Ontario Court of Justice. The group’s lawyer, Chris Knowles, told The CJN the papers will be filed this week.

David Ouellete, associate director of Quebec public affairs at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which is speaking for other Jewish agencies on this issue, said his group welcomes the ruling, which upheld a November decision by a Quebec youth court judge that ordered 14 children from three Lev Tahor families to be placed in foster care for 30 days and assessed.

But Fuerth delayed the implementation of his ruling for the same amount of time in order to give the group an opportunity to prepare an appeal. (Fuerth’s order exempted a 17-year-old mother named in the Quebec ruling, but not her infant child, because she’s considered an adult under Ontario law.)

“We have full confidence in the Quebec authorities and in the ruling of the Quebec Superior Court, which was validated by the Ontario Court of Justice,” Ouellette told The CJN.

“We’re concerned about the well-being of the children, and we understand  that the Department of Youth Protection [DYP] in Quebec has solid reasons to have these children removed and placed in foster families.”

Ouellete said evidence presented by the DYP in Quebec “details cases of utter negligence toward the children,” including allegations of forced underage marriage, failure to provide adequate education and inappropriate discipline of children using force.

He said Jewish social service agencies such as Agence Ometz and Batshaw Youth and Family Centres have been working closely with the DYP since last spring to provide it with Yiddish and Hebrew interpreters – the group’s main spoken languages – and to find appropriate potential foster care for the children with haredi and chassidic families.

About 200 members of Lev Tahor left their enclave north of Montreal overnight on Nov. 17-18, a day before some of its members were to appear in youth court in Quebec about the allegations, and just days before the original court ruling there on Nov. 27. They settled near Chatham.

Sect leaders say the move had been planned since last spring in response to what they considered harassment by Quebec authorities over how its children were being educated.

But in the group’s submission to the Ontario court, Fuerth noted, Lev Tahor leaders acknowledged that they “felt it necessary to have a contingency plan in the event that the Quebec government would initiate action such as the apprehension of our children.”

Fuerth said in his ruling that “the manner and haste of the exit to Ontario… were more consistent with flight than an orderly and planned move.”

The judge disagreed with the sect’s argument that the Ontario court didn’t have jurisdiction to enforce the Quebec order, saying it had to recognize it. “To do otherwise would simply encourage jurisdictional chaos as others try to escape the lawful processes where children habitually reside.”

He also dismissed Charter of Rights claims by the group based on freedom of religion, movement and security of the person, saying the Quebec court was a more appropriate forum for such arguments, and that such rights need to be weighed against the rights of children to protection from harm.

Speaking to The CJN, Lev Tahor organizer Nachman Helbrans, son of the group’s founder, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, admitted, “If there had not been court proceedings, maybe we would have waited a few months” to move, or sect members would have moved more gradually instead of en masse.

Helbrans said the group is “very disappointed” in the Ontario ruling.

“We are determined to file an appeal and to use all legal avenues open to us to bring justice,” he said.

“There are many grounds to appeal this decision. There are many errors of facts and errors of law,” he added, saying the group disagrees with the judge’s finding the court had jurisdiction to rule on the case under Ontario law.

An appeal of the Quebec youth court decision is due to be heard Feb. 20.

Last week, a judge in Ste-Jerome, Que., ruled that evidence gathered in raids on the group in Quebec and Ontario could be made public. The ruling came in response to a petition by news outlets Postmedia, the Toronto Star, CBC, the Globe and Mail, CTV, Quebecor Media and Shaw Media. Access to the material reportedly was granted because there were no objections to the request from Lev Tahor, the Crown or the DYP.

The Crown has until Feb. 14 to make the documents public and will likely redact the names of the children involved, as well as information that could harm its case, the news outlets lawyer told Postmedia.

Helbrans said that Lev Tahor continues to deny all the allegations being made against it, and that attempts to put its children in foster care, even with ultra-Orthodox families, are just a first step to eventually transferring them to secular homes and taking the “Lev Tahor chinuch [education] out of them.”

He said some of the children in the community are having nightmares about being removed from their homes, which they’ve seen happen twice before, including late last year when two children were removed and later returned after social workers noticed what looked like a bruise on one child’s face. Her mother said it was from a marker.

Helbrans said Lev Tahor leaders are trying to reassure the children “that Hakodesh Baruch Hu [God] saves Jewish kinder every time.”

Helbrans also disclosed that the group has stopped co-operating with Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, which had been closely monitoring Lev Tahor with near-daily visits since its arrival in the area. The last visit was late last month, but the group is no longer co-operating with them, because they say they were intrusive and repetitive, and didn’t turn up evidence of abuse or neglect.

The group’s leaders were scheduled to meet with Children’s Services representatives this week about their case.

Dubbed the “Jewish Taliban” because women in the sect have been seen wearing burka-like clothing, Lev Tahor contends the animosity toward it stems from its roots in Israel, and the fact it’s openly anti-Zionist and believes only the Messiah can establish a Jewish state.

The group first moved to Quebec about 20 years ago. At the time, an Israeli official expressed concerns to Quebec news outlets about the welfare of its children.

Rabbi Helbrans, the group’s founder, had served two years in jail after being convicted in New York of kidnapping a 13-year-old boy he’d been tutoring. The group formed around him after he returned to Israel. Its original members are Israeli-born, but most of the children were born in this country.