MONTREAL — About 280 members of a cult-like Jewish sect left their enclave in Ste. Agathe des Monts, Que., overnight Nov. 17-18 for Ontario, reportedly fleeing because they were under investigation by the Youth Protection Department.
Citing Sûreté du Québec (SQ) sources, La Presse reported that the Lev Tahor (Hebrew for pure heart) group, consisting of about 40 families and led by self-styled chassidic Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, left in a convoy of cars and buses.
Their departure was observed by the SQ, but its officers did not intervene, according to La Presse sources.
They went to a motel in Chatham-Kent, near Detroit. At the end of last week, police there had been in touch with Quebec authorities.
Numerous allegations of neglect and abuse of children, as well as women, have been made over the years, but no charges were ever laid. The women wear headscarves and long dark cloaks.
There have been accounts that Rabbi Helbrans exerts tyrannical control over his followers.
They left behind the houses and institutions they had built in Ste. Agathe since Rabbi Helbrans established the group in the Laurentian town more than 10 years ago.
The Israeli-born Rabbi Helbrans (also known as Elbarnes) was convicted of kidnapping in 1994 in New York for holding a boy at his yeshiva for two years. Facing deportation to Israel upon his release from prison, he fled to Canada.
Despite being a convicted felon, he was granted refugee status in 2004, after he claimed to be in danger if he was sent back to Israel because of his extreme anti-Zionist views.
Although the group was insular, its members did occasionally burn the Israeli flag in public.
The Times of Israel on Nov. 20 quoted Oded Twik, an Israeli whose sister and eight children had lived with Lev Tahor for the past eight years, as saying the group feared the authorities were about to remove children because of an impending youth protection case.
Twik said she urged Canadian authorities to remove all of the children – 137, according to her information – from the group.
She said the group hoped to go to Iran. Another website, FailedMessiah.com, citing an unnamed source, said the group wants to go to Sudan or any country that would not extradite them to Canada or Israel.
The Times of Israel reported that dozens of family members and supporters held a demonstration outside the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv on Oct. 14 to raise awareness of the danger they believe their relatives are in by staying with Lev Tahor.
Lev Tahor also has a branch in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Last year, two teenaged girls from that community were sent back to Israel when they arrived at Trudeau airport in Montreal, apparently on their way to visit the Ste. Agathe community. Immigration officials were complying with an Israeli court order issued after the girls’ grandmother petitioned it out of fear for their welfare. Lev Tahor had apparently been planning to decamp for some time. On its website (levtahor.ca) is a lengthy message written in poor English and dated Feb. 17, 2013, that they had left for a place within “driving distance of several hours from Quebec.” (Most of the website content is in Hebrew.)
“The reason that the community left Quebec is the education decrees in Quebec… Some of our people were called to court because of the education decrees, and they were faced to a fact: ‘If you would not surrender to the education decrees, we would take your children from you.’”
This may be a reference to the province’s prescribed curriculum, as well as other laws obligating children to attend school and that those schools be licensed and the teachers certified.
The message denies that any child protection laws were violated, as was “said again and again for years and years against the community.”
“The community invited the local social services to examine, to discuss and to investigate each and every person in the community, adults and children. This is to show again that the blood libels that are said by liars on the community have no connection to reality.”
A garbled update dated Nov. 21, 2013, reads: “The children of the people that were called to court today due to the decrees of education, informed the social service, in the country where they live, that they do not want, to go to trial today at all, because they are afraid that they will be taken from their parents against their parents’ will and against their will.”
A plea is made for donations to help with the group’s move and setting up of a new enclave, “not to mention the recent legal expenses stemming ultimately also from the struggle for education.”