Pure as the driven snow, or hearts of darkness?
Haaretz spent five days with the controversial 'Lev Tahor' Haredi community in Canada to uncover the truth about the sect and its charismatic head, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans. Part one of a two-part series.
By Shay Fogelman • Ha’aretz
Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans is trying to get me to repent and become religious. To this end, for the past four months he has been spending hours with me on the phone from Canada. He believes I have a good Jewish soul that somehow got lost, and insists he can, and must, show it the way back. I disagree with him about the soul, the Jewish thing and the path, but do find many other interesting subjects to discuss with him.
Rabbi Helbrans is a bit disappointed that I haven’t become religious yet, but he’s not giving up. He keeps trying at every opportunity. He maintains that discussion of God should not be relegated to the realm of fate, but rather that it is an absolute and provable truth. Therefore, before he would consent to be interviewed, he insisted that I devote 10 hours to listening to him present his proofs. Helbrans declared that if I came to him with an honest desire to explore the truth, I would no longer be able to deny God and his Torah, as given to the Jewish people at Sinai.
Despite my skepticism, I acceded to his demand. Because of this same skepticism, I also agreed to pledge to him that if I was in fact convinced, I would change my life and become religious. Helbrans was satisfied. He was so keen and confident of his success that, before I boarded the plane for Canada, he suggested that I cancel – or at least postpone – my return flight. I didn’t change my plans, but I do admit that, at least once, I did try to picture a Shabbat without a cigarette.
Shlomo Helbrans heads a small and controversial Hasidic community called Lev Tahor (“Pure Heart”). It is a zealous and insular community, situated at the outer fringes of the Haredi world. Helbrans and his disciples would surely be pleased with this description. Stringency – or true piety, as they would have it – stands at the heart of their community life. They don’t see any negative connotation in the word “extremism,” either. On the contrary. In many senses, theirs is an ideology that remains unshakable, even in the face of waves of criticism and derision.
Lev Tahor came into being in the mid-1980s in Jerusalem. In the early 1990s it followed Rabbi Helbrans to the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and from there to the town of Monsey, upstate in Rockland County. About a decade ago, the community settled permanently in the Canadian town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec. Throughout this time, the name of the community – and especially that of its leader – was associated with various scandals, including some that reached the courts or were the subject of police investigations in the United States and Israel.
The community currently numbers about 50 families, but it has hundreds more supporters and admirers, living mostly in Haredi areas of Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and the United States. Some of them adopt certain aspects of the community’s extremist outlook, others emulate the women’s unique manner of dress, or some of the community’s customs. At least one or two new families join the community each year.
Then there are those who oppose Rabbi Helbrans and his community. Their number and strength is much bigger. They view the community as a dangerous cult, and its leader as a guru who employs brainwashing techniques on his followers. They refer to the community as Lev Tameh (“Impure Heart”) or as the Sabbatean Cult, and call Helbrans a false messiah and the “Sabbatai Zevi of our times.” (Zevi was a 17th-century rabbi who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah.) Wall posters and pamphlets distributed mainly on the Haredi street assert that members of the community mortgage their property, independence and their very souls to Lev Tahor. “Everyone, without exception, is like a slave before him [Helbrans], and commanded to lie and deceive as necessary in order to satisfy the appetite and desire of the ‘Rebbe,’” are just some of these publications’ claims.
Opponents of Lev Tahor say that Helbrans, or his emissaries, beat wayward Hasidim and their wives. They say that teenage girls in the community are married off at a young age, in violation of the law. They also accuse the rabbi and his followers of polygamy, sexual exploitation and abuse of minors.
But not only in the Haredi world is the Lev Tahor community considered controversial. In the past, the authorities in Israel, the U.S. and Canada tried to determine whether this was a legitimate Hasidic community or a cult that should be outlawed. It was in this context that the community’s name returned to the public consciousness last Rosh Hashanah. Media reports several days before the holiday said that two sisters from Beit Shemesh, ages 13 and a half and 15, had been sent to the Lev Tahor community in Canada by their newly religious parents. After an intervention by their grandmother, the girls were detained at Montreal Airport and returned to Israel three days later.
The negotiations that preceded my visit to Lev Tahor lasted three months and included dozens of phone calls and meetings with people with close ties to the community. Helbrans and his people were extremely wary. They say that all of the media coverage about them has been unfair. They state that reporters for both secular and religious newspapers just quoted rumors and derogatory statements about them, without any attempt to discover the truth. Publicly, the members of the community do not generally respond to the accusations made against them. They try to avoid interviews and being photographed, certainly when it comes to the Israeli press. They have also never filed a lawsuit alleging slander. They do not recognize the Zionist court system in principle, and so cannot use it.
It’s hard to figure out why Helbrans agreed to be interviewed for the first time, and why he allowed a reporter to visit his community. Perhaps his great eagerness to get me to see the light and change my ways played a key role in the matter.
During my five-day visit to Lev Tahor, I was given complete freedom to speak with any member of the community – men, women and also children. All of the community institutions were opened to me and I was permitted to question Helbrans on any topic, and to confront him with any suspicion or claim. All the community members also agreed to be photographed, even though this never usually happens, not even at wedding or other celebrations.
The full openness and the answers I received in Sainte-Agathe left me with a positive impression about the community and its way of life. But at the same time, the nagging doubts never ceased for a moment. Only later, after I returned to Israel, did I learn to what extent some of them were true.
Strictest of all
Morning mist covers Sainte-Agathe. Visibility is zero. It’s late January and the snow that fell all night has turned the streets white. The thermometer in the car reads minus 20 degrees Celsius. The weatherman is saying that with the wind chill factor, it feels like minus 30. The lake at the base of the town is frozen over. There are no ducks and no boats. The hundreds of tourists who descended upon the town for Christmas have all left. Here and there, decorated Christmas trees whose time has passed have been stuck in the snow on the side of the road.
Against this white backdrop, it’s impossible not to notice the Lev Tahor women as they walk the streets of the town clad all in black. The robes that cover them conceal the contours of their bodies as well as their footsteps. And in the fog, they appear to be floating over the snow.
Sainte-Agathe is about a two-hour drive north of Montreal. The population of 10,000 is comprised mainly of French-speaking Catholics, but there is also an English-speaking population and a single synagogue that belongs to Chabad. The town is surrounded by mountains, forests and lakes, and is considered an attractive tourist destination, especially in summer. In the winter, the area is home to several of Canada’s preeminent ski resorts.
The homes of the Lev Tahor members are concentrated on four small streets on the eastern outskirts of the town. They are typical suburban North American homes, either one or two stories, with tile roofs. Out front are wood fences and green lawns, but in the winter all is covered by five feet of snow. There are also a few homes scattered through the area that belong to local Christians, as well as some small wooden vacation cottages. In the center of the neighborhood, a large, three-story building is currently being built. When completed, some of the community’s institutions and its synagogue will move in.
All the females of the community, starting from age three, are covered from head to foot in a type of long black robe. A black scarf covers their heads. Only their faces, from forehead to chin, are exposed. In Israel, this burka-esque attire has earned them the moniker “Taliban women.” The Sainte-Agathe residents sometimes refer to them as the “Amish women.” Their entire culture and imagery – the males of the community also wear a specific uniform – is similar to that of the Satmar Hasidim, only with longer tzitzit (tassels). The children wear identical hats and everyone, aside from Helbrans, wears the same eyeglass frames. In addition, from age three all the males have the hair on their head shaved once a week. Their beards and sideburns will never be touched.
The Lev Tahor community follows other customs that seem quite peculiar to an outside observer. Many are also practiced in other branches of Hasidism, but nowhere as scrupulously as here. The prayers in the synagogue, for instance, often last up to twice as long as the norm; the words are pronounced slowly and with great emphasis, often with loud shouting. “Hoarseness is a sign of piety,” the Hasidim joke. The community’s diet is quite limited. While based on the familiar laws of kashrut, their interpretation of these laws is exceedingly stringent. For example, they will not eat chickens or their eggs.
They say that genetic engineering has made chickens tref (nonkosher), and so they will only eat the eggs and meat of geese. For halakhic [Jewish religious law] reasons, they insist that all fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, must be peeled. They will not eat rice, green onions or leafy vegetables for fear of tiny bugs. They eat a lettuce leaf once a year – from the Seder plate – but only after thorough cleansing that lasts at least half an hour.
They make their own wine. They will only drink cow’s milk from a dairy that will allow them to milk the cows themselves. They bake their own bread. The only kashrut approval they will accept is that which comes from Helbrans personally. They do not buy any prepared or preserved foods and use natural, unprocessed ingredients as much as possible. The children do not eat candies bought from a store, but only chocolate that is made at home. For other sweets, they eat mostly fruit and all types of roasted nuts and seeds.
Throughout my visit to the community, the people insisted that I eat together with them. They invited me to dine in their homes, wanting to fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality, but also for fear that I might foil Helbrans’ master plan and eat tref at one of the goyische restaurants nearby. For that reason, every night as I prepared to head back to the hotel, they also furnished me with a bag filled with seeds, nuts and baked goods prepared by the Lev Tahor women.
The customs and prohibitions followed by the Lev Tahor community have an explanation and an internal logic. The people there say their way of life is completely within the bounds of the halakha and Jewish tradition. That there is nothing new or different about what they are doing. Their central worldview derives from the attempt to return to the principles of Hasidism, as they see them. They place a great emphasis on “observation” and on processes that resemble meditation, and combine traditions from other types of Hasidism. Other customs that have been adopted by the community come from Mizrahi Jewish tradition.
Helbrans takes great pride in the integration and equality between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim within the community. The Hasidim also noted with satisfaction that, unlike in many other communities in the religious and ultra-Orthodox world, in Lev Tahor there is no ethnic discrimination. Ethnic identity does exist, but here its significance is confined to the folklore aspect. For the sake of unity, prayers are recited in the Hasidic fashion, but at gatherings and on holidays, various liturgical tunes that people bring from home are included.
When making a shidukh, a marriage match, the parents’ ethnic background is of no importance, so today many of the families in the community are mixed. Children are given names that are popular in the Hasidic world, but also names that are popular in Mizrahi tradition. One of Helbrans’ grandchildren is named Masoud, after Rabbi Masoud Abuhatzeira (also known as Baba Sali). Another granddaughter, Sulika, is named for “the Moroccan saint,” who according to Jewish legend was executed for refusing to convert to Islam.
The Hasidim I spoke with in Sainte-Agathe see themselves as the only ones following the true path, as the guardians of the walls, as the defenders of the last flame left in the Jewish world. They have contempt for other branches of Hasidism, which they view as overly compromising, describing them as despicable and degenerate. They consider other streams in the ultra-Orthodox world completely unworthy, especially those that enjoy the patronage of the State of Israel. And in their eyes, religious Zionism does not even count as a Jewish movement.
The basic requirement demanded of Lev Tahor Hasidim is simple: to worship and serve God at every given moment, with all their heart and soul. Their libraries contain only Jewish books. There are no televisions, radios or computers in their homes. Concepts such as free time, broadening one’s horizons or self-fulfillment, in their standard Western senses, do not exist here. The walls of their homes are also bare of any decoration; no pictures, amulets, photographs of rabbis. For the most part, the sole adornments are candlesticks, menorahs or silver religious utensils, all kept behind a glass case. In some homes, embroidery and other crafts done by the women are also displayed.
You won’t find the children of Lev Tahor out playing ball. They don’t have one. Nor are other games meant to help children develop physical coordination played. “This is not the human being’s purpose,” they say. There are books in Yiddish, puzzles, Lego, toy cars, plastic kitchen utensils and stuffed animals (kosher animals only). A father of a 2-year-old says: “You wouldn’t believe how fascinated he was one day by an onion.”
Another family said their children loved to draw and sing, and do role-playing games. In this particular family there are 11 siblings. Sometimes, with the eldest daughter acting as director, one of the younger children takes their father’s old shtreimel and dresses up as a bridegroom, while another wears an old dress of their mother’s and plays the role of the bride. There are always enough siblings around to hold up the sheet they use as the wedding canopy. The boys like to go out and play in the snow: They don’t build snowmen, but during school breaks they take little plastic sleds and slide down the street. This year they also built an igloo.
Schooling begins at age three and is devoted entirely to sacred subjects. All the boys study in three heders, divided according to age. The girls are taught separately, and only at home. They assemble each morning in groups, according to age, and their lessons are given by women in the community. There is a different teacher for each subject: reading and writing, math, English, French, history and geography. The law of the province of Quebec allows for homeschooling, as long as the studies include a number of mandatory subjects, similar to those that are part of the core curriculum in Israel. In the name of the value of multiculturalism, so revered in Canada, Lev Tahor – like the Satmar community and other isolationist groups – is currently fighting for its right to follow a different method.
Employment is not perceived as something to strive for. A Hasid who can receive financial support from his parents will always prefer to study all day instead. Some of the Hasidim work outside the community, mostly as independent tradesmen or in temporary jobs working on computers or in customer service centers. The community also supports a number of teachers; three men who work in the community’s independent publishing house; and two managers, who are responsible for the Lev Tahor institutions and handling whatever problems arise. Donations to the community are limited, and so a large portion of the construction and maintenance work is done by the Hasids themselves. Unlike some other Hasidic groups, Lev Tahor is not backed by any financial titans or state authorities.
Everyone here lives very modestly and simply. Two or three times a week, each family receives a food delivery straight to the door. This way they do not have to make contact with strangers, and the prices for buying in bulk are better. Sometimes there are no goose eggs. Sometimes there are no vegetables. When I visited, there was no cow’s milk, so they drank coconut milk. “What really matters is Torah,” they say.
Every so often, the community tries to come up with business initiatives to bring in more income. In the past they tried to start a business making fruit compotes, and they also thought about building coops for a species of chicken that they consider kosher. But the necessary investment was too large and the weather conditions were not suitable. Their isolationism and aversion to the modern world also makes it hard for them to form business ties, and most do not speak French, the dominant language in the province. For some families, the child allowances given by the Canadian government are the main source of income.
Another key element of the community’s economic support system is the value placed on mutual assistance. This is not a collective in the usual sense. Each family has a separate bank account, private assets and property. But each family unit is also bound to the communal framework, and to the other units that make up the whole. About a year ago, a religious penitent couple and their three small children came from Israel to join the community. The father, who requested anonymity, says that in their first half-year in Saint-Agathe, they had no living expenses: “Every day – morning, noon and night – somebody would come, knock on the door and bring a hot meal for the whole family. Someone in the community also took care of paying the bills and the property tax in the first months.”
After hours on the phone with Helbrans, I wondered what to bring him from Israel when I came to interview him. He, of course, yearned to see my lost soul repent; I just wanted to bring him some small, symbolic gift. I searched for something that would touch him, that would stir some memory, even emotion perhaps. I ended up buying him a large packet of Turkish coffee with hel (cardamom), with Badatz kashrut approval. I figured it was something he hadn’t smelled in years. Bingo. Helbrans was ecstatic when he saw the gift. He asked one of his aides to make us some coffee. The latter returned a few minutes later with large glass mugs, as if we were drinking half-liters of beer.
And I brought him something else, too: the new book by poet Eli Eliahu. To my mind, Eliahu’s poetry is truly marvelous. Beyond its keen emotional punch, it distills a secular, Hebrew and liberal ethos that is neither apologetic nor self-effacing before its roots – Jewish, ethnic or otherwise. I hoped it would give Helbrans a little glimpse of my world. When we met the next morning, he told me he had read the book. He complimented Eliahu on his writing ability and his rich language. He quoted whole verses and said that he had cried at times while reading it. I asked which poem moved him the most. He looked at me in astonishment: “I didn’t cry from excitement! I cried from sorrow. I cried from pain. I cried over your life, over the life of Eli Eliahu. I cried when I understood in what kind of hard and terrible world you live. A world without truth, without hope and without faith. These poems caused me great sorrow, for you and for him. Real depression.”
I was stunned. “Give me back the book,” I said to him. “You didn’t understand me and you didn’t understand Eli. Apparently it wasn’t the right gift. I’ll send you something else in the mail, when I get back to Israel.” He held out the book indifferently and said: “No problem. But send that Eli Eliahu here, too. Maybe I’ll be able to get him to repent.”
Helbrans’ obsessive concern with getting others to repent and become pious derives in large part from his own biography. Erez Shlomo Elbarnes was born in Jerusalem in 1962, the only child of secular parents, graduates of the Mahanot Haolim Zionist youth movement, who enlisted in the Nahal and married during their time serving at Kibbutz Hulta. They wanted to name him after a tree. They thought about Alon but settled on Erez. They added the name Shlomo to his birth certificate in memory of his grandfather.
Erez’s childhood friends from Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood described him as “a curious kid with an active imagination.” They say that he loved animals, and that he kept chickens and a cat named Cleopatra in his parents’ yard. “He was a kid who loved nature,” they say. He would spend hours hiking the rocky hills around the neighborhood searching for frogs and turtles. He was a member of the local Scouts group. Filmmaker and screenwriter Yoad Ben Yosef, who knew him from when he was a toddler, still remembers how they would play Cowboys and Indians in the park next to the neighborhood community center during summer vacations.
At school he was a good student. Not the best in his class, but good enough to be accepted into a class for gifted students. He was also popular among his classmates. Not the king of the class, but not someone who could be ignored, either. All of his childhood friends who were interviewed for this article said he had a keen sense of right and wrong, and would be outraged by what he saw as injustice. Some recall him getting hit when standing up for the weak and ostracized. His mother, Yocheved, says she was called to school a number of times over such incidents.
The attraction to a more religious way of life began before his bar mitzvah. “I was just curious to know why I’m alive and why the world exists,” Helbrans recalls. “I wanted to understand what it all meant.” He says he asked these questions to his parents and teachers, and every adult he knew. He also searched for answers in the books that were available to him as a boy. His mother remembers that the school janitor had to be called at least twice after Erez got locked in the library at the end of the school day.
Helbrans says he did not find any satisfactory explanations anywhere until he met Yosef Yagen, who was an energetic Haredi youth and a leader of the religious penitent movement that was beginning to grow in Israel at the time. Today Yagen is a Haredi rabbi living in America. The two young men met at the time through relatives, and they hit it off right away. Yagen showed the curious Erez the “code method” in the Bible, in which by means of skipping letters at regular intervals, one uncovers meaningful words. “That may have been the first thing that really excited me,” Helbrans says, adding with a laugh that he still recalls “what kind of beating Yagen later got from my father, who realized that he was the one who got me to become religious.”
His parents were vehemently opposed to their son’s return to religion. “It went against our whole outlook,” says his mother. His parents remained nonreligious and still live in Jerusalem. Over the years they have visited their son a few times and remain in close touch by phone with his six children and 18 grandchildren. But at the time, when they learned of his new interest in religion, they barred him from going to the synagogue and tried to keep him from having any connection with elements they thought could influence him in that way. Erez kept on studying in secret. And it seems like that struggle over the return to religion is still felt in the community today.
The big change occurred after Erez met, at Denmark High School, history teacher Dr. Abraham Fuchs, who was observant and wore a kippa. Erez tried to get explanations and answers from him. Fuchs noted the boy’s interest in religion, and in Hasidism especially, and suggested that he join him one evening for a tisch at the Belz yeshiva. His parents were alarmed when they heard about the idea, but the history teacher promised them that he would personally see to it that the boy did not suddenly become religious. His mother says she was sure the whole class was going to take part in the visit: “If I’d known that he was the only one going, I wouldn’t have let it happen.”
The holy Shabbat atmosphere in the Haredi neighborhoods captivated him and a few weeks later, Erez was wearing a kippa and tzitzit. He started keeping kosher and insisted on transferring out of his coed school. His parents refused. When the conflicts escalated, he ran away from home and found shelter in several different Haredi yeshivas. Twice the police searched for him. The welfare authorities also got involved. In the end, it was agreed that a compromise would be found with the help of Rabbi Dov Bigon, a former kibbutznik who became religious. He recommended sending the boy to the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. And that’s what happened.
“A year later he called me at work and said he didn’t want to be with hypocritical religious types,” says his mother Yocheved now, describing how the process of her son becoming ultra-Orthodox began. Erez was 15 now and his parents could no longer impose their authority. He embarked on a journey into the heart of the Haredi world, via yeshivas in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and Safed. He taught at a Chabad school, then aligned himself with Braslav Hasidism; later on he became attached to the Toldot Aharon and Satmar sects.
His classmates from yeshiva remember him as “a real Torah scholar with a very sharp mind.” They say he was brimming with curiosity and that he managed to acquire a great deal of Torah knowledge in a relatively short time. In those days, he also began to stand out for his skills of rhetoric and his talents as a teacher, and at interesting others in becoming religious. At 17, he was married in an arranged match with Malka Azulai, a girl from Kiryat Ata who had also recently become religious.
Following Satmar practice, Erez rejected his Zionist name and declared that henceforth he wished to be known as Shlomo. He also altered the spelling of his surname from Elbarnes to Helbrans. He says this was how the name was spelled in his grandmother’s old Yugoslav passport. He also notes proudly that his mother’s family also came from Serbia, and that both parents grew up in Ladino-speaking Sephardi families. The Yad Vashem archives contain the names of a number of his parents’ relatives, who perished at Treblinka, Poland.
Shlomo and Malka Helbrans lived in Safed for six years. There he ran the Braslav Yeshivat Hametivta and was mentored by certain prominent Hasidic rabbis, including Rabbi Eliezer Shlomo Schik, known as “the tzaddik from Yavniel,” who heads one of the most extremist and isolationist Hasidic communities. In the mid-’80s, the couple and their three children moved to Jerusalem. In the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, Helbrans began to gather around him a small group of Hasidim, mainly religious penitents. Several of his first students now live in the community in Canada.
Writer Haim Be’er was a reporter on Haredi affairs in the late 1980s. He visited the young community in Jerusalem three times and recalls that it numbered no more than 20 yeshiva students. Helbrans agreed to speak with him but not to be interviewed, and so Be’er did not write about their meeting.
Be’er remembers the young Helbrans as “a radical, an original man with a different way of thinking,” but he also saw “dangerous extremism” in him. “Helbrans was searching for his path in the Haredi world,” he says, adding that, “for the religious penitent, someone who has family tradition or roots to draw upon, there are no boundaries or limits by which this extremism can be stopped.”
Be’er says that during his last meeting with Helbrans, something odd happened in the community. “It was shortly before the first Gulf War in 1991. Yeshiva students were coming and going, moving packages. There was a lot of activity. At some point, someone brought in a pile of 20 passports and placed it on the table. Helbrans wasn’t willing to divulge what the plan was. Hasidim around him said there was nothing here for them anymore. The next time I went there, maybe a week later, the place was empty. There was no trace of them.”
In Part II, to be published next week, Shay Fogelman writes about Lev Tahor’s policy on underage marriages, how its members really make a financial living, and speaks to people who left the community.
[Hat Tip: HW.]