Nachman Helbrans, the son of Lev Tahor’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, sought out the ex-member because of his mastery of the English language and asked him to prepare a defense to claims Lev Tahor was a cult. He obliged, mainly because he had fallen out of favor for having tried to leave the community with his pregnant teenage wife. As punishment, the couple had been forcibly separated for two weeks, his wife had been pressured to divorce him and Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans had diagnosed him with borderline personality disorder. “I looked up the definition of a cult,” the ex-member told the court. “Based on various checklists I told Nachman Helbrans that we are a cult.”
Nachman Henbrans with unidentified Lev Tahor children in an Ontario hotel room in November 2013
The Toronto Star reports:
ST-JEROME, QUE.―From apocalyptic visions of an armed invasion, to a bogus diagnosis of psychological problems to corporal punishment, there were many signs to a former member of the radical Jewish group Lev Tahor that something was not right.
But it was not until he was called upon to fight allegations that the reclusive community was a cult led by Shlomo Helbrans, a self-proclaimed rabbi, that he was convinced to make a dramatic midnight escape from the group, the ex-member told a Quebec court.
The testimony, heard on Nov. 27, was protected by a publication ban based on fears that the 40 Lev Tahor families and their many children would carry out a collective suicide pact because of perceived persecution based on their religious beliefs. That publication ban was lifted Thursday after an appeal by various media organizations.
The former member cannot be named, but the tale of his experiences living with Lev Tahor between 2009 and 2011 can be now be made public. They helped convince the Quebec family court judge to rule that 14 children from the community should be taken into foster care.
A week prior to the hearing, though, about 200 members of the group fled Quebec for a new life in Chatham-Kent, Ont., where child protection workers are now fighting in court to enforce the Quebec judge’s order.
The ex-member was asked in the spring of 2011 to defend Lev Tahor’s reputation after two teenage girls from Israel were seized at the Montreal airport and prevented from joining the group because of perceived dangers to their welfare.
Nachman Helbrans, the son of Lev Tahor’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, sought out the ex-member because of his mastery of the English language and asked him to prepare a defence to claims Lev Tahor was a cult. He obliged, mainly because he had fallen out of favour for having tried to leave the community with his pregnant teenage wife. As punishment, the couple had been forcibly separated for two weeks, his wife had been pressured to divorce him and Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans had diagnosed him with borderline personality disorder.
“I looked up the definition of a cult,” the ex-member told the court. “Based on various checklists I told Nachman Helbrans that we are a cult.”
The testimony is one of just a few instances in which a renegade former member of the Lev Tahor sect has come forward to denounce their activities over the years. The former member’s concerns about the group’s conduct and practices also answer many of the questions about why Quebec’s child protection authorities seem so determined to take the 14 children into protective custody.
He testified that in the two years he lived in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., he personally knew of seven marriages arranged by Rabbi Helbrans that involved youth under the age of 16, which is the minimum age under Canadian law.
“It was common when I was there,” he testified. “It was the stated goal of the community to perform marriages at the age of 13.”
The ex-member, who now lives in Montreal, was himself in his mid 20s when he was called into Rabbi Helbrans’ office to learn about the girl who would become his wife. She was almost 16 — the minimum age at which one can be married in Canada — and described as an “A-minus girl from a respectable family.”
He only learned her name the next evening when he viewed the marriage contract at an engagement party. He didn’t lay eyes on her for the first time until the day of their wedding, two months later.
The ex-member normally worked in the Lev Tahor office, but occasionally he filled in as a substitute teacher at the boy’s school. The classrooms were filled with prayerbooks rather than textbooks and a wooden stick for discipline. He said he was instructed by one community member on how to enforce good behaviour in class.
“I was told first to warn them, then slap them in the face with an open hand if they would speak in class without permission or misbehave,” he said, adding that he used physical punishment three times on boys between the ages of eight and 13.
A girl’s education consisted of some English and mathematics. Lev Tahor’s boys were taught prayers, bible study and some Hebrew reading skills.
“The goal of these studies was to enable them to understand the rabbi’s teachings,” the ex-member said. “The belief is that boys should be busy with holy studies and girls run the house.”
The community is run with totalitarian discipline and in many cases, people are terrified to break ranks.
Quebec child-welfare investigators have documented how women are obliged to shroud themselves in head-to-toe black robes even when they are in the hospital to give birth, according to a nurse who was interviewed in the course of the probe. They often seek the express permission of Rabbi Helbrans before accepting pain medication such as an epidural, child-protection workers testified.
In person, Rabbi Helbrans can reportedly be quite charming. He speaks with a disarming lisp and a stutter.
In a recording released on the Lev Tahor website of a conversation with Quebec child-protection workers after the group fled to Ontario, Rabbi Helbrans can be heard explaining: “The people in this group are not my slaves, they are not my servants. I’m just a rabbi. It’s spiritual. I have a big influence over people, but not everybody follows everything that I say.”
But the ex-member countered that impression with the court.
On one occasion, shortly after the U.S. navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, Rabbi Helbrans confided in him, he said, a vision of the near future that involved Lev Tahor members fending off full-scale assault by the Canadian and American militaries at the group’s compound in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts.
“He described how they would come over the mountain ridges to Ste-Agathe and will shoot everything they have at this community,” the ex-member testified, adding that the scenario had been written out in a document explaining that the overwhelming force would be repelled when the group’s members joined hands in meditation.
“I didn’t believe it. It seems that people were afraid of this happening but they were hopeful,” he testified.
On other occasions, Rabbi Helbrans would use reverse psychology to strengthen his emotional hold over the group, the man testified. He would threaten to leave Lev Tahor, which would render the group leaderless. While he locked himself away in his home, the community would go into a panic.
“People would ask his forgiveness. They would sleep outside the doors of his apartment because they were afraid of losing him,” the ex-member said.
By this point, he was beyond disillusionment. After his first attempt to leave the community, Rabbi Helbrans diagnosed him with borderline personality disorder, a psychological condition marked by unstable emotions, behaviour or sense of identity.
“The main point was that I would observe positive things and interpret them in a negative way,” he explained, adding that he was one of three or four people who had received the rabbi’s diagnosis. “There were no symptoms (except) them claiming the falsehood of my criticism.”
He was not seen by a doctor nor prescribed medication, but was put on a regulated diet and made to undergo telephone counselling with an Orthodox Jew in New York and adjust his life accordingly.
The ex-member began plotting a dramatic escape.
He secretly purchased a computer for his home with an Internet connection. Then he began feigning sickness and exhaustion, using the time at home to build trust and plot with his teenage wife who was born to a Lev Tahor family and knew nothing of the outside world.
Eventually, he made contact with an Orthodox rabbi in the town and started using his excursions into town to stash his family’s essential belongings at a girls’ school run by the Orthodox rabbi.
His family sent him money and the final step came when the young couple purchased airplane tickets. He had his wife, who was by this time six months’ pregnant, push the button on the computer, to ensure she was fully onside with the plan.
On the night of the escape, the local rabbi arranged for a car to take them to the airport.
“Everything was timed and planned so that it would be dark and no one would be around,” he testified. “We went through the bushes and into the waiting car.”
He testified that he has had no threats or further contact with Lev Tahor since leaving two years ago, but suggests that may be because he made copies of internal documents “that would be very problematic for the community if they were made public.”
“I figured that’s why they wouldn’t even dare to threaten me.”
The Montreal Gazette adds that one of the complaints about the group is that some members were apparently forced to take anti-psychotic drugs:
Children in the Lev Tahor community are forced to take strong psychological drugs, and have fungus and bruises on their feet, youth protection officials claim.
In testimony from a Nov. 27 youth court hearing, made public Thursday after The Gazette and other media contested a publication ban, social workers for the Youth Protection Department of the Laurentians region made the case for removing 14 children from the ultraorthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor, which was based in Ste-Agathe until last November.
In advance of a youth court date, most members of Lev Tahor fled and relocated to Chatham, Ont.
In their absence, St-Jérôme Youth Court Judge Pierre Hamel ordered the 14 children from three families into foster care for a period of at least 30 days. Hamel was particularly concerned the children had been denied a meeting with youth court lawyers, because their families did not show up for any court dates. An Ontario court is expected to rule on Feb. 3 whether youth protection officials in that province have the authority to execute Hamel’s removal order.
The testimony was subject to a publication ban because Hamel was worried there might be retribution against the children who spoke to youth protection officials. Hamel was also concerned about a mass suicide after former sect member Adam Brudzevski told Sûreté du Québec police he was concerned this might be a possibility, though he denied there was a great risk of this when he testified in court.
The Youth Protection Department in the Laurentians was first alerted to problems within the ultraorthodox sect in 2007, when a new mother was found to be taking anti-psychotic drugs in hospital. The baby was taken from the mother for a short period, but returned. Seven months later, the baby was placed with a foster family along with four other children. Officials continued monitoring the sect after that point.
Then last summer, after receiving reports the children were not attending school, youth officials made several visits per week to examine the living conditions in the community. Social worker Marie-Josée Bernier testified that a woman in the sect told a friend in Israel she wanted to leave the community, but was afraid her children would be taken away — a fact she denied when she met youth protection officials. Her children are among the 14 ordered to be placed in foster care.
Another Youth Protection Department social worker, Suzanne Tye, said parents told social workers children are often taken away from their families for weeks or months at a time as punishment for disobeying the community’s strict rules. Tye said this was a form of psychological abuse.
Brudzevski, 28, testified that one toddler was routinely moved from one family to another and hadn’t lived with his parents for months. He was picked up and brought to a new home every few weeks, often screaming and crying the whole way.
There were other troubling revelations during the hearing.
“Kids don’t play outside,” Tye explained. “There are four roads in a quadrilateral, and they don’t leave. It’s very isolated. When they saw us, they cried, or they prayed for us. They asked us why we’re not burning up (because of the way we are dressed).”
The Gazette also has some great reporting on what happened to the former cult member when the cult found out that he was planning to leave:
When the community leaders of Lev Tahor got wind that a member planned to leave, they told him he had a psychological disorder and forbade him and his pregnant wife from seeing each other for two weeks.
Adam Brudzevski, who has since left the sect, testified in a Nov. 27 youth court hearing in which Judge Pierre Hamel ordered 14 children from the community to be removed from their families and placed in foster homes for at least a month. The man’s testimony was part of a sweeping publication ban that was lifted Thursday after a challenge by The Gazette and other media.
Brudzevski, 28, joined the community in 2009 and was a member for two years. However, his wife was born and raised in the community. They left the community together in 2011.
Brudzevski said that when word got out that he and his wife, who was then three months pregnant, were thinking about leaving the sect, community leader Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans requested a meeting with him.
“I was called into the rabbi’s office,” he said. “My wife didn’t want to stay at home, because meetings with the rabbi could be long, so I took her to her parents’ house.”
During the meeting, Brudzevski said, the rabbi explained that Brudzevski would suffer in the afterlife if he left the community.
“He warned me that even if I continued to follow all the teachings after leaving, when I died, my soul would not go through a cleansing process in order to be close with God. Rather, it would be ground up to dust and thrown under the feet of the righteous,” he said. “This is a known concept in Judaism.”
Brudzevski said the rabbi told him he had borderline personality disorder and would have to attend daily workshops with three or four other members of the community who had the same affliction.
“I was told if I attended the sessions and followed a healthy diet, I wouldn’t need medication,” he said. “Other members had pills they were taking.”
He said the rabbi also told him that if he didn’t shape up, the community would have to find another family to take care of his baby after the birth.
For the two weeks that followed the meeting with the rabbi, Brudzevski said he wasn’t permitted to see his wife, who remained in her parents’ house.
He was only permitted to see her again after he made an oath of loyalty to the community. He explained that in the community, oaths are taken very seriously, because punishment for breaking them is retribution in the afterlife.
“I was asked to take an oath, and I accepted all the conditions without knowing what they were, just to prove my loyalty,” Brudzevski told the court. “I was told I would have to divorce my wife. The plan was to divorce her, and then to spend two years devoted to curing my borderline personality disorder. Divorced women can only remarry two years after they give birth, and my wife was three months pregnant. If I was successful in my treatment, I would be allowed to marry my wife again in two and half years.
“The next week, they took me in a car, saying they were taking me to a Rabbinical Court in Montreal so I could have my divorce finalized. On the way there, they stopped the car and told me it’s now clear I am obedient, and I don’t have to divorce my wife, if I agree to certain conditions. I told them I would agree to anything so as not to divorce my wife.”
And, the Gazette also reported, there is the issue of underage marriages:
The stated goal of the Lev Tahor community is to arrange marriages for children as young as 13.
That was one of the facts revealed during the testimony of a former member of the sect in the Nov. 27 youth court hearing to consider removing 14 children from the community and placing them in foster care. Among the reasons listed by Quebec’s Youth Protection Department for the removal of the children is the suspicion that underage marriages are the norm in the community, a claim the community’s leaders have vigorously denied.
The court order has not yet been executed, and the children have not been placed in foster homes, because the community members fled from Ste-Agathe to Ontario a week before the hearing, which was held in their absence. However, the testimony from the Nov. 27 youth court hearing may now be published, since a reporting ban was lifted on Thursday morning.
Adam Brudzevski, 28, revealed that he married his wife when she was 15 years old and he was 25. The minimum legal age for marriage in Canada is 16.
In court, Brudzevski listed the marriages of 10 people in the community that he attended over the span of two years where one or both of the participants was underage.
He then said there was much rejoicing in the community when it was announced that a date had been set for the 13-year-old girl to marry a 12-year-old boy. It meant the community had finally reached its goal of arranging marriages for 13-year-olds.
Brudzevski, who was raised as a secular Jew in Denmark and joined the sect in 2009, said it isn’t common practice among ultraorthodox communities to have weddings at such a young age.
He was married nearly three years ago, a union arranged by the community’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans. The rabbi called the man into his office and proposed the marriage. Helbrans proposed what he called an “A minus” girl who would need a strong man to keep her in line. Brudzevski didn’t learn his wife’s name until he saw it on the wedding licence.
Prior to his wedding, a little more than two years ago, Brudzevski said he was taught about his duties as a husband. On the day before the wedding, he was taught about marital relations by a teacher who used vague Yiddish terms for body parts. He was told not to worry too much about it, because the women would be knowledgeable on this matter. He said his wife told him that in her pre-martial lessons, she was told not to worry about sexual relations, because the men would know what to do.
Brudzevski said the main expectation for women in the community is to produce children. Women are urged to use ovulation tests to increase the likelihood of getting pregnant. Even the daughters of community leaders had the same expectation. The man explained that the middle daughter of one leader was married at 14, and had her first child when she was 15. Her husband was the same age.