“This is a country where people tend to have an idealistic perception of the Jewish people, and then the only Jewish people they actually meet are the members of a bizarre cult,” he said. He advised the country’s Jewish leaders to draw a clear line between their community and Lev Tahor: “I told them it was very important for them, as we did here in Canada, to explain to non-Jews that this is a cult, that these people are not representative of any normative current of Judaism.”
Above: File photo of Lev Tahor women
The National Post reports:
Following reports of anti-Jewish sentiment in the rural Guatemalan village where members of the ultra-orthodox sect Lev Tahor have settled, Jewish leaders in the Central American country are reaching out to their Canadian counterparts for help.
Just back from a trip to Guatemala, David Ouellette of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ Quebec office said the recent arrival from Canada of more than 100 Lev Tahor members is testing the longstanding good relations between Guatemala’s small Jewish community and its Christian majority.
“I think there is grounds for concern. There is tension in the village,” Mr. Ouellette said in an interview Thursday, referring to San Juan la Laguna, where the Lev Tahor members have settled.
Representatives of Guatemala’s Jewish community, which Mr. Ouellette said numbers just 800 people, contacted the CIJA last month following reports in the local press that the arrival of Lev Tahor families had sparked anti-Semitism.
The sect, founded by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem in the 1980s, spent more than a decade in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., before fleeing to Chatham, Ont., in the middle of the night last fall as Quebec child-protection authorities prepared to intervene.
The child-protection agency alleged that children were being denied a proper education, that girls were required to wear chadors from the age of three and that marriages were arranged for girls as young as 14.
With Canadian authorities scrutinizing the members’ immigration status (the adults were mostly born outside Canada) and Ontario children’s aid officials seeking protection orders, Lev Tahor leaders have decided they have no future in Canada.
Mr. Ouellette travelled to San Juan la Laguna, speaking to locals and to the mayor, to get an idea of how los hombres de negro — the men in black, as the locals refer to Lev Tahor — are perceived. People he spoke to repeated the teachings of their priest that “He who curses the people of Israel will be cursed himself.”
But there were also signs that the Lev Tahor customs were a source of irritation. Lev Tahor men turn their back to local women when doing business in town and the group’s women rarely leave their homes. One local mechanic was forced out of his place of business when a Lev Tahor arrival offered the landlord a much higher rent, Mr. Ouellette said.
He said the tension has caught the mainstream Jewish community off guard. “They have really harmonious relations with different religious leaderships, so they’re just not accustomed to being the centre of any negative attention,” he said.
In fact, Mr. Ouellette said it is common to see the Star of David adorning businesses in the country, such as the Jerusalem tortilla shop he passed on his way to San Juan la Laguna. Guatemala has long enjoyed warm relations with Israel, dating back to the 1940s when Guatemala’s ambassador to the United Nations was instrumental in pushing for recognition of the Jewish state.
“This is a country where people tend to have an idealistic perception of the Jewish people, and then the only Jewish people they actually meet are the members of a bizarre cult,” he said.
He advised the country’s Jewish leaders to draw a clear line between their community and Lev Tahor: “I told them it was very important for them, as we did here in Canada, to explain to non-Jews that this is a cult, that these people are not representative of any normative current of Judaism.”
All indications are that Lev Tahor has chosen Guatemala as its next home. Guidy Mamann, a Toronto immigration lawyer representing Lev Tahor members, confirmed Thursday that Rabbi Helbrans has arrived in Guatemala. He said only four of the more than 40 families that moved to Chatham last fall remain in Canada, and they have only stayed because their children are under children’s aid supervision orders.
“People are moving on with their lives,” he said. “Obviously, I think they’ve had enough here.”
Mr. Ouellette said the choice of Guatemala as a destination is not good news for the children. “This is a country that faces serious social problems and has limited ability to address them,” he said.
But Mr. Mamann said the group’s determination to stick together limits its immigration options. “If this group means a lot to them, then they are going to have to find a country that caters to the lowest common denominator,” he said. “There are very few countries whose entry standards will include every family in the Lev Tahor group.”