Montreal - As pressure mounts on the radical Jewish sect Lev Tahor to comply with a court order to put 14 of its child members in foster care, the group issued a plea saying it has fallen victim to a campaign of lies.
The rambling and often difficult-to-understand statement that was posted on the Lev Tahor website Friday (most members speak only Yiddish or Hebrew) says the sect has been demonized by mistruths.
“We beg that instead of talking about what is said about us, or even thinking about what is said about us, which brings unending and incredible brainwashing on our image, you will see us and talk with us with an open heart,” says the communiqué.
“The first person finds the bad, the second person adds to the ideas of the first person, the third person sharpens the idea.”
The statement comes as child protection officials in Quebec, where the group was being investigated for neglect, abuse and not following the provincial education curriculum, are in talks with their counterparts from Chatham-Kent. Some 200 Lev Tahor members fled there on Nov. 18.
The moonlight bus ride from Quebec had the effect of speeding up that child protection process and the Director of Youth Protection successfully obtained a court ruling Wednesday ordering 14 children from two families into foster care.
The children range in age from 2 months to 16 years.
Quebec Judge Pierre Hamel said in his ruling that he believed the children were at “serious risk of harm” after hearing testimony from three child-protection workers as well as a former member of the sect, who related what he endured while living in the community and how he ultimately fled the group.
Chatham-Kent Children’s Services investigators did meet with Lev Tahor members on Thursday, but there has been no decision made about how or whether to comply with the Quebec court order.
An Ontario lawyer who has been retained to represent the affected families said Friday he has not been approached by child protection officials and has not been notified of any looming court hearing on the matter.
Stephen Doig, director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, told the Star they are in communication and co-operating with their Quebec counterparts.
Ontario child protection officials won’t comment further at this time.
On Friday, the Blackburn News, a local media outlet in southwestern Ontario, reported that someone had posted “Wanted” posters of Lev Tahor’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans.
The posters identify Helbrans as the leaders of an “Israeli cult.”
“They believe that Ontario law is permissive enough to allow them to isolate and indoctrinate their children without interference from the authorities,” the poster says.
On Friday, vans continued to shuttle Lev Tahor members from the Super 8 Motel where some had stayed to a complex of two-unit bungalows just past the edge of town, where some 40 families are staying in about a dozen units. Each unit has two bedrooms.
The small cluster of houses was a hive of activity Friday afternoon as members of the sect prepared for the Sabbath.
Men moved bins and plastic-wrapped mattresses among the buildings, while occasionally girls, clad in long, black robes, darted between homes with tinfoil trays of food.
Curious children peeked out the covered windows at a few journalists who passed throughout the day.
Only boys came and went from the school in a brick building along the paved road, lined by close-cropped cornfields, that leads to town.
A school for girls hasn’t been set up yet, said Nacham Helbrans, the son of Shlomo Helbrans, the group’s leader and self-proclaimed rabbi.
Helbrans said they’ve taken a one-year lease on the units.
“The way the Chatham people are behaving to us is absolutely nice. Some people come to say hello and welcome, many, many people,” said Mayer Rosner, director of the sect.
The posters, they say, weren’t the work of locals, but rather from out-of-towners who have a grudge against Lev Tahor.
“These flyers are not printed in Chatham, This is someone coming at least from Toronto, maybe Montreal. No one from Chatham did this,” said Helbrans.
“We have no intention of leaving Chatham,” said Helbrans, who said similar incidents happened in Montreal and New York. “For us as a community, we’re used to it.”
The owners of the complex they’ve settled in — a clutch of houses surrounded by a cornfield — are happy to have them.
Deborah Bokh says the group came about a month previously to scope out the property. The next they heard from them was Friday Nov. 15, when they phoned and asked for the 12 two-bedroom units. The group arrived the following Monday.
If Ontario decides to comply with the order, the most likely scenario would see them first ask an Ontario judge to certify the Quebec ruling, giving Chatham-Kent officials the backing of the law.
But there is little precedent guiding officials on how one province can legally enforce the order of another province’s court.
The community insists their decision to move to Ontario had to do with the strict guidelines of Quebec’s education laws, which would compel them to teach their children subjects including evolution and human sexuality that their interpretation of the Jewish faith forbids.
“We knew the investigation would be intensified because we were moving from place to place,” said Helbrans, insisting the group was not fleeing investigations or allegations but rather Quebec’s education rules.
The group’s communiqué appears to lash out at the findings of Charles Darwin and “social Darwinism,” saying that a rejection of the concept that God created the universe and everything within it could ultimately lead to a rejection of the existence of God.
But the Quebec investigation, which has been going on since August, showed most children could speak neither French nor English and showed few signs they were receiving any traditional schooling.
The probe also allegedly turned up evidence of neglect, health problems, poor hygiene and possible sexual abuse due to underage marriages. Officials have said they were unable to find any evidence of direct child physical abuse.
Chatham-Kent Mayor Randy Hope said he’s been in touch with police and child services, who’ve told him the group has been cooperative.
He urged people to let provincial authorities investigate before casting judgment. Until then, everyone is welcome in Chatham, he said.
If children are being mistreated, “I’d be the first to be up in the bleachers yelling,” said Hope. “But there’s a process that will establish (that).”