St-Jerome, Qebec ― 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.”