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Compelling Interview With Two Former Members of Hasidic Sect, Lev Tahor

“It’s like we never left. We’re still under their power.” Read More

By / February 4, 2014

Lev Tahor (meaning “pure heart”) is an extreme Hasidic sect—some call it a cult—based in Ontario, Canada. The leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, is a charismatic and controlling man, and adherents have been described as the “Jewish Taliban”—in part because women wear full head and body coverings, similar to a burqa. (This two-part series in Haaretz is an excellent primer on Helbrans’ biography and the beginnings of Lev Tahor.)

Last year, the community fled the town of Ste-Agathe-des-Monts in an attempt to evade a Quebec child protection order calling for the removal of 14 children. Allegations included neglect, abuse, and underage marriage. Yesterday an Ontario judge upheld the order, once again bringing the sect into the spotlight. There’s lots of good coverage by Jason Magder over at the Montreal Gazette, and this particular interview with two former members—a married couple—is utterly compelling.

Yona (whose age is not stated, but was married at 15) has had no contact with her family since she left the community. She describes her 37-year-old mother as “never my real mother,” a woman who raised her with “extreme force.” Yona’s husband, Yakov, joined the community after becoming dissatisfied with the modesty codes and dietary laws of his ultra-Orthodox community in Monsey, N.Y., which he felt were too lax.

… Soon after he joined, Yakov became distraught by the extreme control exerted by the community’s leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans.

With the help of family abroad, the couple fled the sect and moved to Europe for eight months, where their first son was born. They spent another eight months in Monsey, where there is one of the world’s largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities before settling in Montreal late last year.

Although they escaped Helbrans’s clutches, Yona and Yakov feel like they’ll always be part of Lev Tahor, which means pure heart.

“It’s like we never left,” Yakov said. “We’re still under their power.”

The couple continue to observe many of the teachings and customs of Lev Tahor in their new home in Montreal. (Yakov’s main objection seems to be how the religious practices are enforced and policed—not the practices themselves.) For Yona, who doesn’t speak English fluently, it’s been huge adjustment to a more modern, independent life. They’re extremely grateful to their new community for offers of help and food, but continue to struggle and feel isolated.

“Most people look at all the things they have to do in a day and start doing it,” Yakov said. Former Lev Tahor members don’t have that ability. “I didn’t realize this, but this is a common thing for people who leave cults, or who escape totalitarian regimes.”

Read the full interview here.