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What is Lev Tahor, the Jewish ultra-Orthodox sect accused of human trafficking and sexual abuse in Mexico

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The Mexican police operation that rescued a group of children and adolescents in a Lev Tahor camp in the middle of the jungle in the state of Chiapas once again generated serious questions about this ultra-Orthodox Jewish group, whose members have been called the “Jewish Taliban” because their women wear black clothes from head to toe.

However, the controversy surrounding this religious group, established in Latin American countries such as Mexico and Guatemalagoes far beyond his ultra-conservative dress.

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A federal judge in Mexico has ordered the arrest of several leaders of the group, whose camp is located about 17 kilometers north of the city of Tapachula, on suspicion of involvement in child abuse, after an investigation carried out by the Deputy Attorney General’s Office Specialized in Organized Crime Investigation.

As the BBC journalist Raffi Berg recalls, a case of the kidnapping of two minors in 2018 -who were taken to New York by their mother after escaping from the community settled in Guatemala- ended with nine members of Lev Tahor accused and four of they –including the son of the sect’s founder and current leaderNachman Helbrans- in prison.

The minors, kidnapped in the United States, were rescued in January 2019 in Mexico. Nachman Helbrans is the brother of the children’s mother.

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At that time, BBC Mundo managed to gain exclusive access to this community in Guatemala and one of its members spoke for the first time about this and other cases in which they have been involved, alleging that Lev Tahor suffers from “political persecution, due to his ideals”.

“The community has been accused of kidnapping, but at no time has this been real,” said Guatemalan doctor Obadia Guzmán, on behalf of the 350 people who lived in Santa Rosa, in the southeast of the Central American country.

But, as the BBC Mundo journalist Ana Gabriela Rojas pointed out, since its creation in the 1980s in Israel, “this ultra-Orthodox Jewish group has passed through the United States, Canada, Mexico and Guatemala, and its passage through these countries has been marked by kidnapping scandals, child marriages or child abuse.

Ultra-Orthodox and anti-Zionists

Lev Tahor, whose name means “pure heart” in Hebrew, was founded in Jerusalem in the 1980s by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans.

It is estimated that it has several hundred members, between 250 and 500.

GETTY IMAGES Some Israeli media have compared Lev Tahor to the Taliban because the women are completely covered.

The group practices many of the customs of Hasidism, an orthodox and mystical stream of Judaism, but is even stricter in its application.

As well as in their clothing: women must be covered with black clothes from head to toe, barely exposing their faces, men dress in black, cover their heads with hats and never shave their beards.

Their diet is based on a diet that follows the laws of kashrut, the set of biblical rules that establish what foods are suitable (kosher) that practitioners of Judaism can eat.

However, in this they also follow a more extreme version. Most of their meals are homemade with the use of natural and unprocessed ingredients.

They do not eat chickens or chicken eggs, considering that they have been genetically manipulated. They do consume, instead, geese and their eggs. They also do not eat rice, green onions or leafy vegetables, for fear of insects.

In the case of other vegetables and fruits, they always remove the skin before consuming them, even in the case of tomato.

As for the drinks, they only drink milk from cows they can milk themselves and make their own wine.

Children, for their part, cannot eat candy that has been bought in a store. Your sweets, thus, should be limited to the consumption of homemade chocolate or fruits, nuts and seeds.

Their relationship with technology is also extremely limited, as they avoid the use of electronic devices, including television and computers.

On the other hand, despite being a Jewish religious group, its political position is contrary to Zionism, for fear that the Jewish faith will be replaced by secular nationalism in the State of Israel.

GETTY IMAGES The members of Lev Tahor apply very restrictive rules in their daily lives.

Despite their extreme positions, the members of this sect believe that they operate fully within the boundaries of Jewish religious tradition and norms and that, in reality, there is nothing new or different in what they do.

“They see themselves as the only ones who are following the true path, as the guardians of the walls, as the defenders of the last remaining flame in the Jewish world. They have contempt for other branches of Hasidism, which they see as too lenient and dismiss as despicable and degenerate,” wrote Shay Fogelman, a journalist for Ha’aretz that in 2012 he had the rare opportunity to spend five days living with members of the Lev Tahor community.

“The basic requirement demanded of the members of Lev Tahor is simple: worship and serve God at all times, with all your heart and soul. Their libraries only have Jewish books. In their houses there are no televisions, radios or computers. Concepts such as free time, broadening one’s horizons or seeking personal development, in its strict Western sense, do not exist here”.

“The walls of their houses lack any decoration; there are no photos, amulets, pictures of rabbis. In most cases, the only adornments are silver candlesticks, menorahs, or religious objects, all kept in a glass case,” he added.

Parallel to this description of the sect’s austere life of religious devotion, in recent years several accusations around the use of extreme and violent forms of control over its membersincluding the use of corporal punishment against minors and the forced marriage of underage women with older men.

These complaints have been made by former members of the sect and their families.

“The community is also accused of promoting marriage between minors. But we have never done it. That’s a personal thing. If someone feels capable and ready to forge a family according to their religious principles, it is up to each person. The right to want to get married cannot be prohibited,” Obadia Guzmán told BBC Mundo.

Controversies and expulsions

In 1990, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans moved the group to the United States, where he established a Jewish school in Brooklyn.

NEW YORK STATE POLICE Chaim and Yante Teller were rescued in a small town south of Mexico City.

A few years later, Lev Tahor would face his first problems with the law.

In 1993, Helbrans was arrested in New York on charges of kidnapping a teenager who was studying with him to prepare for college. bar mitzvahthe religious ritual that marks the beginning of the transition to adulthood in Judaism.

The minor’s parents accused Helbrans of trying to “brainwash” his son, while the rabbi accused them of abusing the child.

In the end, a court convicted Helbrans of kidnapping, and he spent two years in prison before being paroled in 1996.

In the year 2000, the rabbi was deported to Israel, where he did not stay long as he decided to settle with his community in the province of Quebec (Canada).

The sect, then, settled in Sainte-Agathe, a small town of about 10,000 inhabitants, located about two hours by car from Montreal.

But there, too, new complaints arose against the group, which was accused in 2013 by social services of child neglect.

According to the local press at the time, Canadian authorities were concerned about the health and hygiene of minorsas well as for their education because -apparently- these children who are educated at home were not acquiring basic skills in mathematics.

Shortly after, the members of the sect left the country to settle in San Juan La Laguna (Guatemala), a town inhabited mainly by indigenous Mayans.

GETTY IMAGES The members of Lev Tahor have settled in three different places in Guatemala.

In that place they were not well received. After several months of disagreements, the council of elders of San Juan decided to expel the group on the grounds that its members rejected the local residents.They refused to greet, mingle, or even speak with the inhabitants.

“We feel intimidated by them on the streets. We think they want to change our religion and our customs,” Miguel Vásquez Cholotio, a member of the council of elders, told Reuters at the time.

To force their departure, the local authorities gave them an ultimatum and threatened to cut off their access to public services.

The sect decided to relocate to Guatemala City, where its headquarters was later raided by prosecutors from the Public Ministry who were investigating whether there were cases of child abuse there.

In 2016 they moved again to the town of El Amatillo, in the Oratorio municipality, about 80 kilometers from Guatemala City.

A year later, the Israeli press published information about the death of Helbrans, allegedly occurred while performing a religious ritual in a river in Chiapas (Mexico). It was then that it became known about the cult’s alleged plans to try to change the country again.

However, after the death of its founder and the arrest of its new leader for child abduction, the future of Lev Tahor became even bleaker.

The recent operation ordered by the Mexican authorities in the state of Chiapas shows that the scandals surrounding this ultra-Orthodox group show no signs of ending.

Source: Eluniverso

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