Leaders of the anti-Zionist cult Lev Tahor to be tried in New York

But that’s the route taken in recent weeks by some 70 members of a small Orthodox sect that has been trotting the world for more than 40 years in search of a safe haven to practice a fundamentalist version of Judaism, one that has led to the Israeli press to call him the “Jewish Taliban”.

From Erbil, the group, whose sect is formally called Lev Tahor, had planned to cross a border into Iran and settle there, according to a group of activists who have been monitoring Lev Tahor’s activities. The activists include escaped former Lev Tahor members, separated relatives of the group, and Hasidic businessmen concerned about allegations of child abuse in the sect. The activists asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their safety and privacy.

Iran’s choice of Lev Tahor may be related to his adherence to anti-Zionism. The leaders of the sect applied to the Islamic Republic for asylum in 2018.

It is unclear whether the Iranian authorities had intended to welcome the group. But activists told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that in recent days, before the next phase of the trip could begin, local Kurdish authorities screwed up the plan, detained the group and deported them to Turkey.

Established in the late 1980s in Israel, Lev Tahor adheres to an extreme interpretation of kosher dietary rules and requires women to cover themselves from head to toe in black veils. The sect’s rules supposedly require girls to marry older men.

Members of Lev Tahor in Guatemala (credit: JORGE LOPEZ)

Some of the cult leaders are on trial on child abduction charges right now in the New York City area, a development that has garnered little attention even in Israeli media who have closely covered the movements. sect internationals.

Lev Tahor has an estimated membership of 200 to 300, including adults who were born to the sect, as well as dozens of children. A considerable number of followers are believed to be Israeli citizens.

While the sect is small, its potential to cause international incidents, as well as the way it defends itself by tapping into narratives of Jewish persecution, have attracted enormous attention.

The prospect of the Israelis crossing en masse into enemy Iranian territory had fueled an Israeli media frenzy with speculation about what would happen to them. Some expressed concern that they could become a bargaining chip like Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was held hostage by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years until Israel agreed in 2011 to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for their freedom. That prisoner swap remains controversial in Israel a decade after it took place.

It is unknown what led the Kurdish authorities to block the group’s passage, why Turkey agreed to serve as a way station for them, and how Israel reacted to the possibility of a new dispute with Iran. It’s also unclear why Romania, which is where the group is said to have landed after leaving Turkey, agreed to accept them.

Activists tracking Lev Tahor tip off the media about certain issues, but are reluctant to divulge too much information for fear of compromising their own sources or inadvertently endangering Lev Tahor rank-and-file members whom they hope to help.

And as civilian volunteers, the activists themselves do not always fully understand the diplomatic maneuvers that have taken place. Divided between Israel and the United States, the Lev Tahor-focused advocacy community pays private investigators to go after the cult, and also pressures law enforcement officials and diplomats around the world to act on suspected child abuse.

His main enemy, and the leader of Lev Tahor, is a man named Nachman Helbrans. He rose to the head of the sect after the death in 2017 of his father, Shlomo Helbrans, who founded Lev Tahor.

Nachman Helbrans did not participate in his group’s exodus from their compound in Guatemala and did not reach Iraqi Kurdistan. That’s because he is on trial on child abduction charges in federal court in White Plains, New York, north of New York City.

Helbrans and eight alleged accomplices are on trial for the 2018 kidnapping of Yante Teller and Chaim Teller, who were 14 and 12 when they were separated from their mother in Woodridge, New York, a Catskill mountain village, and transported to Mexico.

Three weeks after the kidnapping, US police and local police discovered the children on the outskirts of Mexico City. At the same time, authorities also arrested three men: Helbrans, Mayer Rosner and Jacob Rosner.

According to court documents, Jacob Rosner is considered Yante’s husband within Lev Tahor, and the kidnapping was an attempt to force Yante and Chaim back into the sect’s fold after their mother smuggled them out. Several others have been arrested in connection with the case, including, most recently, the Yaakov brothers, Shmiel and Yoel Weingarten, who were detained in Guatemala by local authorities earlier this year.

On Wednesday, prosecutors finished presenting witness testimony and other evidence, triggering the next phase in Lev Tahor’s trial, in which the defense will present its case.

Activists monitoring Lev Tahor have hired an informal spokesperson in Shana Aaronson, the executive director of Magen for Jewish Communities, an Israeli nonprofit dedicated to combating sexual abuse.

Although several Lev Tahor leaders are on trial and members of the sect are scattered, Aaronson said the fight is not over and that it is not yet time to reduce efforts to help the alleged victims.

“These children are suffering right now,” he said. “They really don’t fully understand what is happening. They are being dragged from one country to another. For starters, they are half starved, incredibly sleep deprived and completely dependent on the cult leaders, who control their passports and flights. “

Lev Tahor leaders have said the sect is being persecuted for its religious beliefs, a claim that Aaronson says is key to maintaining the sect’s internal cohesion. Aaronson acknowledged that efforts to hinder the cult, including calls to arrest its leaders or aid individual fugitives, can influence the narrative of the persecution.

“Everyone is convinced that they are being persecuted,” Aaronson said. “It is obvious that all defenders have a tremendous desire, and hopefully more law enforcement agencies, to prosecute, not prosecute but prosecute, abusers who have taken advantage of so many people in this community for so many years sexually, physically and economically. , spiritually and psychologically “.

Aaronson hopes the media coverage will help break through and convince cult members not to fear outsiders.

“We all really want them to be safe,” he said. “It is important for me to say that because they read these things. At least some of them do. “


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