WATCH ABOVE: 16X9’s Carolyn Jarvis presents a full one-hour special on the controversial, ultra-orthodox Jewish sect of Lev Tahor
Update: Since our story aired in February, members of Lev Tahor fled to Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago.
The ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Lev Tahor is fighting to keep their children amid allegations from youth protection officers that the sect is a dangerous and controlling environment, where girls are married off underage, people are brainwashed and physically abused.
In November, the group left Quebec ahead of a court hearing that would eventually order the temporary removal of 14 children. The sect loaded all families with children under 18 into three buses and, in the dead of night, drove for over 12 hours to Chatham-Kent, Ontario.
Even as allegations of child abuse became public, the group remained a private, tight-knit community – until 16×9 was granted unprecedented access. 16×9 spent a week with the highly controversial group and documented their culture and traditions.
Leaders and members of Lev Tahor deny the allegations and argue they are being persecuted over their religious beliefs.
WATCH ABOVE: 16X9’s Carolyn Jarvis sat down with Uriel Goldman, one of the leaders of Lev Tahor, to discuss allegations made by former members.
It’s a “war against religion,” says leader Uriel Goldman. “They want to claim if you don’t study our curriculum you are not a good father. ‘No, no, no, we are going to apprehend your children because you need to learn about evolution, about homosexuality, about the curriculum that our professionals are preparing.’”
Denis Baraby with Quebec’s Youth Protection, says his concerns go far beyond education. His team opened files on 128 children, documenting underweight kids, girls with fungus on their feet and unsanitary living conditions.
Baraby and his team say children were growing up in an environment of extreme isolation, most without toys or the chance to play. Some have called the group a cult, but leader Uriel Goldman says these accusations are “ridiculous.”
Lev Tahor’s particular interpretation of Judaism is the foundation of their community. It penetrates every aspect of their lives and dictates everything from what they eat to the Yiddish language they speak.
Curriculum for boys and girls focuses on religious scripture and Jewish law. Girls are permitted a few more hours of secular subjects, like Math and English, and dedicate time to learning how to run a household.
“We try to learn practical things, what they can use in life. We also had a class of sewing, a class of cooking.”
Some of the traits of Lev Tahor are similar to other ultra-orthodox groups, but orthodox Rabbi Reuben Poupko says Lev Tahor takes it to the extreme. He believes the group displays strong cult-like tendencies.
ABOVE: Orthodox Rabbi, Reuben Poupko tells 16×9 how Lev Tahor stands apart from other Ultra-Orthodox groups.
Concerns over allegations have sparked debate in Israel where Lev Tahor has been highly criticized. (Lev Tahor is also extremely anti-Israel, believing the Torah prohibits the existence of a Jewish State). The Knesset is holding hearings into Lev Tahor as family members urge their Members of Parliament to work with Canadian officials to intervene. Israeli families say their loved ones have been brainwashed into joining Lev Tahor and are unable to escape.
16×9 spoke with several former members living in Canada, the United States and Israel. Many of them recounted similar allegations of underage marriage, physical abuse and a controlling environment. Former members who spoke with us refused to go on camera out of fear of a backlash from the community.
Ester Katsobashvili’s daughter, Maggie, joined Lev Tahor three years ago. Prior to that, the two of them had a strong relationship. Now, Maggie and Esther no longer speak and Ester says the daughter she once knew is gone. Ester visited Maggie in Canada and says she saw her grandchildren being beaten by their mother. She fears her grandchildren will never know a world outside Lev Tahor.
“I am afraid that they’ll be raised with emptiness in their soul.”
While Lev Tahor rebuilds its community in Chatham, Ont., rumours are surfacing that the community might flee again. In February, three months after the group fled Quebec, an Ontario court upheld the Quebec ruling for the temporary removal of 13 of the 14 children from the sect. Lev Tahor plans to appeal the decision. If that appeal fails, one of the leaders, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans says they are prepared to leave Canada to protect their way of life.