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16X9: Under the veil of Lev Tahor, Jewish sect accused of abuse

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.

Read more: Four more Lev Tahor kids return to parents; two still in foster care

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.

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READ MORE: Order to return Lev Tahor children to Quebec social services upheld: Ontario court

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.’”

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Boys immerse themselves in their studies of Jewish scripture and law.
Boys immerse themselves in their studies of Jewish scripture and law. 16x9
Women prepare food for their children.
Women prepare food for their children. 16x9
A young boy recites his studies.
A young boy recites his studies. 16x9
A peek from behind a tarp to watch a young boy in class; women are not allowed in this classroom of teenage boys.
A peek from behind a tarp to watch a young boy in class; women are not allowed in this classroom of teenage boys. 16x9
Boys begin schooling at three years old learning the Yiddish alphabet.
Boys begin schooling at three years old learning the Yiddish alphabet. 16x9
Chief Correspondent, Carolyn Jarvis, sits with Lev Tahor’s spiritual leader, Grand Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in an interview that would last over 7 hours.
Chief Correspondent, Carolyn Jarvis, sits with Lev Tahor’s spiritual leader, Grand Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in an interview that would last over 7 hours. 16x9
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Media surrounds Lev Tahor leader, Uriel Goldman outside the Chatham-Kent courthouse in February after the Ontario court ruled to uphold a Quebec decision to remove 13 children from the community.
Media surrounds Lev Tahor leader, Uriel Goldman outside the Chatham-Kent courthouse in February after the Ontario court ruled to uphold a Quebec decision to remove 13 children from the community. 16x9
Members of Lev Tahor walk through their former community in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec.
Members of Lev Tahor walk through their former community in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec. 16x9
A woman walks through Lev Tahor’s former community in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec.
A woman walks through Lev Tahor’s former community in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec. 16x9
Lev Tahor is now settling into the rental units of Spurgeon’s Villa in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.
Lev Tahor is now settling into the rental units of Spurgeon’s Villa in Chatham-Kent, Ontario. 16x9
Two young children make their way through the winter weather in Chatham-Kent Ontario.
Two young children make their way through the winter weather in Chatham-Kent Ontario. 16x9

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.

“We discovered houses that were dirty, garbage all around. The children, they slept 4 or 5 in each bedroom, some [on] mattresses that were full of urine.”
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READ MORE: Lev Tahor rabbi accuses authorities of ‘genocide’; new abuse allegations released

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.

READ MORE: Sleep sacks: How members of ultra-orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor cover themselves in bed

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.

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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.

Watch 16X9’s full one-hour special on Lev Tahor