An ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Israel that was believed to have wandered into Jordan accidentally was in fact attempting to flee to join a cult in Canada.
The father’s family had sought a court order to prevent the couple and their six children from leaving the country to join an extremist cult known as the “Jewish Taliban” based in Quebec, the Jerusalem Post reports. The Jewish sect, Lev Tahor (Pure Heart), is believed to have 250 members led by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, a 50-year-old Israeli who allegedly uses violence, mental manipulation and harsh punishments on his followers.
The family was arrested when they arrived in Jordan, was returned to Israel and detained by Israeli police, the Times of Israel reports.
Lev Tahor members live in small town north of Montreal, isolated from the outside world. From the age of three onwards, female members are dressed completely in black, including their faces, resembling Islamic chadors. Israeli news organization Israel Hayom has heard testimony from ex-members that cite violent beatings of children, undocumented weddings involving minors as young as 14, forced marriages and divorces.
Helbrans has denied such claims in the past.
“Use force? We want everybody who is not 100 percent happy ... to leave us,” the rabbi told the Globe and Mail.
He went on to say that girls normally marry in their teenage years and are not forced into wedlock. “The women here choose of their own will,” he said.
Reports say Helbrans conducts “psychiatric evaluations” on his followers and orders them to take medication he prescribes. He names every baby in the community and has been known to change names of adult members, vosizneias.com reports.
In 1994 Helbrans was convicted in the U.S. for kidnapping a 13-year-old boy who was studying with him. In 2001, he fled to Canada on a temporary visa and later received refugee status. Cult members later joined him in the Sainte-Agathe, Quebec, and the group has grown to around 250 people.
The recent incident in Israel is not the first time prospective members have been prevented from entering the cult community in Canada. In October 2011, two girls aged 15 and 13 were stopped by Canadian immigration officials and returned to Israel, the Globe and Mail reports. The girls’ great-uncle had petitioned a court order, saying the girls would be harmed by the Lev Tahor community, their property would be taken and they would be forced into marriage.
In 2008 the Israeli female leader of the cult, Bruria Keren, was sentenced to four years in prison for beating her mentally retarded son. She was dubbed the “Taliban Mother,” but only a few of Keren’s 12 children testified at her trial, Haaretz reports.
"Some of the punishments included dripping water on the children to forcefully wake them up in the morning, beatings with belts, sticks and electric wires, and cutting the girls' hair as retribution for bad behavior," the judge said. Keren reportedly tied up one of her children, stomped on another’s foot and put out a match on another child’s chest.