Back in April, I wrote about the squalid conditions of the Lev Tahor members who fled Ontario, Canada, to the small town of San Juan la Laguna in Guatamala beginning in March of this year. They chose the particular town because of a small community of locals, known as Torat Jesed, who observe Jewish traditions and hope to convert to Judaism.
About two weeks ago, the local council of elders voted to evict the Lev Tahor members. According to the Toronto Star:
After fleeing Canada amid allegations of child abuse, about 230 members of the ultraorthodox Jewish group Lev Tahor have now been expelled from the Guatemalan village where they had reassembled their reclusive community.
An edict from a group of indigenous elders in the town of San Juan La Laguna, 150 kilometres west of Guatemala City, said that the Lev Tahor members were no longer welcome in the lakeside town.
It was the culmination of a dispute with the local community that escalated in recent days with some Lev Tahor families having their water supply cut off and being threatened with violence, Nachman Helbrans, the son of the group’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, told the Star.
Lev Tahor then hired buses to take its 230 members to Guatemala City. The group currently occupies ten offices with no mattresses, showers or cooking facilities except for a makeshift kitchen in the parking lot.
Members of Torat Jesed joined Lev Tahor in the move.
Some of the reasons suggested for the eviction from the lakeside town included bathing naked in the lake and thus scaring away tourists (Lev Tahor requires daily religious immersion for men in a body of fresh water), lack of friendliness, refusal to pay for taxis or other services, and the threat that Lev Tahor could overwhelm the native culture. Locals physically attacked the residences of Lev Tahor on at least one occasion. The local culture considers child abuse to be especially egregious. According to some reports, the locals rejected Lev Tahor after learning of the accusations by welfare authorities.
Lev Tahor spokesmen have claimed that the group will stay in the office building until completion of its new housing in another Guatemalan location.
Guatemala allows marriage from age 14 and has minimal education requirements. It also has no extradition agreement with Canada, where the police and the child welfare authorities have opened files.
After all Lev Tahor members managed to leave Canada anyway, the local Chatham-Kent Children’s Services closed their files. However, two teenage girls still remain in foster care in Toronto,
One of the families that did not go to Guatemala recently returned to Israel, along with four of their twelve children. Their relatives made them a party.
Yesterday, a 14-page document with testimony against Lev Tahor was released to the press. It concluded that the allegations, if true, amounted to human trafficking. Lev Tahor leaders are suspected of forging passports and other official documents, some of which were seized during a search of the group’s premises in Chatham. Ex-members testified that they were separated from family members, denied food, locked into a room to pray for six hours before breakfast, given psychotic drugs (also seized), and instructed as to what symptoms to tell a doctor in order to get prescription drugs. Teenage girls were allegedly sexually molested, sometimes by family members, and imported from Israel to marry older men.
Today the French-Canadian newspaper La Presse quotes David Ouellette, Quebec Director for Public Affairs at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), about Lev Tahor’s situation in Guatemala: “Six children were born in the village, all to minor mothers. There were also cases of typhoid fever and diabetes and I was told that they refused to see a doctor.“
Also today, family members throughout Israel filed complaints with the police that their relatives in Lev Tahor, Israeli citizens, are in imminent danger. They want the Israeli government to intervene to prevent further harm. None of the families has heard from Lev Tahor members in recent days.
Lev Tahor has succeeded in escaping the reach of the authorities, as it hoped. But what price will the group, especially its innocent children, need to pay for its independence?