Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 1, 2019

Lev Tahor: the Jewish Taliban

Filed under: cults,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

Several days ago my tiny village in the Catskills got mentioned in a NY Times article titled “Jewish ‘Cult’ Tied to Brooklyn and Mexico Is Accused of Kidnapping 2 Children”. It seems that the children and their mother were part of a bizarre Taliban-like Hasidic cult based in Guatemala called Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart”. In October, she fled from the cult and relocated to Woodridge, New York, a village that was always predominantly Jewish but for the past decade or so at least has morphed into a Satmar Hasidic shtetl.

After my mom went into a nursing home over a decade ago, I went upstate to work on getting her house into shape for the real estate market. While working on the house, I used to go next door to chat with my Satmar neighbor, who had bought his house from my neighbor Frank Draganchuk, a Ukrainian-American who loved hunting as well as the animals he would shoot. He left salt licks behind his house just to admire the deer that he would hunt during season but far from his house.

After my house went on the market, it was snapped up almost immediately by another Satmar family. Within days of the sale, another neighbor who lived across the street, a garage mechanic and good old boy like Frank, phoned me to complain about the house being sold to a Satmar. A half-Jew himself, he might be perceived as an anti-Semite nonetheless. But another neighbor who lived down the street was not only a full-blooded Jew but the former president of the village synagogue where I was bar mitzvahed. He hated the Satmars with a passion. A WWII veteran like my father, his idea of Judaism was eating kosher and going to synagogue on Saturdays, not having your entire life revolve around rituals.

The Times describes Lev Tahor as anti-Zionist. As a split from the Satmar sect, this is one belief that they retained. The Satmars are staunchly opposed to Zionism, so much so that the Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum was denounced by Jewish officialdom for blaming the West Bank settlers as being responsible for the murders of three of their teens by colonizing Palestinian land. Refusing to accept the legitimacy of Israel based on their interpretation of Jewish teachings (a Jewish state can only come into existence upon the return of a Messiah), he stated that while “every heart bleeds for the teens, it is incumbent upon us to say that these parents are guilty”. The settlers “place the lives of the Jewish people at risk for the sake of Zionism”. The most extreme sub-sect of the Satmars is Neturei Karta that denounces Israel at pro-Palestinian rallies organized by the PSL.

Just two months after the mom and her children settled down into normal Satmar life in Woodridge, a Lev Tahor member named Aron Rosner, who is the brother of the group’s leader, came into the village, kidnapped the two kids, Yante Teller, 14, and her brother, Chaim Teller, 12. They were brought to Mexico where they would then be transported on the next plane back to Guatemala. The Interpol arrested the kidnappers in Mexico and are in the process of sending the children back to Woodridge.

The children’s mom was the daughter of Shlomo Helbrans, the cult’s founder. After his death, his son Nachman took over. He is regarded as more extreme than his father and was arrested with the other kidnappers in Mexico. As part of the astonishing history of this tiny sect of no more than 200 members, Shlomo drowned on July 7, 2017 while performing a ritual immersion in a Mexican river. If the idea of Hasidic Jews in Mexico or Guatemala seems strange to those of you reading this post, imagine how Guatemalan Indians regarded them.

After settling in San Juan la Laguna, about 90 miles from Guatemala City, a local indigenous council told them to leave or else they would be forcefully removed. The Indians had problems with them refusing to greet or have physical contact with the community. Actually, that’s the way most of Woodridge’s more secular-minded Jews felt about the Satmars.

Ironically, Shlomo Helbrans was born into an Israeli family that was as secular-minded as my own. It was only after he turned 13 that he became a zealot. As for me, when I turned 13, I cut all my ties to organized Judaism. Getting bar mitzvahed was like graduating high school. Once you were certified, why would you ever want to go back to places as alienating as a high school or a synagogue?

I first heard about Helbrans in 1994 when he was involved in a case similar to this one. He had been charged with helping a 13-year old boy run away from his mother while taking bar mitzvah lessons with him. Sentenced to two years in prison, he left for Israel two years after his release where he established his cult that Israelis call the “Jewish Taliban”. According to Wikipedia, its practices include lengthy prayer sessions, arranged marriages between teenagers, and black, head-to-toe coverings for females beginning at age three.

Despite its minuscule size, the group has been widely covered in the media. Perhaps there is more than the customary interest in a Jewish group that forces its female members to wear burqas.

Foreign Policy ran a story in the January/February 2016 issue titled “A Tale of the Pure at Heart” that is worth reading. But for the most revealing look inside this controversial cult, I recommend this Global News documentary:

Finally, I can say that the readiness of such people to live within a cult is no great mystery. Judaism, like all “sky religions”, tends to create a rich subsoil for formations based on a strict obedience to doctrine and blind worship of the leading group. While Trotskyism was not a “sky religion”, it certainly knew how to keep people in line, including me over an 11 year period. Like the mother of the two kidnapped children, I bailed. Fortunately for me, nobody tried to kidnap me and force me to go door to door selling books written by Jack Barnes. They probably understood that I had gone over to Satan, thank god.

1 Comment »

  1. Perhaps you mean, “thank G-d”? 😉

    Comment by Naftali — January 4, 2019 @ 7:57 am


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