A year since leader’s death, ultra-Orthodox ‘cult’ hibernates in Central America
It’s been almost a year since Shlomo Helbrans drowned in Mexico, leaving Lev Tahor, the controversial religious sect he founded in Israel in the 1980s, without its charismatic leader.
The flock, which followed Helbrans from Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighborhood to Brooklyn to the snowy suburbs of Montreal before settling in tropical Guatemala, now faces an uncertain future.
Driven by Helbrans’s anti-Zionist beliefs and known for its extreme customs — women and girls are covered head-to-toe by full-length black garments, marriages are arranged and separation by gender is strictly enforced — Lev Tahor has been dogged by legal troubles everywhere it’s gone.
Convicted of kidnapping in New York, Helbrans relocated his group to Canada, where child welfare authorities in two provinces investigated claims of child marriages and abuse. Hopes for a new start in a picturesque lakeside town in Guatemala were dashed when village elders asked the group to leave, citing cultural differences.
Visited in Guatemala City in 2015, the transplanted community had big plans. Some 40 Lev Tahor families had regrouped in a run-down office tower in the capital, where they had strung up fabric dividers in the lobby and stairwell — men on one side, women on the other. They tried to reestablish what was, for them, normal life, sourcing kosher foods from the local markets and educating the boys in makeshift classrooms on the building’s top floor.
Spokesman Uriel Goldman talked about the group’s plans to sell its Canadian real estate holdings to raise enough money to buy a mango grove in Guatemala’s Santa Rosa Department, where they hoped to establish a more permanent compound, compete with homes, a school and a synagogue.
Subsequent reports in the Guatemalan press indicate that they succeeded in getting a bank loan, buying a several-hundred-acre plot near the town of Oratorio, starting construction on several structures and even installing a duck pond.
So it was a surprise when news broke last summer that the group was not, in fact, in Guatemala but had slipped across the border into the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Local press reported that 40 or 50 families had rented out a forgotten hotel in the town of Unión Juarez, also known as “the Switzerland of Chiapas” for its charming wooden houses and mountain vistas.
Goldman told local reporters that the group was unhappy in the Guatemalan capital and wanted a quiet place away from the bustle of a city.
“We want to rent houses and buy a lot on which to build around 50 cabins,” Goldman told El Orbe newspaper. “We like to invest. We’re looking for places where we can invest millions.”
A TV report by Diez Noticias claimed group was self-sufficient thanks to its businesses selling mangos, coffee, cattle and apples. Goldman said they planned to stay in Unión Juarez for up to three months to see if it was the right fit.
But then came the news that Helbrans had drowned, carried off by the fast-moving current of the Shujubal river as he prayed on July 7 last year. Four days later, Mexican photographers captured images of the group boarding buses, reportedly bound for Guatemala. (Two months prior, an Israeli court ruled Lev Tahor to be a “dangerous cult” that abused children. It’s unclear how or if that ruling influenced the group’s Mexican migration.)
Friends and family members in Israel worried what might happen to Helbrans’ flock after losing their leader. The Israeli Labor and Social Services Ministry tried to entice the remaining Lev Tahor families back home, offering airfare, residency, housing assistance, financial support, psychological treatment and job training, The Jerusalem Post reported.
But Oded Twik, an outspoken critic of Helbrans who helped his sister’s family leave the sect a few years ago, told Haaretz he believed that Lev Tahor was a “well-oiled machine” whose existing leadership could keep the operation going. The group survived without Helbrans for two years during his incarceration in New York, after all.
News about Lev Tahor has been scarce in the year since Helbrans’ death. Little is known of how they are weathering subsequent blows, including the rumored death of Helbrans’ daughter, Miriam, of an allergic reaction, two weeks after her father’s passing.
In January, the Spanish daily El Confidencial published a feature on Lev Tahor, reporting that its membership had swelled to nearly 500 people, including 70 Central American converts, and that the compound was in the process of getting a new medical clinic and had a park named after Guatemala City mayor Álvaro Arzú, who donated a swingset. Arzú died in April, and Goldman was seen paying his respects to the man he called “a great friend.”
June was a rough month for Guatemala, between the eruption of the Fuego volcano, whose ash buried whole villages just a few hours’ drive from the Lev Tahor mango groves, and a magnitude-5.6 earthquake two weeks later. For followers of the late Shlomo Helbrans, things must be feeling very biblical indeed.