A Quebec judge has ordered members of the fundamentalist Jewish community that sought refuge in Ontario to come back to a Ste. Agathe courthouse where the local child protection service is seeking to gain access to the group’s children.
Last week, amid allegations of child neglect, psychological abuse and poor hygiene, 200 members of the Lev Tahor sect boarded buses north of Montreal and drove across the border to avoid having to adopt a secular Quebec curriculum.
Now two families among them will have to return for a hearing with child protection officials Wednesday, according to a note from the families’ lawyer provided to the Star.
Nachman Helbrans, son of the community’s leader and rabbi, Schlomo Helbrans, confirmed that the families would attend the hearing.
“Legally, they don’t have to go back to court, but they decided to go back just to honour the court,” he told the Star by telephone.
If the order is granted, it remains unclear how the local child protection authorities in Quebec would be able to access the children now that they live in Ontario, or if it would grant the Chatham-Kent chapter to act in its place.
Half a world away, the Israeli parliament will convene an urgent hearing Tuesday into allegations of child abuse inside the closed-off community being labelled a “cult.”
Yariv Levin, a member of Israel’s governing coalition, brought forward a motion last week to hear testimony from government officials, child welfare organizations as well as representatives of Interpol, the global crime-fighting network, about “claims of child abuse,” according to a news release from the Israeli Knesset, or parliament.
The various allegations include punishments of forcibly separating children from their parents, extreme dietary restrictions and harsh corporal punishment, though Quebec child welfare authorities said they had not documented any incidents of direct physical abuse during their investigation.
The communiqué from the Israeli parliamentary committee claims that most members of the group are Israeli citizens, including Lev Tahor’s leader, Shlomo Helbrans, who left Israel in the early 1990s for the United States. It cites Helbrans’ arrest and imprisonment in New York after he was found guilty of second-degree kidnapping in a case involving a young devotee whose parents reported him missing.
Meanwhile, operating out of a room in a local motel, Nachman Helbrans is helping members of his community get established in Chatham-Kent, where they believe they will have more freedom to educate their children in accordance with their strict interpretation of the Jewish faith.
Many of the families have already leased houses in the community, where they plan to stay for one year while they look to purchase a more permanent community somewhere in the province. They’ve rented a building on the edge of town which will serve as a temporary place of worship and school.
Helbrans says the allegations of abuse have nothing to do with why every family with children under 18 fled Quebec last week, and that the community is happy to co-operate with child protection services to rectify any problems they might have found.
It’s Quebec’s insistence that they teach the province’s secular curriculum — including Darwin’s theory of evolution — that forced them to leave, he said.
“If the laws of Quebec, unfortunately, are against our religion, then we go to another place where it is not against our religion,” he said. “In Ontario, they will not manage our studies, like they do in Quebec.”