MONTREAL - They speak Yiddish, follow the Jewish law to the letter and they’ve been on standby for months, waiting to welcome into their homes the children of Lev Tahor, the ultra-orthodox sect at the centre of a two-province child abuse probe.
Four months after child-welfare authorities in Quebec first went to court to have 14 children from two families taken into protective custody, the hassidic community of Montreal has been waiting to play its part.
Foster families able to meet some of the exacting needs of the children — namely, speaking Yiddish and keeping a high degree of religious observance — have been located. Now they are waiting for the ruling of an Ontario court judge Monday that could send the children along Highway 401 from Chatham-Kent to the hassidic enclave of Outremont in central Montreal.
“It was last week that they were expecting the children would be returned to Quebec, and so they have made contingency plans,” said David Ouellette, associate director of public affairs with Montreal’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “As far as the foster families are concerned in Quebec, they’ve been ready for months.”
Four months, to be exact. It was last November that Quebec’s director of youth protection first went to court seeking an order that the 14 children be taken into temporary foster care for physical and psychological examinations. Social workers testified that the children were living in filth, lacked access to doctors and dentists, received a religious education that didn’t come close to meeting the provincial curriculum and were subject to a regime of psychological abuse and underage marriages.
A few days before that court order was granted, the entire Lev Tahor community fled to Ontario. They hoped to find escape from the snooping social workers and freedom to follow their strict interpretation of the Torah. Instead, they have been subject to the scrutiny of Ontario social workers, a police raid and an immigration probe that resulted in the detention and deportation of several adult members of the group.
Mixed in with those Ontario tribulations was the failed exodus of the children and their parents, who took a run for Guatemala last month. That incident resulted in six children being forcibly returned to Canada when they landed at the Trinidad airport; one infant child being apprehended with his 17-year-old mother at the Edmonton airport; and another six who made it to the Central American country and are currently fighting attempts to have them brought back.
The seven children who did not escape the long arm of Canadian law are currently with Ontario foster families.
Stephen Doig, executive director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services said there are three possible outcomes of Monday’s court decision: the children could be returned to their families; the children could remain with foster families in Chatham-Kent; or the children could be returned to Quebec.
He said that the agency has been sensitive to religious considerations in their dealings with the children and has had help from nearby social service agencies that have Yiddish or Hebrew-speaking staff members that can act as translators.
“Some of the children and many of the adults in Lev Tahor speak or understand some English as well,” Doig said.
But adding to the difficulty of handling kids from a community like Lev Tahor — one that frowns on speaking any language but Yiddish, whose interpretation of kosher means extreme dietary restrictions and whose contact with the outside world is said to be next to nil — is what the children are said to have endured since last November. Put it all together and long-term care for the children may require a more intensive effort that only an ultra-orthodox Jewish clan can provide.
Eluzor Moscowicz, who has been caring for five Lev Tahor children for more than a year, said that when the children arrived in his home, they were unclean and wore too-small shoes that had left them with a stunted gait when they walked.
He told the Canadian Jewish News in February that they were suspicious and uncertain about such things as using scented soap or bathing. He said the children also had a habit of informing on one another, which coincides with testimony by a former Lev Tahor member that they were encouraged to report bad habits or breaches of the community’s strict rules to the group’s leadership.
The seven children affected by Monday’s court ruling may be in better physical shape, but the ordeal they have gone through since last November will have left psychological marks all the same, Ouellette suggested.
“The whole idea of having hassidic foster families is to ease the trauma that these kids are going to go through,” he said.
And even when the final decision is handed down, there could still be one additional snag that draws out the fate of the Lev Tahor children just a little bit longer. Monday will be marked by a flurry of preparation for the Jewish holiday of Passover, which would prevent observant Jews from travelling or working on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“It’s going to be difficult also for the foster families in Montreal — they won’t be able to go and pick them up in Ontario,” said Ouellette. “I can’t tell you what will happen but the timing is not the best.”