An extreme Hasidic sect reportedly under investigation by Canadian authorities for child abuse says two families will return to appear in court after fleeing their Quebec homes for Ontario earlier this week, but maintains the dispute is over secular education.
Oded Twik, an activist against the group whose sister Sima Sulemani has lived with the Lev Tahor sect for the last eight years, says that claim is false and the group only decamped after Québécois authorities recommended the removal of 12 children, including eight of his nieces and nephews and four children from another family, into foster care.
According to Twik, Lev Tahor was facing serious allegations of child abuse before leaving in the middle of the night for Chatham-Kent, Ontario, where they plan to settle.
Some 200 of 240 members of the group left Ste. Agathe, Quebec, last week, hours before two families were due to appear in court for a child protection hearing. The rest plan to follow, Yoil Weingarten, a member who stayed behind to help settle affairs, told the Montreal Gazette.
On Monday, Nachman Helbrans, son of group founder Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, told the Toronto Star that the two families ordered to appear in court would travel back to Quebec Wednesday for the hearing.
“Legally, they don’t have to go back to court, but they decided to go back just to honor the court,” he was quoted as saying.
Earlier, Nachman Helbrans told Ma Presse, associated with the Montreal newspaper La Presse, that the welfare authorities in Quebec found no evidence of child abuse, and that the dispute surrounds the amount of secular education the children will receive. Ontario’s laws are more lenient in this regard than those of Quebec.
However, Twik alleged that the group was under fire for abusing children.
“As punishment for disobeying Helbrans, my sister’s children were taken from her for periods of two and three years, and returned to her for only a month at a time,” he told the Times of Israel. “One of her children died in 2009 at the age of a year. To this day we haven’t gotten a clear answer about how it happened. The children wear shoes that are too small, and are physically punished when they disobey.”
According to Denis Baraby, the director of youth protection for the Ste. Agathe region, child protection authorities compiled a file thick with allegations of child neglect, malnutrition, psychological abuse, and health problems, the Toronto Star reported.
Sulemani’s eight living children range in age from 6 months to 14 years.
Twik’s extensive knowledge of the group comes from Nathan, Shlomo Helbrans’ second son. Twik brought Nathan to Israel after Nathan fled the group and he stayed in Twik’s home for two months.
On Tuesday, a Knesset committee on the rights of children held a discussion on the alleged abuse of the children in the group. After hearing accounts from former members and families of those still in the group, committee head Orli Levi-Abekasis (Likud-Beytenu) attacked the Israeli police, who have known of the accusations for over two years, for their lack of action.
“The testimonies coming from there paint a disturbing picture,” she said. “We cannot remain apathetic to this.”
Orit Cohen, who filed a petition in Israeli family court to keep her nieces, 13 and 15, from joining the group in 2011, said she was pleased with the hearing.
“Today was a good day,” she said. “The police need to be called to account for their actions.”
Despite Cohen’s attempts to have the children removed, the court allowed them to be homeschooled by Cohen’s brother and sister-in-law, who are still allegedly under the guidance of Shlomo Helbrans.