2 leaders of Jewish Lev Tahor cult convicted of kidnapping, child exploitation

Nachman Helbrans, Mayer Rosner face up to life in prison in US for abducting 14-year-old girl and her brother in bid to return her to illegal sexual relationship with an adult man

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Nachman Helbrans pictured sometime prior to 2014. (Screen capture: Youtube/Windsor Star)
Nachman Helbrans pictured sometime prior to 2014. (Screen capture: Youtube/Windsor Star)

Two top leaders of the extremist Jewish group Lev Tahor were convicted of child sexual exploitation and kidnapping by a federal court in New York on Wednesday.

Nachman Helbrans and Mayer Rosner face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison for the conviction. The sentence for the case at the federal Southern District of New York court will be meted out later by a judge.

“Nachman Helbrans and Mayer Rosner brazenly kidnapped two children from their mother in the middle of the night to return a 14-year-old girl to an illegal sexual relationship with an adult man. Today’s verdict makes clear that our Office – and our law enforcement partners – will not be deterred from achieving justice for victims of child sexual exploitation,” said US Attorney Damian Williams.

Around 2017, Helbrans had arranged for the girl, his niece, to be “married” to an adult from the group. The girl was paired to the man when she was 13 and he was 19, although they were never legally married since such a union would be illegal.

The pair then “immediately began a sexual relationship with the goal of procreation,” the US Department of Justice said in a statement, in line with the group’s usual practice.

Lev Tahor leadership, including Helbrans and Rosner, “required young brides to have sex with their husbands, to tell people outside Lev Tahor that they were not married, to pretend to be older, and to deliver babies inside their homes instead of at a hospital, to conceal the mothers’ young ages from the public,” the statement said.

The girl’s mother escaped from the group’s compound in Guatemala in 2018 out of fear for her children’s safety and fled to the US. A Brooklyn court granted her sole custody of the children and barred the children’s father, a leader in Lev Tahor, from communicating with them.

Illustrative: A young woman and member of the Lev Tahor community in the Canadian city of Chatham, Ontario, November 29, 2013. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images, JTA)

Helbrans and Rosner, who are both US citizens, then devised a plan to return the girl, then 14, to her then-20-year-old husband. In December of 2018, they kidnapped her and her 12-year-old brother from their mother in the village of Woodridge in upstate New York. They smuggled the children across the US border into Mexico to reunite the girl with her adult “husband.”

They used disguises, aliases, drop phones, fake travel documents and encrypted software to execute the plan, the statement said.

The children were recovered in Mexico, and the kidnappers arrested, after a three-week search involving hundreds of law enforcement personnel, and returned to New York. Lev Tahor made additional attempts to kidnap the children again in 2019 and 2021. Several others have been arrested and charged in the case.

Helbrans, 39, and Rosner, 45, were convicted of all charges including conspiring to transport a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, conspiring to travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct and international parental kidnapping.

Lev Tahor, an extremist ultra-Orthodox sect, was founded by Nachman Helbrans’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, in Jerusalem in the 1980s. The group fled to Canada and then to Guatemala in 2014 after coming under intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities for alleged child abuse and child marriage. The younger Helbrans took the reins of the group in 2017 when his father drowned in Mexico and Rosner served as a “top lieutenant,” according to court documents.

The group’s name means “pure heart” in Hebrew.

Lev Tahor founder Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans leaves state Supreme Court in Brooklyn, New York following a hearing, April 13, 1994. (AP Photo/Betsy Herzog)

The group’s moves, machinations and plans are all murky. It is currently believed to be trying to move to Iran via Kurdistan. Members of the anti-Zionist group applied for political asylum in Iran in 2018. Documents presented at a US federal court in 2019 showed that leaders of the cult requested asylum from the Islamic Republic and swore allegiance to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Last month, Guatemalan authorities stopped two buses carrying members of the gruop from traveling across the border into Mexico, from where they were reportedly planning to reach Iran to seek asylum.

Guatemala has also stopped members from flying out of the country on their way to Iran at the request of Israeli and US officials, who fear group members could be used as a bargaining chip by Tehran. Kurdish authorities have also reportedly detained some group members and deported them to Turkey.

Members of the Lev Tahor sect prepare to depart from La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City on a journey to Iraqi Kurdistan in Oct. 2021 (Courtesy)

The group has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban,” as women and girls older than 3 are required to dress in long black robes covering their entire body, leaving only their faces exposed. The men spend most of their days in prayer and studying specific portions of the Torah. The group adheres to an extreme, idiosyncratic reading of kosher dietary laws.

“Marriages” between minors and older members are common.

The group’s membership is estimated to be 200-300 people, including adults born into the group and dozens of children.

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