2 members of Lev Tahor cult extradited to US from Guatemala for prosecution

Suspects from extremist Jewish group face life imprisonment for charges including international kidnapping; 2 other members set to appear on trial

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

Members of Lev Tahor prepare to depart their compound in eastern Sarajevo, on February 3, 2022. (Courtesy/Davorin Sekulic/Klix.ba)
Members of Lev Tahor prepare to depart their compound in eastern Sarajevo, on February 3, 2022. (Courtesy/Davorin Sekulic/Klix.ba)

NEW YORK — Two top members of the extremist Jewish Lev Tahor cult have been extradited from Guatemala to the US for prosecution in a child kidnapping case that has ensnared much of the group’s leadership.

Brothers Shmiel and Yakev Weingarten were extradited last month and arraigned before a US federal judge in New York on April 22.

The pair appeared before Judge Nelson S. Roman at the federal US Southern District Court in White Plains, New York, last week. They are being held at the nearby Westchester County Jail.

They insisted on representing themselves in the trial, instead of using a court-appointed lawyer, despite repeated warnings from the judge that doing so was “unwise,” since neither has legal training or experience. They requested laptops in jail, in order to prepare their defense, newly released court documents show.

The Weingartens face a slew of charges relating to international kidnapping, conspiracy, unlawful identification, and coercion of a minor.

They face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Another relative of theirs, Yoil Weingarten, is still in custody in Guatemala, awaiting extradition to the US. The cult moved to Guatemala after fleeing authorities and government oversight in Canada. Local reports this week said Guatemalan authorities have approved his extradition.

Two other defendants in the case, brothers Matityau and Mordechay Malka, had a hearing last week, and are set for a trial appearance in court on Wednesday. The Malkas were already incarcerated in the US.

Last month, the court sentenced the leader of the cult, Nachman Helbrans, to 12-years imprisonment for six convictions, including child sexual exploitation and kidnapping. Another defendant in the case, Mayer Rosner, received the same punishment.

Illustrative. Ultra-Orthodox girls wearing clothing similar to that of the girls in the Lev Tahor cult, walking in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The case stems from the kidnapping of two siblings from a New York home in 2018.

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 have been illegal in both Guatemala and the US.

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

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 their father, a leader in Lev Tahor, from communicating with them.

Helbrans and Rosner then devised a plan to return the girl, then 14, to her then-20-year-old husband. In December 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.

Three months later, Lev Tahor allegedly attempted to kidnap the girl a second time. In that incident, Matityau Malka approached the girl in Brooklyn several times and gave her cell phones to communicate with the kidnappers, court documents claim.

The girl allegedly used the phones to communicate with Yakev Weingarten, who headed the community after Helbrans’s incarceration. The new documents claim that Matityau Malka was in contact with Helbrans while he was in jail during this time.

Yakev Weingarten also threatened the mother around the same time, and Helbrans threatened her from jail in March 2019, according to a US attorney document filed to the Department of Justice and dated to Sunday.

The mother is Helbrans’s sister and has pleaded for lenience toward him, saying she has forgiven him and that he needs counseling and treatment, not punishment.

Matityau Malka also visited Helbrans in jail several times before the March 2019 kidnapping attempt, court documents said.

In March 2021, another unnamed co-conspirator again approached the minors in New York to attempt to remove them from their home again. The suspect had bus tickets to Georgia, drop phones, children’s clothing, and fraudulent birth certificates, court documents said. The suspect returned to Guatemala later that month.

The defendants claim that the mother wrongfully removed the children from the Lev Tahor community, that they were attempting to rescue them, and that they are facing religious persecution.

Prosecutors have said Lev Tahor numbers around 250 members.

An opposition group, Lev Tahor Survivors, put the cult’s membership at between 300 to 350 people. The group is currently spread out, with some members in Guatemala, and others in Macedonia and the US.

A member of the opposition group told The Times of Israel that he believes Lev Tahor is headed by around 15-20 “abusers,” and the rest are being held mostly against their will.

Many of the opposition activists come from religious Jewish communities, which have also taken in some Lev Tahor members who fled from the group.

Lev Tahor, an extremist ultra-Orthodox sect, was founded by 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 under mysterious circumstances.

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

Lev Tahor’s moves, machinations, and plans are all murky. Several dozen members of the group have been bouncing around the Balkans in recent months. Some 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 swore allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The group has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban,” as women and girls older than 3 years old 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.

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