3 defendants in Lev Tahor cult abduction case convicted in NY of 2018 kidnapping

Brothers Yoil Weingarten, Yakov Weingarten and Shmiel Weingarten, of extremist sect, found guilty for their role in abducting two children from their mother’s home in the Catskills

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

Members of the extreme ultra-Orthodox Lev Tahor sect assisting a woman as they escape from a detention shelter in Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico, on September 29, 2022. (Benjamin Alfaro/AFP)
Members of the extreme ultra-Orthodox Lev Tahor sect assisting a woman as they escape from a detention shelter in Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico, on September 29, 2022. (Benjamin Alfaro/AFP)

New York Jewish Week, via JTA — Three members of the extremist Jewish Lev Tahor religious cult were convicted of kidnapping two children by a New York court on Wednesday.

Brothers Yoil Weingarten, Yakov Weingarten and Shmiel Weingarten were convicted of child exploitation and kidnapping for their role in abducting a 14-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother from their mother’s home in the Catskills in New York in 2018.

The brothers were the last of nine suspects in the case to stand trial. All have been convicted or pleaded guilty, including Lev Tahor’s leader, Nachman Helbrans, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2022 for kidnapping and transporting minors for sexual purposes and other charges. Lev Tahor means “pure heart” in Hebrew.

“With this verdict, all nine Lev Tahor leaders and operatives charged for these heinous crimes have been held accountable,” the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York said in a statement, calling the defendants’ conduct “unthinkable.”

“Whether in the name of religion or any other belief system, subjecting children to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse will never be tolerated,” the statement said.

The brothers were convicted of all charges, including international parental kidnapping, coercion or enticement of a minor female, and conspiracy to defraud the United States. The sentencing will take place in the coming months.

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

Lev Tahor is a secretive group and little is known about its inner workings. The group adheres to an extreme interpretation of Jewish law that severely restricts its members’ contact with the outside world as well as every day aspects of life, such as their diet and dress. A group called Lev Tahor Survivors, which opposes the cult’s activities, has estimated its membership at several hundred people. Lev Tahor is led by a core group, with the rest being held mostly against their will, the opposition group has said.

The kidnapping case threw the group into turmoil, and since Helbrans’ arrest, some members have sought a new home, turning up in the Balkans and Morocco. But the majority appears to have remained in Guatemala, where the group has been based since around 2013, following stints in Israel and Canada during which they attempted to flee government oversight.

In the kidnapping case, in December 2018 on Shabbat and Hanukkah, members of the cult took the two children from the town of Woodridge, New York, late at night and, using disguises and fraudulent identification documents, smuggled the brother and sister across state lines into Mexico to reunite the girl with the adult man they considered her “husband.”

Lev Tahor had a practice of wedding underage girls to adult men and forcing them to have sex with their “husbands,” US investigators have said. The girl in this case was 13 when she was married to Jacob Rosner, then 18, another defendant in the case. The illegal marriage was never officially recognized.

The children were recovered in Mexico after a weekslong search involving hundreds of investigators and law enforcement personnel, and returned to New York.

The children’s mother fled the cult to protect her children after the girl’s marriage to Rosner, ending up in New York and gaining custody of her three children. The defendants in the case claimed she had wrongfully removed the children from the community and that they were attempting a rescue.

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

The mother is the sister of Nachman Helbrans, the cult leader, who took the reins of the group after his father and Lev Tahor’s founder, Shlomo Helbrans, drowned in a river in Mexico in 2017. She pleaded with the judge to show Nachman mercy at his sentencing in 2022.

The three brothers who were convicted this week were extradited to the United States from Guatemala in 2022. They were held in the Westchester County Jail and tried in the US Southern District Court in White Plains.

Shmiel Weingarten participated in the kidnapping, while his brothers Yakov and Yoil helped plan the abduction and met the children in Mexico. The three brothers were all leaders of the group, prosecutors said.

Lev Tahor Survivors told the New York Jewish Week that the Weingartens’ conviction “ends an abusive chapter that leaves most of the cult leadership in prison.”

“The void opens the greatest opportunity to dissolve the cult once and for all,” the group said. “We hope the authorities manage to cut off communication between the leadership behind bars and the members still trapped in Guatemala. If they do that, Lev Tahor will soon be a dark speck of history.”

Most Popular
read more: