SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Thirty-seven members of the extremist Jewish cult Lev Tahor departed Bosnia and Herzegovina on Thursday, exiting through the Deleusa border crossing with Montenegro, the Bosnian government said.
According to a statement Friday by the country’s Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, the group members are citizens of the United States, Canada and Guatemala, and were in Bosnia and Herzegovina legally under a 90-day visa-free program that was set to expire in the coming days.
Authorities told local media that they were unaware of the secretive group’s final destination, which the group members had no obligation to disclose as they left legally under their own power.
Hours after the Lev Tahor members were seen packing up their belongings and boarding a charter bus, cars full of gawkers continued to drive slowly past the gated apartment compound where the group had stayed, easily discernible by the “Greetings earthlings!” graffiti spray-painted on the fenced outer wall.
As darkness fell, no lights went on in the large, three-story building, making it seem all but certain that the entire 37-member group had indeed left, despite speculation that a portion with more time remaining on their visas might remain behind a little while longer.
A man who was seen working at the house on Friday claimed that the group was headed to Bulgaria, before gruffly urging this reporter to quickly vacate the premises.
“Everyone around here has some inside information,” said a young police officer on patrol due to the location’s temporarily heightened profile.
Lev Tahor drew considerable attention over the last week after relocating from the more isolated town of Hadzici, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) west of the capital, to the east Sarajevo neighborhood of Istocna Ilidza, where their distinctive manner of dress immediately caught the eyes of neighbors.
Some neighbors were concerned about the cult’s strange practices, which included children singing and chanting into the night, and the group’s tendency to isolate itself behind the compound’s heavy locked gate. Friday’s statement by the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs noted that the group had “caused citizens anxiety in the last period,” and that government representatives performed regular check-ins, finding no criminal history or behavior.
But rumors swirled (Bosnian link) as locals discovered more about the cryptic group. In November, two top leaders of the group, Nachman Helbrans and Mayer Rosner, were convicted by a US federal court in New York of child sexual exploitation and kidnapping, in a case involving a family that escaped from the cult.
“Many people think they abduct children or something like that, but from what I understand this is an internal problem in their community,” said Igor Kozemjakin, the cantor and de-facto religious leader at the city’s lone functioning synagogue.
Kozemjakin said that media, non-Jewish colleagues, and even Jewish congregants have been turning to him for information on Lev Tahor.
“I tried to explain that they’re a pretty closed group of — this might be the wrong word to use — but ultra-religious people, because [the association with them] was immediately stigmatizing,” Kozemjakin told The Times of Israel. “I said that they were very strange people within the broader Jewish world and they live according to what they see as the proper understanding of the laws of the Torah, and it’s not compatible with living in today’s world.”
The President of the Jewish Community of Sarajevo, Jakob Finci, expressed similar sentiments.
“Our rabbi is living in Jerusalem,” Finci told The Times of Israel. “He told us that if they do something dangerous, they only do it to themselves — they are not a danger for the surroundings, for the neighbors, so don’t worry about them.”
Lev Tahor, whose name means “pure heart” in Hebrew, has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban” in part because 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, and illegal marriages between minors and older members are common.
The group is estimated to number 200-300 people, including adults born and raised in it, and dozens of children. The majority currently live in Guatemala, having fled government oversight or legal consequences in the United States, Israel and Canada.
It is not known why a portion of Lev Tahor took up residence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it appears to reflect a split within the group, whose members have bounced around the globe looking for the freedom to continue outlawed practices, which alongside child marriage includes depriving kids of secular education.
If members thought they would find such leeway in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said Kozemjakin, they were wrong.
“Elementary education is something that you’re obliged to do by law here. You have to send your kids to regular school, be it private or public it doesn’t matter, but you can’t teach your kids at home. And specifically, you can’t teach them only the religious subjects,” Kozemjakin said.
In the end, he said, the group’s arrival in Bosnia and Herzegovina may have served an educational purpose for the locals.
“Maybe this has helped people understand that Judaism is not a monolithic thing,” said Kozemjakin. “Many people tend to believe that all Jews stick together and we’re so homogenous as a group, so now the local population can see that it’s not such a thing. There are even Jews such as this who perceive other Jews not as Jews at all.”
Luke Tress contributed to this report.