Leadership behind bars, Lev Tahor cult now seeking to move to Morocco, opponents say

Extremist Jewish group seen getting blessing from controversial celebrity rabbi Pinto for latest cross-border flight; activist says most in group being held against their will

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

Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, center, blesses Lev Tahor member Uriel Goldman, right, in Morocco, in a still from an undated video made available to The Times of Israel. (screen capture: Lev Tahor Survivors)
Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, center, blesses Lev Tahor member Uriel Goldman, right, in Morocco, in a still from an undated video made available to The Times of Israel. (screen capture: Lev Tahor Survivors)

Beleaguered ultra-Orthodox cult Lev Tahor is seeking to move to Morocco, and recently received the blessing of a prominent Moroccan-Israeli rabbi with an international celebrity following, as the extremist group seeks footing after fleeing other countries and having its leadership imprisoned, an activist opposed to the group said.

Uriel Goldman, one of Lev Tahor’s leaders, met recently with Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto in Morocco to win his favor to support the move, according to Lev Tahor Survivors, an organization supporting defectors who fled the group.

A representative of the Morocco’s small Jewish community said he had no knowledge of the cult and said Pinto was not connected to the wider community.

Goldman and at least one other member of the cult received a blessing from Pinto during their visit to Morocco. They believe a conservative country like Morocco might be more accepting of their practices and customs, and the majority of the cult’s membership is Sephardic Jewish, with roots in North Africa and the region, an activist with the opposition group said.

The group shared a video with The Times of Israel showing Pinto blessing Goldman and another man while sitting next to his son. The video was filmed in Casablanca earlier this month. Pinto did not respond to a request for comment.

Lev Tahor is thought to comprise an estimated several hundred people mostly spread out between the US, Guatemala and Macedonia.

The group has been described 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.

The cult has repeatedly fled en masse across borders as authorities cracked down on its illegal practices, including child marriage. The group ran to Canada and then to Guatemala in 2014, after coming under intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities for alleged child abuse and child marriage. Guatemalan authorities also later cracked down, forcing the group to scatter. Members of the group have also been based in the US and Israel.

The cult’s leaders are mostly in prison in the US on convictions stemming from a child kidnapping and child abuse case. US investigators said the group marries underage girls to adult husbands, coaches them to lie about the practice and makes them give birth at home to hide their age from authorities.

Goldman has been responsible for Lev Tahor’s finance and fundraising, and acts as a spokesperson. Since much of the group’s top tier was imprisoned, he has assumed more of a leadership role.

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

A member of the opposition group told The Times of Israel that he believes Lev Tahor is headed by around 15-20 “abusers,” with most other members being held 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.

Pinto, a wealthy rabbi with a history of legal trouble in the US and Israel, has no known previous connection to Lev Tahor.

He was sentenced in Israel for bribing a senior police officer in 2014 and served a year in prison. The police officer, who reported the bribe to his superior, committed suicide after an extended campaign of defamation against him, orchestrated by Pinto’s followers. He was cleared of wrongdoing hours after his death.

The popular rabbi, who heads several charity organizations and Torah study institutions, has also been the subject of a number of investigations by the FBI since 2011.

His international supporters include US basketball star LeBron James, who has sought his “spiritual guidance” in the past and met with him at a wedding in New York in May.

LeBron James holds hands with Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto at the wedding of Jeffrey Schottenstein in New York City, May 22, 2022. (Screenshot from YouTube/Jewish Insider)

Lev Tahor’s moves, machinations, and plans are all murky. Some members of the 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 was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem in the 1980s.

Lev Tahor means “pure heart” in Hebrew.

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