Lev Tahor cult leader sentenced to 12 years for kidnapping, child exploitation
Nachman Helbrans says he’s being punished because he is ‘a loyal Jew’; state prosecution says he has not shown ‘one ounce of remorse’ for his crimes
Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.
WHITE PLAINS, New York — A US federal court sentenced the leader of the extremist Jewish Lev Tahor cult to 12 years imprisonment on Thursday for six convictions including child sexual exploitation and kidnapping.
Nachman Helbrans, 40, was convicted of the crimes by the federal Southern District of New York court in November and had faced a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Another defendant in the case, Mayer Rosner, 45, received the same punishment.
US federal marshals accompanied Helbrans and Rosner into the courtroom on Thursday morning. The two men’s tallit, or Jewish prayer shawls, dangled below their baggy orange jumpsuits as they greeted their lawyers and a Yiddish translator.
Helbrans brought a copy of the Talmud and a book on Jewish history into the courtroom in a garbage bag and spent parts of the proceedings rocking in his seat in prayer, sometimes chanting softly. He appeared gaunt but energetic.
The prosecution asked Judge Nelson S. Roman for a harsh sentence, saying Helbrans both set the policy of illegal child marriages in Lev Tahor and carried out the kidnapping himself by taking the children from their mother’s home, disguising them, and deceiving transportation authorities.
“The defendant has not shown one ounce of remorse for his conduct, has not shown one ounce of remorse for his victims,” the state prosecution said.
Helbrans has instead accused authorities of antisemitic persecution and continued to “malign” the victims, he said.
“There is every indication that if he is released he will commit the same crime again,” the prosecution said, noting that Helbrans had attempted to kidnap the children a second time after an initial arrest.
The mother of the children who were kidnapped, Helbrans’s sister, pleaded for leniency.
“Even though my children and I have suffered from his actions we have forgiven him,” she told the court.
She said Helbrans’s “mental stability” had declined after their father died in 2017, and he took command of Lev Tahor.
After his father died, “Something in Nachman changed. His face and his eyes changed. His face became white and he became gaunt and hunched over,” she said.
He began obsessively praying and became “irrational and distant,” and believed God was punishing the community, especially after another relative died of an allergic reaction, she said.
She asked that Helbrans be given counseling and “guidance” instead of prison time.
“My brother needs help,” she said tearfully. “In jail, he cannot fully heal. The longer Nachman suffers, the longer I will suffer too.”
Helbrans’s lawyer, Bruce Koffsky, said the victim, unnamed because she is a minor, also sent in a letter of support for Helbrans, as did other Lev Tahor members.
Koffsky likened the sentencing to the refrain “Dayenu” from the upcoming Passover holiday. The phrase means, “It would have been enough.”
Helbrans’s actions came “from a deep-seated sense of religion. Religion does strange things to people. For whatever reason, Nachman has gone to the end of that road and gone a little further,” Koffsky said.
“What is enough of a sentence where the court can say ‘dayenu’?” he asked, requesting the minimum sentence. “If the court sentenced the defendant to 10 years that would be ‘dayenu.’ That would be enough.”
Koffsky said the defense plans to appeal the conviction and the sentence.
Helbrans went on a tirade when allowed to speak before the sentence was announced, quoting from the Talmud he brought in and likening his prosecution to “harsh decrees” by the Roman empire against Jews.
He held up the history book he brought in from the jail library, comparing himself to a photo of a Jewish child in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.
He said he had asked his wife and children to mark the day of his sentencing, and “to make a celebration, a kiddush [blessing], and to keep this day a holiday. I have an opportunity to be persecuted and punished only because I’m a loyal Jew,” he said.
“Thank God for that.”
In addition to their 12-year sentences, Helbrans and Rosner will be on probation for five years after their release.
They have already been in custody since December 2018, time which will count toward his overall prison term.
Helbrans and Rosner, both US citizens, were convicted last year of all charges filed against them, 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.
Prosecutors said Helbrans masterminded the plot, and Rosner served as his “top lieutenant.”
The case stems from the kidnapping of the 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 be illegal.
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.
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.
Helbrans and Rosner 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.
Lev Tahor, an extremist ultra-Orthodox sect, was founded by Helbrans’ 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.
The group’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 requested asylum from Iran and 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 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 group’s membership is estimated to be 200-300 people, including adults born into the group and dozens of children.