A 22-year-old survivor of an ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist cult in Guatemala is in the midst of a years-long struggle to extract his two-year-old son from the hands of the leadership of the extremist group.
Israel Amir managed to escape the Lev Tahor cult while holed up in a Guatemala forest compound two years ago.
The group has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban,” as women and girls older than three 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.
Lev Tahor was founded by 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.
In November, two top leaders of the group, Nachman Helbrans and Mayer Rosner, were convicted by a federal court in New York of child sexual exploitation and kidnapping in a case involving a family that escaped from the cult.
Before leaving the cult, Amir filmed a video during which he described the brutality of the leaders, the lack of food and the extreme conditions at the compound. He sent the video to his cousins in Israel who flew to Guatemala and helped him leave. He has since been re-acclimating to life back in Israel, far away from the cult.
A year ago, though, Amir decided to return to Guatemala in order to save his young child, who is still being held by Lev Tahor.
Channel 12’s Uvda investigative program followed Amir on his journey and aired a special report on Thursday revealing never before known details about the manner in which Lev Tahor operates.
After appealing to various Knesset members with no luck, Amir managed to recruit a former senior Shin Bet officer, Eshel Armoni, to assist him in extracting his now two-year-old son.
Armoni recruited several former colleagues to join the effort as well. They met last January to discuss their plan, with Armoni warning Amir and others joining them that it wouldn’t be a James Bond-like operation, as their capabilities were limited.
Armoni first dispatched Danny Limor, a former Shin Bet agent who speaks fluent Spanish, to Guatemala in order to gather intelligence on the cult.
When he arrived, Limor found a compound heavily guarded with security cameras and a watchtower. He posed as a businessman seeking to install solar panels at the site but was denied entry by the Lev Tahor leadership.
After failing to gain access to the compound, Armoni appealed to a group of well-informed Chabad members from the United States who agreed to assist in the effort.
They managed to infiltrate the compound and film a video of one of the senior Lev Tahor leaders, a former member of the Bnei Akiva national religious youth group in Israel. The leader, Uriel Goldman, was heard saying that the group could no longer remain in Guatemala due to the government’s crackdown on their activities, and that its next destination would be Iraqi Kurdistan. From there, the goal would be to enter the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Shortly thereafter, the Lev Tahor leadership penned a letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, in which they wrote: “This is a declaration of allegiance and surrender and a request to cooperate against the Zionist regime. In the name of the Lev Tahor movement, we request asylum and protection of the religious freedom of our members.”
Last summer, Armoni received intelligence that the cult was readying for its transfer to Kurdistan. The Lev Tahor leadership was spotted having replaced their traditional clothing with brown gowns that would allow them to blend in better in Iraq. At that point, Armoni decided that he and Amir must fly immediately to Guatemala, convinced that if the cult managed to leave the country, it would be much harder to stop them or retrieve Amir’s son.
Lev Tahor includes many Israelis, including some who have served in the IDF, and although the cult now declares the State of Israel to be its enemy, that may not be enough to keep them out of harm’s way in Iran, Armoni feared.
Shortly before their arrival, Armoni’s American partners managed to obtain a film of the severe conditions at the compound, where children were completely neglected and sometimes kept in cages. The agents also managed to snap an updated photograph of Amir’s son.
The American agents also discovered that the Lev Tahor leadership gave a directive to all mothers to murder their children and then take their own lives if Guatemalan authorities raided the compound. The women in the cult were even given a course on how to slit the throats of their young children if the directive was given.
Two weeks later, Armoni received further intelligence that the Lev Tahor leadership had ordered two buses to extract the first group of women and children out of the country.
Guatemalan authorities managed to cut them off before they arrived at the border and Armoni and Amir were on the scene in the hopes that the latter’s son would be among the children on board. They didn’t spot him, however.
Armoni and his team made several further attempts to locate the boy but were unsuccessful. Amir eventually returned to Israel without his son. However, he told Uvda he’s still got fight left in him.
“The battle is not over. In the end, the government will wake up and help bring the children home… It’ll happen in the end. We will keep fighting in order for it to happen. I will not give up,” he said.