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Three more members of Lev Tahor cult sentenced over 2018 kidnapping

In latest blow to extremist Jewish sect, cousins Mordechay and Matityau Malka imprisoned in New York, though husband of child bride at center of case freed after time served

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

An illustrative photo of young ultra-Orthodox girls wearing clothing similar to girls in the Lev Tahor cult, walking in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
An illustrative photo of young ultra-Orthodox girls wearing clothing similar to girls in the Lev Tahor cult, walking in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

NEW YORK — Three members of the extremist Jewish Lev Tahor cult were sentenced last week by a US federal court for their role in a 2018 kidnapping, part of a case that has already led to the group’s unraveling and seen most its leadership hauled away to prison.

Cousins Matityau Moshe Malka and Mordechay Malka were given 66 months and 57 months in prison respectively, while Jacob Rosner received a 38 month sentence for their roles in the abduction of two children from their mother’s New York home in 2018.

A jury found them guilty of charges related to conspiracy and international parental kidnapping in June.

The sentences handed down by the US Southern District Court in White Plains, New York, include the 37 months they have already spent in jail since their arrest. Rosner, who pleaded guilty and expressed remorse, was released from custody on time served.

All three men are US citizens.

The three join other members of the cult who have been sentenced to prison for kidnapping a 14-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy 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,” Rosner, whom she had been wed to in a religious ceremony a year prior.

“This was a horrific, horrendous crime that was committed,” judge Nelson Roman said at the sentencing.

Lev Tahor leader Nachman Helbrans was sentenced in April to 12 years imprisonment in the same case. Another defendant, Mayer Rosner, received the same punishment. Two other members are on trial.

Mordechay Malka apologized for his crimes, and his lawyer argued he had realized the severity of his actions while incarcerated, since it was his first time away from the cult’s influence.

The judge dismissed his apology due to his lack of remorse before the sentencing. Prosecutors said the defendants had repeatedly attempted to delay the trial by disrupting the proceedings and had lied under oath.

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

The mother of the kidnapped children also asked the judge for leniency, saying she grew up with Malka, and that he called her to apologize weeks ago. She has also asked the court for mercy toward Helbrans, who is her brother.

The court found that the Malkas helped Helbrans kidnap the two children, including by smuggling them a phone. Mordechay accompanied Helbrans in a car to take the children from their mother’s home and smuggle them from the area in disguise, using fake travel documents.

The fugitives made their way to Mexico, where they met with Rosner and Matityau Malka. Law enforcement tracked them down in Mexico weeks later.

Rosner, now 23, married the girl who was kidnapped when she was 13 and he was 18. The marriage in Guatemala was illegal and never officially recognized.

The girl’s mother fled from the cult to New York with her three children after the marriage for their safety. US prosecutors have said Lev Tahor regularly arranged illegal marriages between young girls and adult men.

The group’s leadership “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,” prosecutors said.

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

Three months after the kidnapping, Lev Tahor allegedly attempted to kidnap the girl a second time. In that incident, Matityau Malka approached the girl in Brooklyn several times and gave her cell phones to communicate with the kidnappers, court documents said.

The defendants claimed the mother wrongfully removed the children from the Lev Tahor community, that they were attempting to rescue them, and that they are facing religious persecution.

Two other Lev Tahor members are in custody in New York. In April, Yakev Weingarten and his brother Shmiel Weingarten were extradited from Guatemala and arraigned before a US federal judge. Yakev Weingarten took the reins of Lev Tahor after Helbrans was imprisoned.

The extremist ultra-Orthodox sect was founded by Helbrans’s 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 over the group in 2017, when his father drowned in Mexico under mysterious circumstances.

The kidnapping case and its ensuing legal fallout has thrown the cult into disarray. The group is believed to be spread out with most of its members in Guatemala, North Macedonia and the US. In July, two of its representatives went to Morocco to look into a move there.

An opposition group, Lev Tahor Survivors, has put the cult’s membership at between 300 to 350 people.

A member of the Jewish Lev Tahor cult in Bosnia and Herzegovina in television footage broadcast by the N1 BiH news outlet on January 28, 2022. (Screenshot/ YouTube)

A member of the opposition group told The Times of Israel that he believes Lev Tahor is headed by around 15-20 “abusers,” and the rest are being held mostly 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.

Lev Tahor’s moves, machinations, and plans are all murky. Several dozen members of the group were bouncing around the Balkans earlier this year. 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 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, including their faces in most cases. 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.

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