Siblings seized from Jewish group the latest clash between strict sects and welfare officials

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
CBC Windsor has confirmed that the Children's Aid Society has removed two Lev Tahor children from their family in Chatham.

The seizure of two children from the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor is only the latest clash between religious fundamentalism and Canadian child-welfare authorities.

Officials of Chatham-Kent Children's Services took away two toddlers from the group last Thursday, their lawyer told the Toronto Star.

Chris Knowles said the case was scheduled to be heard Tuesday in a Chatham, Ont., courtroom, and he would ask to have the case dismissed and the children returned.

“We obviously feel that the whole thing to begin with is ridiculous," he said. "It shouldn’t have happened in the first place."

[ Related: Quebec urging action from Ontario on Lev Tahor group that fled province ]

Lev Tahor members adhere to Haredi Judaism, which is considered the most theologically conservative form of the religion. Haredim see themselves as practising the most authentic form of Judaism and reject the more liberalized streams.

The Canadian group, which some have labelled the "Jewish Taliban," numbers about 200 members, 130 of them children, according to the Jewish Press. Its leader, Shlomo Helbrans, led the group from Israel in 1990, first settling in Brooklyn, N.Y., then the Quebec community of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts.

Allegations of child abuse, including forced marriages of underage girls, have dogged the group, Jewish Press reported. Helbrans was jailed in the U.S. for kidnapping in 1994 and deported to Israel but later came to Canada.

The group fled to Ontario in November to escape a Quebec child-welfare investigation into allegations that children were living in poor conditions and were malnourished. A Quebec court later ruled that 14 children, aged two months to 16 years, should be taken into foster care, the Star said.

The two children seized by Ontario authorities last week, a brother and sister under five years old, were not part of the group covered by the Quebec court order.

The Montreal Gazette reported they were taken to hospital in Windsor, Ont., last week and placed in foster care after a doctor reported he suspected they were being abused.

Nachman Helbrans, son of the group's leader, said the child-abuse allegations are part of a smear campaign by Israel and pro-Zionist groups because Lev Tahor rejects Zionism, the Star reported.

“We are confident, we are sure there is no abuse in our community, not in the past, not in the current time and not in the future,” he said.

Knowles told the Globe and Mail that although police were present when the children were removed, no criminal files were opened. There were marks on the children's faces, he said, but they might have been ink stains.

“Short of some definite evidence of abuse or immediate harm, we don’t see why those children are not with their parents or with someone in their community,” the lawyer said.

[ Related: Dozens of children seized from Manitoba Mennonite community ]

Allegations against Lev Tahor's members have not been proven but it's hardly the first strict religious sect to fall afoul of child-welfare authorities.

Earlier this year, Manitoba officials seized about 40 children from a conservative Mennonite community. Thirteen of its members were later charged with a number of offences, including assaulting children with a cattle prod and a strap, CBC News reported.

Community leaders said the charges originate from the group's strict disciplinary philosophy but told CBC News they want to co-operate with authorities and change their practices in order to get their children back.

In 2001, 100 members of the German Mennonite Church of God fled rural Ontario for the United States after several children were seized over abuse allegations, the National Catholic Register reported at the time.

The Church of God members, who'd come to Canada from Mexico, would not promise never to use a wooden switch or belt when spanking their children, the Register said. The group takes literally a biblical passage warning "he who spares the rod hates his son."

And RCMP have investigated the community of Bountiful, B.C., made up of members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over allegations that underage girls were being forced to marry older men. The latest probe opened last year, The Canadian Press reported, but no charges have been laid.