Mendy Levy was an associate of Lev Tahor in Guatemala, an extremist group. He fled Canada in 2018 Mendy Levy
Mendy Levy was conceived in Canada in 2003 to parents who belonged to Lev Tahor. This extremist Jewish cult was founded in the 1980s. It was snatched by other Jewish groups and faced a kidnapping scandal. Lev Tahor's leader Shlomo Shelbrans had relocated Lev Tahor from Israel to Canada in 1990. In the wake of Quebec child abuse investigations, Helbrans moved the group to Guatemala.
Levy was able to escape the group in 2018. He now divides his time between Canada, New York and Canada. Shlomo Shelbrans was drowned in Guatemala in 2017 In late 2018 and early 2021, US authorities detained Nachman Helbrans and other Lev Tahor leaders. They are currently being tried in New York federal court on fraud and kidnapping charges. They have pleaded not guilty. Insider reached out to lawyers for Helbrans as well as other leaders for clarification.
Lev Tahor's remaining members, estimated to be 250, continue to live in Guatemala, despite unsuccessful attempts to move to Iran.
Jacob Shamsian hears Mendy, now 18 years old, talk about growing up in Lev Tahor, and why he chose to leave.
Lev Tahor is all about total control. Without permission, you can't do anything. You must comply with their requests if you are asked to.
One woman was allergic to sesame seeds used in tahina. In fall 2017, around Sukkot in Guatemala, a rabbi tried to test her faith by telling her to eat it. He told her she could die but after much fighting, he insisted that she eat it.
She died two hours later. They refused to let her call an ambulance because she was suffering from an allergic reaction. Without permission from the rabbi, doctors are not allowed in Lev Tahor. They advised us to trust the Rabbi.
They did not want to bury her. They told her she would be awake again and that she'd wake up. They finally put her to rest at four in the morning. According to the rabbi, she died from lack of faith in him.
Is this religion? It's absolutely horrible. This would not happen in Williamsburg or New Square, which are both Jewish communities. It wouldn't happen. It's Lev Tahor.
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They don't want anyone to see the outside world. Without permission from the leader, no one can go anywhere.
This is how my father died.
My mother advised me and my brothers to visit the leader to see if they could help him. He was told by the doctor that he needed to be admitted to the hospital. However, the rabbi denied this.
My father was not eating and he wasn’t moving. Over the course of a week and half, he became more and more sicker. It was over. On October 25, 2016, he died.
They might have wanted to kill him. I don't understand why. They might have been afraid that he would leave the community. My father said once that he had considered leaving.
Perhaps they were just trying to prove that you couldn't.
How we spend every hour of the day was dictated by the rabbis
It all starts when you get up.
Every morning, you wake up at 5:30 AM. You go to shul (synagogue) first thing in the morning. One of the rabbis will take all the boys to shul. Every day, we go up the mountain river to get in the cold water. You will also find snakes in the water. There were many snakes. The rabbis watch as everyone enters the mikvah (ritual immersion into water). After they are done, they ensure everyone returns to shul. We are instructed to sit down at shul and think about God when we arrive. For half an hour, think about God.
That's a wonderful thing. If they make you think about God in controlled ways, you won't like to think about God.
Below: Mendy Levy's photo taken in Guatemala around 2014-2015. To the right is Levy today. Shulem Avruhm Yoitzchok; Shmully Wolson
After that, everyone must put on tefillin. You can't take them off for three hours. Shacharis (morning prayer) takes three hours minimum.
One of the rabbis will come into the shul to give a class after shacharis. You'll be in shul for most of the day and must learn. Shlomo HEBRANS, the head rabbi at Lev Tahor wrote his own books. They must be read. It is essential that you know the information by heart. You can face the consequences if you don’t.
Every other Jewish book is exempted. The chumash, five books of Moses, and their own studies are excluded. They do not study outside. They don't know Talmud. They don't know Rashi. They literally torch every Jewish book with a symbol of Chabad.
In January 2012, a school for children at Lev Tahor, Sainte Agathe des Monts (Quebec, Canada). Mendy Levy is at the extreme left. Shay Fogelman/Photo-Stock Israel/Alamy
Education is not a matter of opinion. Nothing. I don't mean anything. We didn't know what "science" meant. We couldn't even speak one word of English. No reading. You will be punished if you write "ABC” in Lev Tahor. We don't know who Trump is. We don't even know what Biden looks like. I didn't know much about the Holocaust at the time. There was no iPhone, no computer, or anything like that, unless you were one the leaders.
It is a cult. It's like no other Jewish community.
Lev Tahor's founder was a brilliant rabbi. He could brainwash and control hundreds of people over years. People would then believe him and follow his way of life. They made us see the outside world as the worst, and they believed that we were the only ones who could save it. They convinced us that Lev Tahor was the only true Judaism, and that it is better to die than leave.
Sometimes, the rabbi's morning speech can last six to seven hours. Because the speech could easily go on until the night, I used not to eat breakfast or lunch.
Lev Tahor says that a lot of food isn’t kosher. They do not eat fish. They don't drink milk. They do not eat eggs. They don't consume any protein. There are no mangoes. There are no grapes. They only eat fruits, vegetables, and bread. You can only make bread if you go into the fields and cut the seeds, and then you use the machines to mill them. You get bread if you're lucky.
You go to your home, have breakfast for half an hour, then return. You then study for two hours before you go to Mincha (the morning prayer) or Maariv (the night prayer), which take place in the evening.
You then sit down again and learn more before you head home for dinner, which is simply vegetable soup. You then return to shul, where you continue learning until 11:11 at night.
To keep their children on the right track, leaders used mental and physical abuse
The entire community is controlled by 15 leaders. We're talking 60 families and around 300 people.
Physical abuse and mental abuse were my experiences. You can hear the beatings and the hitting. They will take the powder and hot pepper and make sure that anyone who tells a lie, even a child, does not swallow it. After being hit or beaten you were required to kiss the person who hit you and say thank you.
It is forbidden for people to love their parents. Parents are not allowed to have any kind of relationship, either physical or mental. If a father or mother hugged a child in Lev Tahor and the leaders realized it, they would remove the children and place them in their house or another.
A store in San Juan La Laguna is stocked with men from the Jewish community. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez
On August 24, 2014, members of Lev Tahor were seen in San Juan La Laguna. Following child abuse investigations in Canada, the group relocated there. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez
Why? They want everyone to believe in them, listen to them, and only trust them. They don't want to see you cry if a leader hits. They cut off all communication between you and your parents.
I informed the FBI that "you should know every day you're not taking any action in this case or the community, there are people wanting to commit suicide because it's too painful." They wake up, get hit, tortured and can't bear another day like this.
Shortly after we moved to Guatemala in 2014, I experienced a nervous breakdown. All the pain caused my brain to stop working. I thought about suicide. I just exploded.
About half a year was spent in hospital. I didn't know what was wrong until then. It would be difficult for most children to understand.
However, it was in hospital that I began to think differently. I saw the world differently than everyone else in this cult. That was when I began to think about how I could leave Lev Tahor.
When the rabbis advised me to marry a 12-year old girl, I began planning my escape.
The rabbi is making new rules when he gives talks to communities. He must make sure that the new rules sink in to the community so that everyone can say, "I agree with this law, this is what I agree with." This is what God wants.
He must be intelligent, to stimulate your mind. He must talk a lot. He might respond to a situation in which he is doing things differently by saying "I've looked in, and it's not kosher." This is how he plays with peoples' brains.
In January 2012, a school for children at Lev Tahor, Sainte Agathe des Monts (Quebec, Canada). Mendy Levy is in the middle row. Shay Fogelman/Photo-Stock Israel/Alamy
Lev Tahor in Guatemala was becoming worse. Nachman, the son of Shlomo Helfbrans, took over when Shlomo died in 2017. He gave even worse speeches. He also made worse rules.
The most bizarre thing about the law was that everyone must get married when they are 12 and 13 years old.
This was my main reason for saying, "Enough is enough." I was fifteen years old. They wanted me to marry my first cousin, a 12-year old girl. She didn't want me to marry her, and I refused to. I had to leave.
I told the Rabbi that I was okay with marriage. But then I began planning my escape. In 2018, I visited the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala. They gave me different locations in Guatemala and I had to wait for my passport. Finally, I was able to fly to Canada on October 14, 2018 and was accepted by the child protective services.
It took time and therapy to adjust to Lev Tahor's new life.
For about a year, I was without a home. I was placed with four to five families. When they couldn't find a family for me I was placed in a group home. I was there for about four to five months. In January this year, I was adopted in Montreal by a Chabad couple. Lavi and Bryndel Klein provided me with a home.
When I got out of Lev Tahor I needed to get help. I was broken. I wasn't always able to get the support that I needed. It took me a lot of effort to get things sorted out.
Only the Orthodox community was able to help me survive. After I left Lev Tahor, I could have been in very dire circumstances. It was so different that I had trouble processing everything. I could have committed suicide or turned to drugs. Without the Orthodox community's help, I wouldn’t be here.
I feel confident that I can take on any challenge. Because I'm used it, it wouldn't bother me as much if anything happened. I've seen worse.
Now I speak English. I have been learning it for over two years. When we arrived in Guatemala, Lev Tahor taught us Yiddish and Hebrew. We also learned a little Spanish.
My life has changed dramatically. Lavi and Bryndel helped me in education, caught me up in the world and helped me plan for my future. I didn't know 4+4. They spent a lot of their time in school, education, and therapy. They taught me how to live and the world works.
I am trying new things. I was inspired by a friend's camera to be a photographer when they borrowed it. I take a lot family photos and portraits.
A keyboard was a feature of the first family that I stayed in Guatemala. It was a joy to use, and I used it for hours every day. Slowly, but surely, I learned how to play. I never got lessons. Now, I perform at large events. My music is loved by many. Recently, I performed at a wedding.
Instagram is a place where I often post about my life. People message me all the time. People always message me to tell me how they feel. I hear people tell me that they have many questions about God. They would be amazed to see my story and say, "What are these question?" Mendy Levy!
People often ask me how to deal with abusive parents or bullying.
Mendy Levy with one of his brothers after they both left Lev Tahor. Mendy Levy
I try to instill confidence in them. Let someone make fun of me. He's sorry that he is having a bad day and has nothing better to be doing. Let him be content if that makes him happy.
I'm not one of those people who let others get me down. Except if someone hacks my Instagram.
I have seven siblings and three brothers. My family remains in Guatemala. My mother could not be alive. That information is not available to me. I don't even know what it is.
Nobody knows anything from the inside. It is so closed. There are no phones. However, I do know that I have one brother in Israel. He works as a pharmacist. He was my first meeting since October, when I left Lev Tahor.
People call Lev Tahor "Jewish Taliban." When asked about this nickname, I replied that I didn't know much about the Taliban. Growing up, I did not know anything about the war in Afghanistan. What was 9/11? It was something I heard about, but I wasn't sure what it meant.
This was my entire life. Every day I learn new things.
Insider has the original article.