To no one’s surprise – except perhaps for befuddled child protection officials and a judge in rural Ontario, Canada – the leader of the haredi Lev Tahor cult and many of his followers have fled child abuse allegations in two separate Canadian provinces for the far less regulated backwater of rural Guatemala.The villagers in San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala, did not know what to make of it when the devout newcomers appeared, the men in long black coats, the women and girls in dark chadors despite the tropical heat.
Their arrival sparked fear among some people in the indigenous community, who were taken aback by their clothing, customs and Yiddish speech. “There were even people who believed that their presence signalled the second coming of Christ,” Salvador Loarca, an assistant attorney in the local human rights office, said in a telephone interview last week.
In fact, what appears to be occurring in the lakeside region about 80 kilometres west of the capital Guatemala City is the latest coming of the nomadic, ultra-orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor. Founded by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem in the 1980s, the group spent close to a decade in New York state and more than a decade in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., before fleeing to Chatham, Ont., in the middle of the night last fall as Quebec child-protection authorities prepared to intervene.
With Canadian authorities scrutinizing the members’ immigration status (the adults were mostly born outside Canada) and Ontario children’s aid officials seeking protection orders, Lev Tahor leaders have decided they have no future in Canada. A well-connected source inside Montreal’s Hassidic community said Mr. Helbrans left Canada last week and Lev Tahor members were told to pray for his safe arrival in Guatemala.
“There is no future for this community in Canada,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann, who is representing community members in various immigration and child-protection files. “There is none …. Generally speaking, these people want to be together, and that’s going to be impossible here in Canada. They have some very bad memories here.”
Mr. Mamann said “several” Lev Tahor families have already left for Guatemala, including a mother and six children who were subject to a court order to remain in the Chatham area. Mr. Mamann dismissed concerns that the children would be at even greater risk in the impoverished Central American country. “The children are fine in Guatemala. There are millions of children in Guatemala,” he said.
“It’s obviously a country that is a bit poorer than Canada …. It’s a lot poorer, but children live there.”
In Quebec, an investigation by child-protection officials last year revealed that children were suffering from poor dental health and fungal infections. They were not bathing on a regular basis, were not being schooled according to any Canadian curriculum and only spoke Yiddish and Hebrew. Girls are required from the age of three to wear the chador, which only reveals their faces. Youth protection officials also told a court that the community practised arranged marriages with girls as young as 14.
After community members hurriedly left Ste-Agathe for Chatham during the night of Nov. 17, a Quebec judge ordered that 13 children belonging to three families be placed in foster care. An Ontario Superior Court justice ruled last April that Ontario had no jurisdiction to enforce the Quebec order, and since then Quebec authorities have been left on the sidelines.
A spokeswoman for Quebec youth protection, Isabelle Dugré, said her organization “remains very worried about the situation of children who are currently in Ontario and Guatemala” and is prepared to provide any help Ontario requires.
It appears, though, that once again the Lev Tahor children are slipping through the safety net, bound for a country where community leaders will not be hounded about following a specific school curriculum and where girls can marry at age 14.
Mr. Mamann said the choice of Guatemala as a destination was last-minute, but a similar ultra-orthodox sect called Toiras Jesed has also been putting down roots in San Juan la Laguna.
The new arrivals have sparked some recent tension, leading to reports on Israeli web sites that anti-Semitism had broken out in Guatemala. But Misael Santos, a member of Toiras Jesed, said the only violence involved some rock throwing and insults by a group of drunken youth.
“It’s past. The young people came and asked for forgiveness,” he said.
“What happened was a lack of information about how a Jewish man lives. Some people thought we were part of a satanic sect.”
Mr. Loarca, the human-rights attorney, said rumours spread that the newcomers wanted to buy land and populate the town, at a time when the municipality was encouraging locals to have fewer children as a way to manage poverty. One woman at a community meeting called for their expulsion, he said.
“This is a town of peace and tranquility. Here, no one is discriminated against,” Rodolfo Perez, the mayor of San Juan La Laguna, said. “They called us racists, but we have never had problems with these people. ” He said the municipality, at the request of the community, asked the group to provide a list of its members in order to protect them. Mr. Loarca said the list was compiled “in order to gain some control, for their own safety.”
Angelyn Smolders for National Post
A spokesman for Guatemala’s General Directorate of Migration said he is aware of one Lev Tahor family — the mother and six children who fled the Canadian court order — that has settled in San Juan la Laguna. Fernando Lucero said that upon arrival in Guatemala in March, the family presented themselves in front of a judge, who said they could remain free because they are not accused of any crime in Guatemala.
“In terms of the laws of Guatemala, they have not committed any offence. They are here legally,” Mr. Lucero said. He said 90-day tourist visas like the one on which they entered can be renewed.
Shelley Thibert, a spokeswoman for Chatham-Kent Children’s Services (CKCS), said there is little her agency can do once families leave the province. “We are aware of the families in Guatemala and have had discussions with Canadian Foreign Affairs as CKCS has no jurisdiction outside of Ontario,” she said.
A Foreign Affairs spokesman would say only that consular officials are providing assistance to the families in Guatemala. He said further details on the case could not be released for privacy reasons.
Back in Quebec, where a Jewish social services agency had been preparing to find foster homes for the allegedly neglected Lev Tahor children, the prospect that they will be beyond the reach of Canadian law has been met with disappointment.
“We continue to be extremely concerned for the sake of these children,” said David Ouellette, public affairs director at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Montreal. “I would hope that everything is done for them to be protected.”