Seven of the 13 children involved in a custody dispute between the Lev Tahor sect and Ontario and Quebec child protection services have been returned to Ontario.
Six of them, along with three adults, were stopped at an airport in Trinidad and Tobago last week while en route to Guatemala.
They had fled Canada prior to a court date in Ontario at which they were scheduled to learn the outcome of an appeal made against an order to remove 13 children from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect’s compound in Chatham-Kent, Ont., near Windsor.
'[If you want to] hate me because I’m a Jew, hate me. But I’m a Jew. It’s what I am.' - Joel Helbrans, Lev Tahor member
The Lev Tahor families are facing allegations of child neglect.
“Chatham-Kent Children’s Services staff were at the airport with Peel police assistance and carried out Judge Templeton’s order to bring those children into the agency’s care,” said Stephen Doig, director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services.
Miriam Helbrans, an adult member of Lev Tahor living in Chatham, told CBC News on Monday that a 15-year-old female member of the sect is on a hunger strike in protest of their treatment and has been transferred to a Toronto hospital.
CBC News confirmed late Monday morning that the girl had been admitted to The Hospital For Sick Children, or SickKids Hospital.
A brother of one of the female members of Lev Tahor who fled, said he told an Ontario social worker the family was a flight risk before the Ontario court ruled last month to uphold Quebec’s order to remove the children.
In an exclusive interview with CBC’s French-language service Radio-Canada, the brother — who lives in Israel — said the social worker spoke in Hebrew and English with him and specifically asked whether they should be concerned about a possible flight risk.
The brother, who is not a member of Lev Tahor, said he told the social worker there was indeed a significant risk they would flee.
He said he has tried to extricate his sister from the sect for three years without success, adding that she only became a member of Lev Tahor after leaving Israel.
Lev Tahor leader Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans applied to Canada for refugee status from Israel in 2003, and his appeal was upheld in 2005.
He had moved to Quebec in the late 1990s after serving two years in a New York jail for kidnapping a boy.
Locating the children
Six of the 13 children involved in the court case made it to their final destination on an earlier flight to Guatemala connecting through Mexico City.
“The agency continues to work with various authorities to locate the remaining children, and if found, those children that are subject to the [order] will also be placed in the care of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services,” Doig said.
Meanwhile, two other members of the sect who are involved in the custody battle have also been located.
The remaining child, a five-month-old baby, was stopped at the Calgary International Airport Sunday along with its 17-year-old mother. They were flown back to Toronto and both mother and baby are now in the care of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, according to Peel police.
The young mother was initially part of Quebec’s Youth Protection Services order in November mandating that a group of young people among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect be placed in foster care.
An Ontario judge later ruled that because of her age and the fact that she was also a parent, she should not be included in the order requiring the children be placed in foster care.
However, in the latest court order documents, the 17-year-old is listed as one of the children to be placed in the temporary care of Chatham-Kent Children's Services.
Lev Tahor members feel persecuted
The sect, which is composed of about 200 members and of which about 120 are children, fled their homes in St-Jérôme, Que., in November leading up to a scheduled court appearance involving Quebec’s Youth Protection Services.
- Jewish sect Lev Tahor flees Quebec amid child neglect allegations
- Judge orders 14 Lev Tahor children placed in foster care
“In Quebec, we had started by bringing these two families to court. Our intent was to bring everybody to court because we felt that all the children were endangered while being in that community,” said Denis Baraby, the director of Quebec’s Youth Protection Services (known by the French acronym, DPJ) in St-Jérôme, Que.
'Lev Tahor is not representative of any branch of mainstream Judaism.' - B'Nai Brith Canada
Joel Helbrans, a 21-year-old member of Lev Tahor in Chatham, said he is afraid of what will happen to his three children.
He told CBC News that he and the rest of the sect feel persecuted by the State and by police.
He wore a yellow Star of David with “Jew” written on it during an on-camera interview.
Similar stars were used by the Nazis during the years before the Holocaust to identify Jewish people.
“It’s 1939 coming back,” he said, referring to the persecution of European Jews during the Holocaust.
“[If you want to] hate me because I’m a Jew, hate me. But I’m a Jew. It’s what I am. Don’t say I abuse children because no one abused the children,” he said.
Jewish advocacy group B’Nai Brith Canada issued a statement late last week expressing its concern for the welfare and safety of the Lev Tahor children.
“Lev Tahor is not representative of any branch of mainstream Judaism,” the statement read.