The leader of a controversial ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect may have used misleading or false evidence to gain refugee status in Canada, according to an investigation by CBC’s the fifth estate.
Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans is the head of Lev Tahor, a sect that moved from Quebec to Chatham, Ont., last November, amid allegations of child neglect.
Recently released search warrants show that for nearly two years Quebec provincial police have been investigating allegations of physical abuse of children within the group, unlawful confinement and marriages between girls under 16 and much older men.
The sect is appealing an Ontario court decision upholding a Quebec youth court ruling that ordered the temporary removal of more than a dozen children from the sect.
Helbrans came to Canada after he was convicted of kidnapping in the United States and deported to Israel. He applied for refugee status in Canada in 2003, claiming that he would be persecuted for his strong anti-Zionist views if he were sent back to Israel.
One of Israel’s leading scholars on ultra-Orthodox groups, Professor Menachem Friedman, read Helbrans’ refugee file and dismissed his argument.
“When I read it, I laugh. If it was not so tragic, it is a comedy,” he told the fifth estate’s Gillian Findlay. “I don’t believe it at all.”
Some ultra-Orthodox rabbis are opposed to the existence of the Israeli state, because they believe a state for the Jewish people can only be legitimately proclaimed by God and cannot happen until the day the Messiah arrives. But Friedman says other anti-Zionist Rabbis in Israel have taken their opposition much further than Helbrans, with some joining rabidly anti-Israel leaders in Iran, without facing persecution.
Now the fifth estate’s investigation is raising questions about some of the key evidence in Helbrans’ refugee claim.
Helbrans’ claim included testimony from a man who is now the spokesperson for Lev Tahor. Uriel Goldman testified that as a young intelligence soldier in Israel’s defence force, the IDF, he was ordered to spy on Helbrans. Instead, Goldman decided to join Lev Tahor.
When the fifth estate asked the IDF about Goldman, it was told they have no record of Goldman serving in the military intelligence.
When questioned, Goldman told Findlay he did not want to talk about his testimony at the refugee hearing.
“I know that Israel is watching very carefully,” he said. “I think you can understand. I don't want to receive one day a bullet from a Mossad agent if it gets ugly.”
He also suggested it’s not surprising that the IDF would not release sensitive military information.
“I understand why they say that,” he said. “And this was, like, not a normal operation.”
Helbrans also had a criminal record in the United States, something that would normally be an obstacle to gaining refugee status in Canada.
In 1994, Helbrans was convicted of kidnapping a young boy named Shai Fhima in Brooklyn, NY. He was sentenced to a minimum of four years in prison, which was reduced to two years on appeal. Once released, Helbrans was deported to Israel.
Six weeks later he came to Canada and began to re-establish Lev Tahor in Quebec. Eventually, he applied for refugee status.
At his refugee hearing in 2003 he submitted a video of his kidnapping victim, Fhima, saying Helbrans’ conviction was a misunderstanding and that he wanted to clear the rabbi’s name.
Fhima has recently told the fifth estate what he said in that video was a lie. He says that Lev Tahor paid him $5,000 to make the recording, in a deal arranged by the community’s spokesman, Goldman. He also said that Helbrans really did kidnap him.
Helbrans told Findlay that is “absolutely false and a lie.”
Goldman said Lev Tahor did pay for Fhima’s airplane ticket from Israel to Canada, but not for the recording.
In his decision, the former refugee board commissioner who heard Helbrans’ claim, Gilles Ethier, found all the testimony to be “sincere and relevant.” Helbrans was accepted as a refugee.
Since the federal government did not send a lawyer to the trial, there was no one to challenge Helbrans’ witnesses or evidence. It is not the role of the commissioner to bring counter-evidence against refugee claims.
“The thing is that I had proof and evidence that was put in front of me, and I had to decide with that,” Ethier said.
The federal government did appeal his decision, but it was upheld by the federal court.
In January, police executed search warrants in several Lev Tahor homes in Chatham, in a raid captured by the fifth estate. The search warrants, obtained by CBC and other media outlets that fought to have the documents made public, reveal that police are investigating allegations including child abuse and unlawful confinement.
It was also alleged that some underage girls in the sect were married to much older men.
“I never marry children against the law,” Helbrans told Findlay.
He said that there had been three cases of 15-year-olds from his community getting married. They travelled to Missouri, where children can be married at 15 with the consent of their parent or guardian, to be married by a judge before returning to the community in Quebec. In Quebec, it’s not a crime for children under 16 years old to refer to themselves as being married; however, their union will not be recognized as valid.
Helbrans claims the allegations against his community are due to anti-Semitism.
“The Jewish nation is a target from allegations [for] more than 3,000 years,” Helbrans said. “We are persecuted because of our spiritual background, because we are Jews, anti-Zionists, because we are extreme.”
But his claim that his sect is the target of anti-Semitism is not getting much sympathy in Israel.
“I think all the ways that this sect operates is contradictory to Judaism in every aspect of it,” said Yariv Levin, a government representative in Israel. He is on a parliamentary committee on the rights of the child that has been gathering evidence on Lev Tahor.
Israeli families who have children in Lev Tahor are pressuring their government to take action.
Levin is now calling on Canada to shut Helbrans and his sect down.
“He doesn’t have any excuse and reason to be recognized as a refugee, but all of that we can deal with later on,” he said. “But now we have to deal with the children.”