Mayans Expel Jews from Guatemala Village*
Mayan village elders in a village in Guatemala have ordered a group of Orthodox Jewish residents to leave after being accused of wanting to “impose” their religion on the local people. The sect’s name is taken from a biblical passage: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me,” Psalms 51:10. These Jews are of the Hasidic community called Lev Tahor (“Pure Heart”). Lev Tahor started in the mid-1980s in Jerusalem.
Members of Lev Tahor, an anti-Zionist group created by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in the 1980s in Israel before they left for the US, Canada and Guatemala in the 1990s, started leaving San Juan La Laguna on Friday after they were reportedly threatened “with lynching” if they did not leave the village.
Jewish resident Misael Santos told AFP: “We decided to leave because the Council of Elders does not want us. It’s sad to leave, and there are people who like us here… when we left there were people who cried.”
Lev Tahor were “a people of peace”, Santos added, and had decided to leave “to avoid an incident.”
Miguel Vasquez, a spokesman for the Mayan elders, defended their decision, saying “the constitution protects us because we need to conserve and preserve our culture.”
Another villager, Antonio Ixtamer, told AFP that some of Orthodox Jews had displayed an arrogant attitude and harassed tourists. “This is not normal behaviour in a community that lives off of tourism,” he said.
The leader of the controversial group Rabbi Helbrans, was jailed in New York in 1996 for kidnapping after persuading a 13 year-old boy to adopt the Lev Tahor lifestyle. He was deported back to Israel in 2000 after his release, but was granted asylum in Canada in 2003.
Shay Fogelman an Israeli reporter spent time with the community in Sainte-Agathe, Quebec, Canada, and found them to be fair. He observed:
All the females of the community, starting from age three, are covered from head to foot in a type of long black robe. A black scarf covers their heads. Only their faces, from forehead to chin, are exposed. In Israel, this burka-esque attire has earned them the moniker “Taliban women.” The Sainte-Agathe residents sometimes refer to them as the “Amish women.” Their entire culture and imagery – the males of the community also wear a specific uniform – is similar to that of the Satmar Hasidim, only with longer tzitzit (tassels). The children wear identical hats and everyone, aside from Helbrans, wears the same eyeglass frames. In addition, from age three all the males have the hair on their head shaved once a week. Their beards and sideburns will never be touched.
When the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect called “Lev Tahor” fled Quebec for Ontario in November 2013 the reason given by the sect was one of religious conflict. Child protection workers alleged children were being abused and neglected. Allegations abound of rigid rule under their grand rabbi, a convicted felon, Shlomo Helbrans. 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.
Lev Tahor teach that religion begins almost immediately; boys begin school at three years old learning the Yiddish alphabet. At this age there’s still time to play but within two years they’ll start learning Genesis. By their teenage years class begins at 7:30 in the morning, it continues until 9:30 at night. The day is spent poring over scripture and memorizing the Jewish laws. In Quebec such a curriculum wouldn’t be allowed, but in Ontario private schools operate independent of the government. Child protection workers took two families to court to find on the day of the hearing every family with children under 18 had fled. They fled to form a new community in Ontario where they were granted unprecedented access.
Eventually March 2014, seven of the 13 children were 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. Six of the 13 children involved in the court case made it to their final destination Guatemala connecting through Mexico City.
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.
In the lakeside village of San Juan La Laguna of the 230 members of Lev Tahor community some had lived there for six years before the arrival of the exiles from Canada. The village Elders Council voted to expel them out. The reason given was mistreatment of the indigenous community. They were accused of feeling free to pay whatever they wanted regardless of the marked price, and insulting tourists.
“We decided to leave because the Council of Elders does not want us,” Santos said. “It’s sad to leave, and there are people who like us here because when we left there were people who cried.” – Misael Santos of the Lev Tahor community
“Most of the town wants them to leave,” Vice Mayor Domingo Gusman Ujpan told Al Jazeera.
“Most of the town wants them to leave,” said Vice Mayor Domingo Gusman Ujpan as he rattled off a list of problems the group has brought to the overwhelmingly Mayan — and Christian — town. He said that Lev Tahor women scold their local counterparts for not having more children, as they say God commands, and that members do not contribute to the local economy because they do not work. He also alleged that group members often fail to pay taxi drivers and landlords.
“We have a constitutional right to protect our village and culture,” Ujpan said. “If they’re going to violate it, the people of the town have to make some decisions.”