(JTA) — Federal authorities filed child exploitation and child abduction charges against leaders of an extremist haredi Orthodox sect that has been accused of forcing girls as young as 12 years old into marriages with much older men within the sect.
Five leaders of the Lev Tahor group were charged by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and FBI Monday with crimes related to an alleged forced marriage in 2017 and a 2018 kidnapping.
The charges include conspiring to transport a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and conspiring to travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct. The first charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and maximum of lifetime in prison; the second carries a maximum of 30 years in prison.
Nachman Helbrans, one of the men charged Monday, arranged a marriage in 2017 between his 12-year-old niece and an 18-year-old man, according to the filing. They were married in 2018 and began a sexual relationship.
According to the Justice Department press release, young brides in the community were expected “to have sex with their husbands, to tell people outside Lev Tahor that they were not married, to pretend to be older, and to deliver babies inside their homes instead of at a hospital, partially to conceal from the public the mothers’ young ages.”
Later that year, the girl’s mother escaped from the group and fled to the United States with the girl and the girl’s younger brother, arriving in New York in November 2018. According to the Justice Department, in December 2018, the five men charged Monday kidnapped the girl, then 14 years old, and her brother in the middle of the night and brought them back to her husband, then 20 years old, in Mexico. The children were returned to New York several weeks later by law enforcement but the group tried to kidnap them again two more times.
Nachman Helbrans is the son of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, who founded Lev Tahor in the 1980s, and became the group’s leader in 2017 after the death of his father. The other men charged are Mayer Rosner, Yakov Weingarten, Shmiel Weingarten and Yoel Weingarten.
Yakov Weingarten was arrested last month in Guatemala on the first day of Passover. The group had fled Canada to Guatemala in 2014 after coming under intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities for alleged child abuse and marrying off children. The group was founded in Jerusalem before fleeing abroad.
William F. Sweeney Jr., the FBI’s assistant director, thanked Guatemalan law enforcement for their assistance in the Lev Tahor case.
“International borders will not stop the FBI from pursuing justice and enforcing violations of our laws, especially when you target children. The behavior alleged today is outrageous, and there is no justification for it whatsoever,” Sweeney said.
The group has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban,” as women and girls older than 3 are required to dress in long black robes covering their entire body, leaving only their faces exposed. The men spend most of their days in prayer and studying only specific Torah portions.
Lev Tahor subscribes to a strict, idiosyncratic version of kosher laws. Members believe that genetic engineering has rendered modern-day chickens nonkosher.
Marriages between teenagers and older members are common.
According to the Justice Department’s announcement of the charges, Nachman Helbrans and his team “embraced several extreme practices, including strict, invasive monitoring of members, frequent beatings, and forced marriages of minors to adult members. Children in Lev Tahor are often subject to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.”
Leaders of the group have been charged with kidnapping before, including in the case authorities charged Helbrans and the others for Monday. In 2019, four group leaders were indicted for the 2018 kidnapping.
Guatemalan authorities have been monitoring leaders of Lev Tahor, which is now based in the country, in recent years. Members of the group, which is anti-Zionist, have applied for political asylum in Iran.