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“The defendants’ conduct—which included forced child marriages, physical beatings and family separations—is unthinkable,” stated the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

Yakov Weingarten, one of three brothers on trial in the kidnapping plot to return two children to the ultra Orthodox Lev Tahor sect

(March 28, 2024 / JNS)

Three leaders of the Guatemala-based Jewish extremist group Lev Tahor (“pure heart”)—Yoil Weingarten, Yakov Weingarten and Shmiel Weingarten—were convicted of child exploitation and kidnapping.

The three kidnapped a 12-year-old boy and transported a 14-year-old girl “outside the United States to continue a sexual relationship with her adult male ‘husband,'” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Southern District of New York said on Wednesday.

“With this verdict, all nine Lev Tahor leaders and operatives charged for these heinous crimes have been held accountable,” the U.S. Justice Department stated.

“The defendants’ conduct—which included forced child marriages, physical beatings and family separations—is unthinkable and has caused irreparable harm to children in their formative years,” it added. “Whether in the name of religion or any other belief system, subjecting children to physical, sexual or emotional abuse will never be tolerated by this office.”

Lev Tahor, a cult that has been described as “the Jewish Taliban” due to its rigid dress code, was founded by anti-Zionist rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem in 1988.

In September 2018, Shimon Malka left his wife and parents and fled Lev Tahor, the insular, sojourning ultra Orthodox Jewish community then based in Guatemala. He was done with the group's food restrictions that left him weighing just 80 pounds, and had grown depressed and anxious over its increasingly strict way of life and treatment of minors.

But two months later, the Monsey native said he agreed to take part in a plot by Lev Tahor leaders to kidnap the 14-year-old granddaughter and 12-year-old grandson of the group's founder. Their mother, Sara Helbrans, had fled Lev Tahor with several of her kids after disapproving of the forced marriage of the underage girl.

Malka, now 24, was a key prosecution witness last week in White Plains federal court at the trial of Shmiel, Yoil and Yakov Weingarten, brothers and Rockland County natives who are the last of nine Lev Tahor members charged in the kidnapping and child exploitation plot.

Surveillance video image of Shmiel Weingarten at the Super 8 Motel in Monticello, NY on Dec. 8, 2018, the morning he allegedly participated in the kidnapping of two children in Woodridge, NY in order to return them to the Lev Tahor community.

He claimed a significant role. Malka said he provided the girl, identified in court as "Jane Doe," with a secret cellphone to communicate with his brother-in-law, Shmiel Weingarten, in the days before the kids were taken. And he was with the family at a home in Woodridge, Sullivan County, celebrating the Sabbath early on Dec. 8, 2018, when he woke the boy, "John Doe," and led him out of the house to join his sister and meet up with a car that would take them away.

Malka then went back to sleep and pretended to know nothing later that morning when their mother discovered the kids were missing.

That morning, the kids were taken to a Super 8 motel in Monticello to change into non-Hasidic garb; then into Pennsylvania to the Wilkes-Barre Scranton International Airport where they were checked in using identifications of cousins. They flew to Washington, D.C., then to Chicago, and finally to San Antonio, Texas, before being driven across the border into Mexico.

Jurors have seen video from the home of the children walking away as a car approached on the road. They have seen Shmiel Weingarten checking into the motel. And they have seen pictures of the kids at the Scranton, Pa., airport with their uncle, Nachman Helbrans, who took over leadership of Lev Tahor following the death of his father in 2017.

Prosecutors have also introduced a Walmart receipt showing purchases of numerous items, including the Superman baseball cap the boy was wearing, the fur hat with earflaps Helbrans wore and the New York Giants sweatshirt Shmiel Weingarten wore when he checked into the motel.

But even more than corroborating evidence of the children's removal, prosecutors used Malka to bring to life for jurors the Lev Tahor experience.

Shimon Malka recalls Hanhala control in Lev Tahor

Malka detailed strict control by a group of leaders that included Yakov and Yoil Weingarten, called the "Hanhala" in Hebrew and Yiddish, over every aspect of community life, from how members spent their day, the money they could keep and who they married.

Yakov Weingarten, one of three brothers on trial in the kidnapping plot to return two children to the ultra Orthodox Lev Tahor sect

Malka said there were physical beatings, and sometimes burnings of children's hands, for those who disobeyed. And he detailed marriages between men and girls as young as 12 and 13, directives over when couples could have sex and how women could not refuse their husbands, and how the leaders required women to give birth in tents and not hospitals to hide underage pregnancies from secular authorities.

The Weingartens, dressed identically in striped light blue robes and brimless black caps covered by brown shawls, are all representing themselves in the trial before U.S. District Judge Nelson Roman.

Yoil Weingarten, one of three brothers on trial in the kidnapping plot to return two children to the ultra Orthodox Lev Tahor sect

They have objected frequently to terms, like "sect" and "compound" to describe Lev Tahor and the collection of tents, mango trees, farmland, school, synagogue and other buildings where they lived in Guatemala. They are concerned jurors will think of it as a cult, which is how many have described it in the past.

They have challenged questions or testimony that referred to "kidnapping," insisting that the children were not stolen but saved from abuse. They have justified the conduct that appeared to violate Jewish law — phone calls, driving and flying on the Sabbath — as necessary to protect the children.

On Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Adelsberg asked Malka straight out whether it was a kidnapping or a rescue operation.

he brothers attempted to portray Malka as a liar seeking leniency. They challenged Malka's account that his and other children's hands would be burned as punishment, asking him to show his scars. He said he had none but that it had happened.

Malka acknowledged that many of the group's practices related to marriage and sex were consistent with those in the ultra Orthodox world. But not marrying off underage girls and hiding their pregnancies from authorities, he insisted.

Shmiel Weingarten at one point asked for a mistrial, saying the details about Lev Tahor were inflammatory and had nothing to do with the charges in the case.

Prosecutors countered that they had to counter the defendants' claims of a rescue by showing exactly what the plotters wanted to return the children to. Roman denied the motion.

Malka details kidnapping plot in court

Malka said he was torn when approached in early December 2018.

He was aware that Sara Helbrans had obtained a court order granting her full custody and barring the father, a Lev Tahor leader, from contacting the children. So he knew taking them from the mother was illegal.

But Malka went along with the plan. In part because they convinced him the children should be reunited with the community and Jane Doe with her husband. And also because he expected benefits, particularly the chance to communicate with his wife and family still in Lev Tahor.

Despite his direct involvement in separating the children from their mother and lying to investigators for the first several days, Malka was not charged. He reached a non-prosecution agreement, requiring him to cooperate with the government and testify truthfully.

This is the third trial at which he has given his account. His testimony helped prosecutors win convictions, first against Nachman Helbrans and Mayer Rosner, the father of Jane Doe's husband; then against his brother, Mordechay Malka, and cousin, Matityau Malka.

Jacob Rosner, who was 19 when he married 13-year-old Jane Doe, and his brother Aron Rosner pleaded guilty and were sentenced to time served. Helbrans and Mayer Rosner are serving 12-year prison terms and the Malka cousins were released this past fall after serving shorter terms.

The children were found by Mexican authorities later in December 2018 and reunited with their mother. The conspiracy allegations against the brothers include that they were involved in two later unsuccessful efforts to abduct Jane Doe in 2019 and 2021.

Malka said Shmiel Weingarten handled logistics, was present during the kidnapping and communicated about it with Yoil by phone from Mexico. He said Yakov was also in Mexico and helped with passports, money and food once the children were brought there. Malka said Yakov also urged him to get out of the United States once they learned he had been contacted by investigators. That was too late however, as Malka was already cooperating and captured the conversation on a recording device as he sat with the FBI.

Malka moves forward after break from Lev Tahor

The Weingarten brothers, originally from Monsey, joined Lev Tahor in the years after their father, Israel, was convicted in Brooklyn federal court in the years-long sexual abuse of one of his daughters. He too represented himself and that trial was particularly notable in published reports for his cross-examination of the abused daughter. The girl’s siblings sided with their father, insisting that she had been brainwashed into accusing him.

Sara and Nachman's father, Shlomo Helbrans, founded Lev Tahor in Israel and made headlines in 1993 when he served prison time for the brief disappearance of a boy whose secular mother had brought him to Helbrans for bar mitzvah lessons in Brooklyn.

Helbrans moved Lev Tahor to Quebec, then Ontario, and then Mexico, frequently to dodge the courts and child welfare authorities when they initiated neglect investigations. He drowned in Mexico in 2017 and Nachman took over leadership, moving the group to Guatemala. Later published reports indicated they sought to move to Iran and also settled in Kurdistan and Macedonia.

Shimon Malka, living again in Monsey, has remarried, and his wife watched from the gallery as he testified. They recently had their first child. He wiped away tears when he detailed his continued estrangement from relatives who remained in Lev Tahor. He said he was always taught it was better to die than to live outside Lev Tahor; that Hasidim outside the group were evil. He has learned that's not the case.

"I managed to put all this behind me and live a Hasidic life," he said.

Mendy Levy hates talking about Lev Tahor. He's trying to move on from his traumatic upbringing in the cult. He's running a successful photography business in New York and Montreal. But he constantly worries about his family still trapped in Guatemala.

That's why, he sat down with popular Jewish podcaster Yaakov Langer of Living L'Chaim to continue bringing awareness to the cause. The podcast is part of Mr. Langer's series called: Inspiration for the Nation. As you can hear from this podcast, Mendy is truly an inspiration!

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