The villagers in San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala, did not know what to make of it when the devout newcomers appeared, the men in long black coats, the women and girls in dark chadors despite the tropical heat.
Their arrival sparked fear among some people in the indigenous community, who were taken aback by their clothing, customs and Yiddish speech. “There were even people who believed that their presence signalled the second coming of Christ,” Salvador Loarca, an assistant attorney in the local human rights office, said in a telephone interview last week.
In fact, what appears to be occurring in the lakeside region about 80 kilometres west of the capital Guatemala City is the latest coming of the nomadic, ultra-orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor. Founded by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem in the 1980s, the group spent close to a decade in New York state and more than a decade in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., before fleeing to Chatham, Ont., in the middle of the night last fall as Quebec child-protection authorities prepared to intervene.