The Five Towns Jewish Times spoke with Oded Twik from Rishon L’Tzion who travelled to the remote section of Guatemala where Lev Tahor had sent some of its group members to escape from Canadian jurisdiction. Oded Twik had unsuccessfully tried to bring his sister and her children home to Israel. The interview was conducted in Hebrew.
YH: How did your sister first get involved in Lev Tahor?
Oded Twik: My sister, Sima Salamoni, went on a trip after her army service to the US. She worked as an au pair. A shadchanit arrived from Lev Tahor saying that she had a good shidduch for her. It was a groom from Lev Tahor. This was during a time that Shlomo Helbranz was in jail [Editor’s note: after having been convicted on charges of the kidnapping of Shai Fhima.]
YH: Have you ever met Shlomo Helbranz?
Oded Twik: I never met him even though I was in Canada three years. My nephew had passed away at the age of one in Canada, for unexplained reasons. I bought my sister a ticket to Israel [at the time] and they would not let her travel. I was upset that they did not let her travel.
YH: Where is your sister now?
Oded Twik: She is in the village of San Juan de Laguna in Guatemala – with six children. Two are still in Canada awaiting a [placement] decision from the judge in Ontario. She has two daughters, Nechama Yehudit Salamoni 15 ½ and Miriam Salamoni 14 ½ that are now in Toronto and in two weeks – the judge in Ontario will either return them to the cult or to my mother in Israel.
YH: Did Helbranz try to marry them off young prior to this?
Oded Twik: Oh yes – at the age of 12 and 13, believe it or not!
YH: Can you describe the conditions in Guatemala now?
Oded Twik: I’ll tell you. If they lived in the city – I wouldn’t be able to say anything. There are hospitals and one can live normally. In the rural area it is horrifying. It is very far there are no basic necessities. There are drugs and all sorts of not nice things in that area.
YH: What was the most shocking thing you saw?
Oded Twik: They travelled there when one of the fifteen year old girls [in the group] was pregnant. She had the baby there and then. There was no hospital. Not even a rural hospital or clinic No medical staff. No one with any medical training. There was no running water, much less hot water. She gave birth to the baby on the dirt floor!
YH: This was a decision made on the part of the Lev Tahor leadership, to travel there with a pregnant girl near term?
Oded Twik: Yes.
There was also a baby there a few months old. The conditions there are far from sanitary by any means or rational definition. If it would have been in Gautamala City that would be one thing – but this is in a very very rural area.
YH: It is hard to believe that the Canadian authorities or airport allowed them to travel like that.
Oded Twik: They escaped to there.
YH: Did your sister have any moneys that she handed over to Lev Tahor?
Oded Twik: No, she did not come to them with money. When she was in Quebec , however, her husband used to collect moneys and then gave these funds to Lev Tahor. They were closed off. She spoke to the walls 24 hours a day. Were it not for the telephone she would have not communicated to anyone at all. They go collecting that is what they do. All over. I am sure you have seen them in your community.
YH: How are they supported in Guatemala?
Oded Twik: The way it is developing. SIma’s mother in law [in Israel] sends her money for fish. All foods are very cheap there. $100 is 760 Guatemalan. Fish and vegetables are cheap. The cult is not giving them money. Shlomo Helbranz is hiring lawyers to the tune of $1000 an hour, but to give them money for food or mattresses – he does not give them a penny. Yoseph Bibi is a 19 year old from Israel that is there who recently called his parents for money saying that he has nothing to eat.
YH: How did they come to choose Guatemala?
There is a Rabbi named Boruch Goldstein, he is a Ger, possibly in Monsey. It is clear that this was not his original name. He is converting five non-Jewish families in Guatemala through Helbranz, one by the name of Mishael. Apparently, he [Boruch Goldstein] suggested to Shlomo to send them to Guatemala. Some of the Lev Tahor people speak Spanish so they thought that was a good place to go. Also, expenses there are cheap and there is no education requirement. The age of consent for marriage is 14 over there.
YH: Have you noticed any emotional changes in your sister?
Oded Twik: Are you referring to the Guatemala period or before [while with the group in Canada]?
Oded Twik: In my opinion she has a deadly fear of them – they are a Mafia like group – the kind that is portrayed by Al Pacino. She feels that she has no hope. She has a child the age of 8 months and she does not want to cause her trouble. This is one reason why I refrained from taking physical action. They know that it can damage the children in the cult. The group itself convinces the person that the family of the cult member is causing damage to the entire LT community.
YH: What do your parents feel about all of this?
Oded Twik: My parents, like many other Lev Tahor parents, have almost given up on them. They are in their sixties and seventies. They no longer have the energies to deal with the depth of these issues. They have thrown up their hands and are very saddened by the issue. I am forty and there are others my age. Many say what can be done?
YH: Have you been in touch with other family members of people in Lev Tahor?
Oded Twik: Certainly. There is not a day where I do not get calls. With most of them. All of them appreciate the depth of the problems. I left my life for a month, spending $3500 for a ticket. To my frustration she did not wish to leave there saying it is very complicated. I see she is scared.
There are many that are given psychotropic medications – I cannot reveal how I know this, but this comes from inside. They tell them that it is vitamins. They are not vitamins. They are psychotropic drugs.
YH: How many LT people are in Guatemala?
Oded Twik: I thought there was fifty. Others tell me, however, that there are thirty.
YH: There are people and a publication that claim that Lev Tahor is not a cult and that everyone there is happy and righteous – what are your thoughts about this?
Oded Twik: I know that there are many religious people who know of the evil of Shlomo Helbranz but are afraid to come out against him because they think the Canadian government may come out after other Chasidic groups. This is ridiculous, and even if it were true it would be wrong not to help victims. There are many Rabbonim that have come out against them – HaRav Shafran in Bnei Brak. Rav Gross in Monsey, the Kashover Rebbe. All came out against them.
YH: Do you have any contact with people that are assisting you in your efforts to get your sister and her children away from this group?
Oded Twik: Many people are on the same page. I have help from many places that are horrified at the work of Shlomo Helbrans. Today – my best friends are from Satmar, Gur, Toldos Aharon.
YH: Thank you for your time.
Oded Twik: Thank you.
The interviewer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org