By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The Five Towns Jewish Times recently spoke with Oded Twik, a resident of Rishon L’Tzion, who had traveled to the remote section of Guatemala where Lev Tahor sent some of its group members to escape Canadian jurisdiction. (For more on the Lev Tahor story, see the previous two issues of the 5TJT.) Oded Twik unsuccessfully tried to bring his sister and her children home to Israel. The interview was conducted in Hebrew.
[Editor’s note: Subsequent to the interview, members of Lev Tahor claimed that Mr. Twik was inaccurate. They sent documentation through Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, editor of Ami magazine, which we make note of below and which will be available online at 5TJT.com.]
Yair Hoffman: How did your sister first get involved in Lev Tahor?
Oded Twik: My sister, Sima Salamoni, went on a trip to the U.S. after her army service. 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 Helbrans was in jail [Editor’s note: after having been convicted on charges of the kidnapping of Shai Fhima].
Y.H.: Have you ever met Shlomo Helbrans?
O.T.: I never met him, even though I was in Canada for 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.
Y.H.: Where is your sister now?
O.T.: She is in the village of San Juan la 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, 15½, and Miriam Salamoni, 14½, who 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.
Y.H.: Did Helbrans try to marry them off young prior to this?
O.T.: Oh, yes—at the ages of 12 and 13, believe it or not!
Y.H.: Can you describe the conditions in Guatemala now?
O.T.: 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 [from civilization]. There are no basic necessities. There are drugs and all sorts of not nice things in that area. [Editor’s note: Lev Tahor states that Mr. Twik’s description is not accurate.]
Y.H.: What was the most shocking thing you saw?
O.T.: They traveled there when one of the 15-year-old girls 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! [Editor’s note: Lev Tahor has countered that although the girl did travel there at the end of her ninth month, she was 17 and not 15. The 5TJT is still researching this matter.]
Y.H.: This was a decision made on the part of the Lev Tahor leadership, to travel there with a pregnant girl near term?
O.T.: 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 had been in Guatemala City, that would be one thing, but this is in a very rural area.
Y.H.: It is hard to believe that the Canadian authorities or airport allowed them to travel like that.
O.T.: They escaped to there. [Editor’s note: A social worker explained to the 5TJT off the record that they must have missed that she was pregnant.]
Y.H.: Did your sister have any money that she handed over to Lev Tahor?
O.T.: No, she did not come to them with money. When she was in Quebec, however, her husband used to collect money 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. [They go] all over; I am sure you have seen them in your community.
Y.H.: How are they supported in Guatemala?
O.T.: This is how it is developing: Sima’s mother-in-law [in Israel] sends her money for fish. All food is very cheap there. One hundred dollars is 760 Guatemalan [quetzales]. Fish and vegetables are cheap. The cult is not giving them money. Shlomo Helbrans is hiring lawyers to the tune of $1,000 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 who is there. He recently called his parents for money saying that he had nothing to eat.
Y.H.: How did they come to choose Guatemala?
O.T.: There is a rabbi who is a ger who lives in Monsey. He has a Jewish name but it is clear that this was not his original name. He is converting five non-Jewish families in Guatemala through Helbrans. Apparently, he 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.
Y.H.: Have you noticed any emotional changes in your sister?
O.T.: Are you referring to the Guatemala period or before [while with the group in Canada]?
O.T.: 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 Lev Tahor community.
Y.H.: How do your parents feel about all of this?
O.T.: 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 40 and there are others my age. Many say, “What can be done?”
Y.H.: Have you been in touch with other family members of people in Lev Tahor?
O.T.: Certainly. There is not a day when I do not get calls. [I speak] with most of them. All of them appreciate the depth of the problems. I left my life for a month, spending $3,500 for a ticket. To my frustration, she [my sister] 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. [Editor’s note: Lev Tahor claims that the pills are indeed only vitamins and provided a list to 5TJT of those vitamins.]
Y.H.: How many Lev Tahor people are in Guatemala?
O.T.: I thought there were 50. Others tell me, however, that there are 30. [Editor’s note: Currently, the latest reports say that there are 70 there now.]
Y.H.: 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?
O.T.: I know that there are many religious people who know of the evil of Shlomo Helbrans but are afraid to come out against him because they think the Canadian government may come out after other chassidic groups. This is ridiculous, and even if it were true it would be wrong not to help victims. There are many rabbanim that have come out against them—Rav Shafran in Bnei Brak; Rav Gross in Monsey; the Kashover Rebbe. All came out against them.
Y.H.: 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?
O.T.: 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. v
The interviewer may be reached at email@example.com.