It is an enclave of ultra-Orthodoxy in the midst of the Laurentian mountains of Quebec, and its family practices have sparked an international tug-of-war with Israel.
Lev Tahor, a community of religious Jews on the edge of the forest north of Montreal, has carried on largely away from the glare of public scrutiny for years. Women and even little girls dress head to toe in chador-like veils and marry as young as the age of 16. Residents have limited contact with outsiders.
But now the Hasidic sect in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts has become the focus of attention since two teenaged girls headed here were stopped by Canadian authorities and sent back home.
The girls, aged 15 and 13, were forcibly detained by Canadian immigration officials in Montreal and returned to Israel apparently under order of an Israeli court.
The girls’ great-uncle had petitioned for the writ out of concern that the girls would be harmed by the group in Canada, that their property would be taken, and that they could be forced to wed male members of the Lev Tahor sect. In Israel, the sect is sometimes called the Jewish Taliban because of the way the women dress.
The spiritual leader of Lev Tahor in Canada, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, opened his study to a journalist on Wednesday to deny that he is coercing anyone to come to his community. He insisted anyone is free to leave.
“Use force? We want everybody who is not 100 per cent happy ... to leave us,” Mr. Elbarnes said in an interview on Wednesday in the book-lined room, about 100 kilometres north of Montreal.
He said girls typically marry as teenagers, and partners are “suggested” for them. But he said marriages are not forced. “The women here choose of their own will.”
Mr. Elbarnes was convicted in 1994 by a U.S. court of kidnapping a 13-year-old boy studying with him; he fled to Canada in 2001 on a temporary visa and later obtained refugee status. He eventually brought followers of his anti-Zionist sect to the Laurentians, and the group in Sainte-Agathe has grown to about 50 families.
The goal is to recreate strict religious observance in an “old-fashioned” way of life, he said. “It is necessary to keep our traditions.”
Girls and women walk amid the partly unpaved roads and modest homes in flowing black robes, with head scarves tied tightly under their necks and capes covering long dresses. Only the women’s faces and hands are visible.
Two years ago, the woman leader of the sect in Israel, Bruria Keren, was convicted of severely abusing her mentally-retarded son and sentenced to four years in prison.
When social welfare agents accompanied by police arrived to take the child away, a small riot broke out in the community.
A majority of Beit Shemesh’s 72,000 people are ultra-Orthodox Jews from a variety of Hasidic sects. Lev Tahor is one of the most extreme.
While Hasidic men, noted for their curled sidelocks, dress in black suits and formal black hats, and Hasidic women wear black head scarves, black skirts, black stockings and black shawls over white and grey tops, in Israel the women of Lev Tahor are dressed totally in black, including their faces.
The group believes that the sight of women may excite men into sinning and the responsibility for preventing such sins rests with the women.
Even in Israel, where almost everyone wears black, the “Taliban women,” as they are called, stand out. They are not popular.
“One of the families lived in this building,” said Yitzhak Frankel, a real estate agent. “I’m glad they moved out.”
“Nobody here liked them; the rabbi was very opposed to what they were doing,” he said. “They’re not normal.”
Much of the criticism of the group focuses on the women’s dress, described by most people here as being Islamic-style. However, a booklet distributed by the group argues that Jewish women were covered in this way long before Muslim women. “They copied it from us,” the literature says.
Israeli Judge Rivka Makayes found “there is some defect in the parents’ perception of ways of life,” and ordered that the girls be returned to Israel.
The writ, the judge said, would remain in effect until an Israeli family court holds a hearing next week to determine whether the extremely pious lifestyle practised by the parents involves such a defect and whether the court should intervene in the affairs of the children.
The judgment of the court could have implications for other members of the sect, most of whose 300 or so members live in Beit Shemesh, about 40 minutes west of Jerusalem, not far from where David is believed to have fought Goliath.
If the court rules the lifestyle is illegal or inappropriate, social welfare agencies would be empowered to remove children in the Lev Tahor community from their parents’ care.