Mendy Levy was born in 2003 in Canada to parents who were members of Lev Tahor, an extremist Jewish cult founded in the 1980s. Shunned by members of other Jewish groups and facing a kidnapping scandal, its leader Shlomo Helbrans had moved Lev Tahor to Canada in the 1990s. Helbrans then moved the group to Guatemala in 2014, in the wake of child abuse investigations in Quebec.
Levy escaped the group in 2018 and now splits his time between Canada and New York. Shlomo Helbrans drowned in Guatemala in 2017. US authorities arrested his son, Nachman Helbrans, and other Lev Tahor leaders in late 2018 and 2021. They’re currently on trial in federal court in New York on kidnapping and fraud charges, to which they’ve pleaded not guilty. Lawyers for Helbrans and other leaders didn’t respond to Insider’s requests for comment.
The remainder of Lev Tahor, which numbers an estimated 250 people, continues to live in Guatemala and has been unsuccessfully trying to move to Iran.
Here, Mendy, now 18, tells Jacob Shamsian about growing up in Lev Tahor and how he decided to leave.
Lev Tahor is about total control. You can’t do anything without permission. And if they ask you to do something, you have to do it.
There was one woman who was allergic to sesame seeds, used in tahina. One evening around Sukkot, in fall 2017, in Guatemala, the rabbi wanted to test her faith and told her to eat it. She told him she could die, but after fighting over it, he kept instructing her to eat it anyway.
Two hours later, she died. As she was suffering from the allergic reaction, they didn’t let her call an ambulance. They don’t allow doctors in Lev Tahor without the rabbi’s permission. They told us to trust the rabbi.
They didn’t want to bury her. They said she would be alive again, she’s going to wake up. After four in the morning, they finally buried her. The rabbi said she died because she didn’t have faith in him.
They don’t want people to see the outside world. No one is able to go anywhere without the leader’s permission.
That’s how my father died.
He got an infection, and my mother told me and my older brothers to go to the leader and ask if he could get a doctor. The doctor said he had to go to the hospital, but the rabbi said no.
My father wasn’t eating, he wasn’t walking. He got sicker and sicker over a week and a half. And that’s how it ended. He died on October 25, 2016.
Maybe they wanted to kill him. I don’t know why. Maybe they were afraid he was going to leave the community, because my father already said once he was considering leaving.
Maybe they just wanted to show you can’t.
The rabbis dictated how we spent every hour of the day
It begins when you wake up.
You wake up at 5:30 in the morning every day. First thing you do, you come to shul (synagogue). From shul, one of the rabbis takes all the boys together. We go up the river in the mountains every day and go in the cold water. There’s snakes in the water as well. We found a lot of snakes. The rabbis stand and watch everyone go into the mikvah (ritual immersion in the water). Once they finish, they make sure everyone goes back to shul. When we arrive in shul, we sit down and they tell us to think about God. Think about God for half an hour.
Now, that’s a beautiful thing. But if they’re making you think about God in a controlled way, then you don’t want to think about God.
Once that’s over, everyone has to put on tefillin. For three hours, you can’t take them off. Shacharis (the morning prayer) is three hours, minimum.
After shacharis, one of the rabbis comes into the shul and gives a class. For most of the rest of the day, you’re in shul and you have to learn. Shlomo Hebrans, the head rabbi of Lev Tahor, wrote his own books. You have to study them. You have to know it by heart. And if you don’t, you get consequences.
Every other Jewish book is excluded. It’s the chumash (five books of Moses) and their own studies, that’s it. No other outside studies. They don’t learn Talmud. They don’t teach Rashi. They literally burn every Jewish book that has a symbol of Chabad.
Education is not a question. Nothing, and I mean nothing. We didn’t even know what the word “science” meant. We didn’t speak a word of English. No reading. If you write “ABC” in Lev Tahor, you get a punishment. We don’t know what Trump is. We don’t know what Biden is. I barely knew what the Holocaust was at the time. No iPhone, no computers, nothing like that unless you were one of the leaders.
It’s a cult. No other Jewish community is like this.
The rabbi who started Lev Tahor was a genius. He was able to brainwash and control a few hundred people for years, and people would believe him and follow his society. They made us look at the outside world like it was the worst and we’re the only ones who are the best. They made us believe Lev Tahor is the only authentic form of Judaism in the world, and that it’s better to die than to leave.
The rabbi’s speech every morning sometimes lasts six or seven hours. I used to not eat breakfast or lunch every day, since the speech could easily last until night.
Lev Tahor claims a lot of food isn’t kosher. They don’t eat fish. They don’t eat milk. They don’t eat eggs. They don’t eat any protein. No mangoes. No grapes. They only eat fruit and vegetables and bread. Bread only if you go to the field and you cut the seeds and you mill them with the machines. You get bread if you’re lucky.
So you go home, eat breakfast for half an hour, and come back. Then you study for a couple of hours until Mincha (the afternoon prayer) and Maariv (the evening prayer), which are another two hours.
After that, you sit down again, you learn some more, and you go home for supper, which is just vegetable soup. Then you come back to shul and you learn until 10, 11 o’clock at night.
Leaders used physical and mental abuse to keep children in line
There are about 15 leaders who are actually controlling the whole community. You’re talking about 60 families, around 300 people.
I was physically abused, mentally abused. There’s the hitting, the beating up. If someone says a lie – even a small child – they would take hot pepper, the powder, and make them swallow it. After getting hit or beaten, you had to kiss the hand of whoever just hit you and thank him.
People are not allowed to share love with their parents. There’s no connection, physical or mental, with parents. Meaning if a father or a mother would hug a child in Lev Tahor, and the leaders figured it out, they would take away the kids and place them in one of their houses or in a different house.
Why? Because they want everyone to believe, listen, and trust only them. If a leader hits you, they don’t want you to go to your mother crying. So they cut off the connection between you and your parents.
I told the FBI: “You should know every day that you’re not taking action on this case and the community, there are people who want to commit suicide because they can’t bear another day of going through the same pain.” They wake up and they get hit, they get tortured, and just can’t live through another day like that.
I had a nervous breakdown not long after we all moved to Guatemala in 2014. My brain just stopped working because of all this pain. I was thinking of committing suicide. I just exploded.
I was in the hospital for about half a year. Until then, I didn’t understand the things around me were wrong. Most kids wouldn’t understand it was wrong.
But in the hospital, I started thinking differently. I got a different perspective from everyone else in the cult. It was then I started thinking about how I could leave Lev Tahor.
I plotted my escape when the rabbis told me to marry a 12-year-old girl
When the rabbi gives his talks to the communities, he’s making new rules. In order for the whole community to be brainwashed, he has to make sure it sinks in so that a lot of people could say: “I actually agree with this law, I actually agree with this new rule. That’s what God wants, right?”
So he has to be smart, to fill your brain. He has to talk a lot. If we started doing things one way, he might say “I’ve looked in and I see it’s actually not kosher.” That’s how he plays with people’s brains.
In Guatemala, Lev Tahor was getting worse and worse. When Shlomo Helbrans died in 2017, his son Nachman took over. He gave even worse speeches. And he made worse rules.
The craziest thing was the law where he said everyone has to get married at 12 years old, 13 years old.
That was the main reason I said, “enough is enough.” I was 15 years old. They wanted to force me to marry a 12-year-old girl, who was also my first cousin. I didn’t want to and she didn’t want to, so I had to get myself out of there.
I told the rabbi I was OK with marriage, but I started planning my escape. In 2018, I went to the Canadian embassy in Guatemala. I had to wait several months for a passport, and they put me in different places in Guatemala. Eventually, on October 14, 2018, I flew to Canada and was taken in by child protective services.
Adjusting to life outside Lev Tahor took a lot of time and therapy
I didn’t have a real home for about a year. I was placed with four or five different families. And once, when they didn’t have a family for me, I was put in a group home. I was there for four or five months. And then, in January 2019, I was adopted by a Chabad couple in Montreal. Lavi and Bryndel Klein gave me a home.
When I came out of Lev Tahor, I had to go for help. I was damaged. I didn’t always have the support I needed. I needed to work hard to figure things out.
The only people who helped me to be able to survive was the Orthodox community. I could’ve been in a very bad place once I left Lev Tahor. Life was so different, I had a hard time processing it all. I could have just committed suicide, turned to drugs. If not for the Orthodox community helping me, I wouldn’t be here.
Now, I feel like I could take on anything. If anything happens, whatever challenges, I wouldn’t feel it as much because I’m used to it. I’ve been through worse.
I’m now speaking English, been working on it for two years. In Lev Tahor, we spoke Yiddish and Hebrew and a little bit of Spanish when we got to Guatemala.
My life has changed a lot. Lavi and Bryndel have been helping me with education, catching me up in the world, helping me with my future. I didn’t know 4+4. They invested a lot of time in school and education and therapy. Teaching me life skills, how the world works.
I’m trying different things. I borrowed someone’s camera and became inspired to become a photographer. I do a lot of family pictures and portraits.
The first family I stayed with in Guatemala had a keyboard. I started using it for hours a day. Slowly and slowly, I taught myself how to play. I never got lessons. Now I play at big events. People like my music. I did a wedding recently.
I post about my story a lot on Instagram. People always message me. They tell me, “you changed my life, I’ve seen your story.” People tell me they have questions about God a lot. But once they see my story, they would say like, “What are these questions? Look at Mendy Levy!”
People ask me how they can deal with parents, sometimes abusive parents, or deal with bullying, people making fun of them, or not having confidence.
I try to inspire them with confidence. If someone was making fun of me, let him do that. I’m sorry he’s having a bad day that he has nothing better to do. If that makes him happy, let him be happy with that.
But me, I don’t let anyone get me stuck, get me down. Unless someone’s going to hack my Instagram.
I have seven brothers and three sisters. My family is still in Guatemala. It could be that my mother is not alive. I don’t know that information. I literally don’t know.
No one knows any information from inside. It’s just so closed. There are no phones. But what I do know is I have one brother out in Israel. He works in a pharmacy. I was able to meet with him for the first time since leaving Lev Tahor in October.
People have called Lev Tahor the “Jewish Taliban.” When I was asked about that nickname, I said I didn’t know what the Taliban was. Growing up, I didn’t know about the war in Afghanistan. 9/11? I heard something about it, but I didn’t know exactly what it meant.
That was my life. And there are still a lot of things I’m learning every single day.
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