ILIDZA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Bosnian authorities have rolled up the welcome mat for dozens of recently arrived members of a radically fundamentalist Jewish sect that has run into trouble all around the world.
It’s the latest blow to a tiny, itinerant group whose spurning of modernity, austere lifestyle, and allegedly abusive treatment of women and girls have earned them the nickname “Jewish Taliban” among some Israelis.
Thirty-seven of Lev Tahor’s estimated 200-300 devotees worldwide are thought to have arrived in Bosnia-Herzegovina in November 2021, where they were living quietly under the watchful eyes of their new neighbors and local officials.
Neither the other residents of Ilidza, part of East Sarajevo in the Serbian part of Bosnia, nor the authorities have alleged local wrongdoing by any of the three dozen newcomers, who reportedly arrived on three-month visas.
But Human Rights and Refugees Minister Milos Lucic announced on February 1 that 24 members of a Jewish religious group would leave the country on February 5 and the rest of the group would follow by February 20.
“According to the latest information, this religious group is currently looking for a new destination and transportation,” Lucic said in a statement. “I have received assurances that they do not pose a threat to the local community and no incidents have been recorded so far.”
It is more of the same for Lev Tahor.
The group and its late Israeli leader have been accused in the past of crimes against minors, including kidnapping and child marriage, and have spent decades seeking a country willing to host their ultraorthodox interpretation of the Torah.
Many of them have bounced from the United States, Canada, Guatemala, and Mexico under a cloud of allegations and police raids, with stays in a handful of other countries in the four decades since their founding in Israel in the late 1980s.
At one point, in 2018, Lev Tahor’s leadership requested asylum in Iran, although the plan reportedly fell apart when Iraqi authorities deported them to Turkey.
Wary Neighbors And Officials
A local leader and the foreigners unit of Bosnia’s Security Ministry suggested late last week that they would keep a close eye on the group, or even fight to see its members deported.
But the foreigners unit’s director, Slobodan Ujic, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service last week that there was nothing illegal about their documents or actions, except that the local owner of the houses they were staying in had failed to report the presence of foreigners.
The service determined that the newcomers were members of a sect, however.
The mayor of East Ilidza, Marinko Bozovic, told the Republika Srpska’s official broadcaster at the time that he would do everything he could to ensure Lev Tahor members left their community safely.
Neighbors in Ilidza, who declined to be quoted for this story, expressed vague concern to an RFE/RL correspondent last week that Lev Tahor might be dangerous. But they said they’d mostly just seen the newcomers praying and coming and going from the local store.
In Ilidza on January 28, one of the members of the group, an American whose first name is Moshe, walked East Sarajevo’s snowy streets (in photo below) offering sweets to children. All of them declined.
Moshe would only tell RFE/RL that he was Jewish and declined to be quoted, or to confirm or deny he was a member of Lev Tahor.
None of Moshe’s group appears to have contacted local Jewish leaders in connection with their arrival in one of the Balkans’ most divided countries, with its split between the Serbian Republika Srpska and a Bosniak and Croatian federation.
“I know who they are [based on media reports],” Igor Kozemjakin, the cantor of the Sarajevo synagogue, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, “but no one has approached us, even though it’s customary for Jewish groups to always contact us when they come to Sarajevo from any direction of religiosity, so to speak.”
He noted their small numbers and isolated ways based on adherence to “the Torah as they interpret it.”
“They should not be a threat to anyone, we can all agree on that,” Kozemjakin said. “They don’t even like to get closer or communicate with others.”
But critics have accused Lev Tahor’s leadership of cynically fostering a cult, and imposing or allowing child marriages.
Rights activists have historically condemned Lev Tahor’s practices while trying to help its members abandon the leadership’s hold on their lives. “This is a cult that traps its members into inhumane conditions,” Marci Hamilton, CEO and legal director of Child USA, a nonprofit think tank working to end child abuse, told RFE/RL on February 1.
“Their members suffer — especially women and children. And they have fled from one country to another to avoid the laws protecting children,” said Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has followed Lev Tahor’s activities for years.
The group’s fate has been especially precarious since founder Shlomo Helbrans drowned in a river in Mexico in 2017, reportedly while performing ablutions.
U.S. authorities have alleged abuse including abducting and marrying children off to much older Lev Tahor adherents.
Helbrans’ purported successor, his son Nachman Helbrans, and a lieutenant were convicted last year for scheming to kidnap a 14-year-old girl and “return her to [a] sexual relationship with [her] adult ‘husband.'”
The Justice Department alleged in a related press release that underage girls had been expected to “have sex with their husbands, to tell people outside Lev Tahor that they were not married, to pretend to be older, and to deliver babies inside their homes instead of at a hospital, partially to conceal from the public the mothers’ young ages.”