Lev Tahor community: From Canada to Guatemala to... the ultra-orthodox Jews without a home

The group – which shuns modernity and has been dogged by allegations of child abuse – has been expelled from its latest adopted home

Living in the shadows of the volcanos surrounding Lake Atitlán, the picturesque heart of Guatemala’s tourist trail, the Tz’utujil Maya of the village of San Juan La Laguna long ago became accustomed to mixing with foreigners from across the globe.

But one group stood out from the backpackers passing through the area, and even the communities of Western dropouts who have made their homes around the stunning lake. These are the Lev Tahor, an ultra-orthodox Jewish group, whose 230 members first began moving to the village from Canada six years ago.

Growing mistrust between the aloof, black-clad outsiders and the Tz’utujil – who, like the rest of Guatemala’s downtrodden Maya majority, remain traumatised by centuries of abuse by white outsiders, culminating in the genocidal 1960-1996 internal conflict – has now exploded into action.

Last week, at a meeting of San Juan La Laguna’s elders, the village decided to expel Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart” in Hebrew. To ensure that the message got home, they told the group that its water and electricity would be cut off.

Fearing violence, Lev Tahor promptly upped camp and moved temporarily to the capital, Guatemala City. The group is now looking for a new place to settle in the scenic but troubled Central American nation.

“I don’t understand why they don’t want us. We’re doing nothing bad here,” said Rabbi Uriel Goldman, one of Lev Tahor’s leaders. He insisted that his group, which is so strict it refuses to recognise the state of Israel, which it declares has no spiritual validity as it now exists, had been on friendly terms with most locals.

But one of the San Juan La Laguna elders, Miguel Vasquez Cholotio, accused members of Lev Tahor of avoiding contact with villagers and even refusing to greet them. “We felt intimidated by them in the streets. We thought they wanted to change our religion and customs,” Mr Cholotio said.

The episode is just the latest in Lev Tahor’s turbulent three-decade history. Dogged by allegations of child neglect, the group shuns modern trappings such as televisions and computers, and its interpretation of what is kosher is so rigid that its members only eat food that is prepared at home.

Founded in Israel by the Hassidic Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in the 1980s, Lev Tahor moved to New York in the 1990s and saw its numbers boom. But Helbrans was convicted of kidnapping a young disciple and eventually deported back to Israel.

The rabbi then moved the group to Canada, first staying in Quebec and then Ontario. Members eventually upped sticks and began moving to Guatemala after more accusations of child neglect, including claims of underage marriages, refusing children access to doctors and not educating them in line with Canadian law. Several Lev Tahor youngsters remain in foster care in Quebec.

Now Lev Tahor’s expulsion from San Juan La Laguna has triggered national consternation in a deeply Christian country unaccustomed to the historical sensitivities of dealing with a Jewish minority.

“They [Lev Tahor] can be considered the unexpected side-effect of religious freedom, and no one knows why they decided to come to Guatemala,” wrote Mario Antonio Sandoval, columnist on the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre.

“Discrimination and racism turn out to be, with utter clarity, an attitude denied but practised by all, and, worst of all, unconsciously. If we don’t like them, as a society, we won’t allow them to be here. But first we must admit to being racist, including the [Maya] Indians, themselves always victims of racism.”

Wanting to leave Canada behind may have been understandable. But why Lev Tahor’s members chose Guatemala, with its history of bitter racial strife, as their new home is less clear. In recent years, as in the neighbouring Mexican state of Chiapas, this has included bloody confrontations between the Catholic majority and the burgeoning number of Evangelical converts.

As tensions began to simmer, the Guatemalan authorities tried to improve relations between the villagers and their new neighbours, and the government’s human rights agency even oversaw talks between the two sides. But to no avail.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada