The Lev Tahor extremist cult has been in the news lately with a horrific kidnapping crime. They have warped even the most stringent forms of Judaism to something unrecognizable and get kicked out of every country in which they have tried to settle. But as the brainwashed members and their leaders search for a home, “Leah” is just glad that she found hers, far from them. Leah might be part of an open-minded Hasidic community today, but the months she spent as part of Lev Tahor are hard to forget.
Leah was starting middle school when her mother had settled in the Satmar community. As they were starting to integrate, she traveled to visit cousins one Pesach and found that the cousins’ neighbors were a group of girls her age, who were friendly and welcoming. Leah went back again over the summer, forging deeper bonds, as her parents got to know the community better. Between the 40 families in this community, all were happy to have Leah, and her parents join them full-time. “It was almost like a bungalow colony: close-knit, warm, you could knock on any family’s door.”
Leah “had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I tend to be a hopeful, optimistic person. I thought this could be [an adventure for me] like Anne of Green Gables but I had just gotten used to being in Satmar, and it was being uprooted once again.” Leah’s positive associations with the community continued as their family prepared to settle in Saint Agathe, Quebec, amongst the community. “But once we were actually part of it, that’s when I started feeling the negative parts.”
Girls Leah’s age were experiencing their last years of schooling as they would be expected to get married after 8th grade. The school, in the top floor of the rebbe’s house, had little formal education. In the afternoons, the 6th, 7th and 8th grade girls would teach the preschool “English” classes. No English was actually taught or learned there. Leah was told that she was too new to do so, and had to attend class with the 5th grade girls. The Jewish classes were similarly ad-hoc. “They never opened sefarim. It was ‘lets just talk philosophy without a source.'”
Leah began noticing deeper cracks in the system. A three-year-old neighbor would say to her, “I’m not here. You’re not here. Nothing is here. Only Hashem is here.” When she told a teacher that Chanukah was her favorite holiday because it was the only one that all Jews celebrate, her parents started getting visits and calls from the school, rebbe and concerned elders. “They said to them, ‘something is wrong with her.'” Leah was realizing though that something was wrong with them and not her. One of Leah’s favorite friends there was the rebbe’s daughter (who tragically and mysteriously died a few weeks after the rebbe died a few years ago). This friend was full of fire, “led pranks and was so much fun to be around. But they were killing her.” As a punishment for her disobedience, she was sent to live with a strict family in town who was given permission to beat her. “She wasn’t allowed to talk to her own mother. She only called her father “the rebbe” and kept saying that [the abuse that she was a victim of was] for [her own] good.”
From the inability to have photographs or dolls because they were considered idols, to a strict uniform including a cape to use to cover her face when men were nearby, “this was before they had the burkas,” the stringencies just became stricter. The rebbe chose the name of every baby born and parents had no say in the matter. Girls began to shower with their tights on and later developed fungal infections. “It was a contest to get frummer and frummer.” The poverty level was intense as well. “No one worked. People would rewash their disposable plates. Leftovers from a yeshiva boy’s plate would be [repurposed and] served to a family with eight kids.” There was no government assistance and most people lived in houses bought by the rebbe. Following the strict kashrus rules was expensive and lacked nutrition. Adherents could only eat duck eggs and peeling-required stringencies so strict that most people had a diet of sugar, flour, water and spices. “Children had literally black falling out teeth and no one did or said anything about it.”
Leah’s mother saw the writing on the wall. “She came to me and told me we were leaving within four days. My first reaction was to say I would stay. My mother looked me straight in the eye and said ‘Trust me.'” Leah and her parents integrated back into the Satmar community, which was very difficult for her. After graduating from a Satmar high school and marrying, Leah is now happy to be a part of an open-minded Hasidic crowd. “I am very grateful to have found people who accept me, all of me.”
Years after her ordeal, Leah has now made peace with the experience. “Having read up on cults, this is so clearly one in every way. [People were] losing autonomy.” She knows there is a big difference between Lev Tahor and Orthodox Judaism. “In religion, you keep your ability to make decisions, you don’t idolize one person…you make choices for yourself within a religious framework, in a cult you’re [letting] the leader make the choices for you. You’re just part of the group… with a name you didn’t choose.” Leah is sad for those who weren’t able to escape Lev Tahor, including her friend. “It’s just sad that they fell into this. It’s so easy for us to ‘other’ them. They are just very sincere people who were taken advantage of by the wrong people.”