Key witness in kidnapping case describes horrors of Lev Tahor life

Shimon Malka, 24, fled the group in 2018, but later assisted in a kidnapping scheme organized by Lev Tahor leaders

Lev Tahor brothers Yakov (left) and Yoil Weingarten, on trial for kidnapping. Photo: Government Exhibit, US v. Weingarten

Mar 11, 2024 4:00 PM


A key witness testified last week in the trial of Shmiel, Yoil, and Yakov Weingarten, brothers from the Lev Tahor sect who were among nine people involved in a 2018 kidnapping scheme, Lohud reported.

Shimon Malka, a 24-year-old former Lev Tahor member, testified in federal court that he assisted in the 2018 kidnapping of two children from their mother, Sara Helbrans, the daughter of the sect’s founder, Shlomo Helbrans, and sister of current Lev Tahor leader Nachman Helbrans.

Current leader of Lev Tahor, Nachman Helbrans. Photo: Government Exhibit, US v. Weingarten

Weeks earlier, Sara had fled the sect, which was based in Mexico at the time, after her 14-year-old daughter was forced into marriage, of which she disapproved. She brought several of her children to live in a more mainstream Haredi community in upstate New York, and had been granted full custody of her children.

Malka assisted in the kidnapping despite having left Lev Tahor two months earlier, hoping it would help him regain contact with his wife, who had remained with the sect. But prosecutors offered not to charge him in return for his cooperation as a government witness. His testimony in previous cases helped the government convict others involved in the kidnapping.

During his testimony, Malka described the harsh measures Lev Tahor members were subject to if they disobeyed the “hanhala,” the group’s leadership. Marriages were forced on girls as young as 12, and punishments included beatings and burning children’s hands.

Women and children of the Lev Tahor group at their compound in Guatemala. Photo: Government Exhibit, US v. Weingarten

The Lev Tahor group was founded in Israel by Shlomo Helbrans, who moved with his followers to the U.S. in 1990. The group has been involved in several kidnapping schemes over the years, with Shlomo Helbrans serving prison time in the U.S. back in the ‘90s for kidnapping a 13-year-old boy from his secular mother. 

The group later moved to Canada, then Mexico, and are today based in Guatemala. Shlomo Helbrans died in 2017, after which his son Nachman resumed leadership of the group.

Many within the Haredi community disapprove of the sect, although some do support them. In 2014, the Haredi Ami magazine profiled the group positively, and described what they called “the unjust persecution of a group of pious Jews,” after the group encountered trouble with Quebecois authorities, who accused them of child abuse and neglect.

A number of former Lev Tahor members have fled the sect over the years, and they have consistently described the group’s practices as unusually harsh and oppressive.