‘They tried to make me marry my 12-year-old cousin’: 18-year-old who fled ultra-Orthodox Jewish cult Lev Tahor at 15 reveals the mental and physical abuse – and recalls being made to swallow hot pepper as punishment
- Mendy Levy said the group, Lev Tahor, which was started in the 1980s, was about ‘total control’ and that you ‘couldn’t do anything without permission’
- He spent much of his life living as a member of the group, which is based in Guatemala and was founded by Shlomo Helbrans in the 1980s
- The 18-year-old recalled being ‘physically and mentally abused,’ and said you had to ‘kiss the hand of whoever just hit you’ when they were done
- In 2016, his dad developed an infection and needed to go to the hospital. But the rabbi wouldn’t allow him to call an ambulance and he tragically passed away
- When he was 15 years old, Mendy was told he had to marry his 12 year old cousin, and he says that was the final straw that made him decide to try and escape
- He was able to flee to Canada and was taken in by child protective services. He was eventually adopted and is now an aspiring photographer
An 18-year-old who fled an extremist Jewish cult called Lev Tahor has recounted his horrific upbringing in the group – revealing that his father died after the leaders refused to let him see a doctor.
Mendy Levy, who was born in Canada in 2003, recalled being forced to swim in freezing cold, snake-filled water and eat hot pepper if he told a lie. When he was 15 years old, he was told he had to marry his 12 year old cousin, and that was the last straw for him.
Mendy said the group, which was founded by Shlomo Helbrans in the 1980s, was about ‘total control.’
‘You can’t do anything without permission. And if they ask you do something, you have to do it,’ he recalled to Insider.
‘They don’t want people to see the outside world. No one is able to go anywhere without the leader’s permission.’
Mendy recalled a time when a woman, who was allergic to sesame seeds, was told she had to eat them after to prove ‘her faith’ to the rabbi.
‘Two hours later, she died,’ he said. ‘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.’
Something similar happened to his father – who developed an infection in 2016 and needed to go to the hospital.
Mendy Levy, 18, who fled an extremist Jewish cult called Lev Tahor has recounted his horrific upbringing in the group, and how his father died after they refused to let him see a doctor
Mendy said the group, which was started by Shlomo Helbrans in the 1980s, was about ‘total control’ and that you ‘couldn’t do anything without permission’ (pictured: unnamed members of Lev Tahor in 2014)
‘The rabbi said no,’ Mendy explained. ‘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.’
During his days at Lev Tahor, Mendy said he woke up at 5:30 in the morning every day. After attending shul (synagogue), all the boys were forced to go into a freezing cold river that was filled with snakes for a ritual called mikvah.
After that, it was back to shul for morning prayer, also called Shacharis – which would last three hours. Then, they were required to listen to the rabbi’s speech, which sometimes lasted six or seven hours.
The rest of the day was spent either in shul or in class. But school was different than you’d expect – there was no science, English or math class. Mendy explained that Shlomo had written all of his own books, and that he wanted everyone to know them by heart, so the kids were required to spend all of their free time studying them – and nothing else.
‘We didn’t even know what the word “science” meant. We didn’t speak a word of English. No reading,’ he said.
‘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.’
When it came to eating, Mendy said he was forced to skip meals all the time. He also recalled being ‘physically and mentally abused.’
He said, ‘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.’
He also said that there was no affection allowed in Lev Tahor, which was made up of about 60 families in total. Parents weren’t allowed to hug their kids – and if they were ever caught having a positive connection with them, the children would be ‘taken away and placed 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,’ he added.
Mendy called Shlomo a ‘genius’ due to his ability to ‘brainwash and control a few hundred people for years.’
‘People would believe him and follow his society,’ Mendy explained. ‘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 18-year-old said that after the group moved from Canada to Guatemala in 2014, he had a nervous breakdown.
‘My brain just stopped working because of all this pain. I was thinking of committing suicide. I just exploded,’ he recalled.
‘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.’
In 2017, Shlomo drowned in a river during a trip to Mexico, and his son, Nachman Helbrans, took over. According to Mendy, life in the group got even worse after that.
The final straw for him was when Nachman announced that there was a new rule – ‘everyone had to get married at 12 or 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,’ he said.
‘I didn’t want to and she didn’t want to, so I had to get myself out of there.’
In 2018, he went to the Canadian embassy in Guatemala and got a passport. The process took several months, but on October 14, 2018, he flew to Canada and was taken in by child protective services.
In the years that followed, Mendy was placed with four or five different foster families. In January of this year, he was adopted by a couple named Lavi and Bryndel Klein. He said his new family ‘invested a lot of time in school and education and therapy,’ which taught him ‘life skills and how the world works.’
‘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,’ he said.
Nachman, as well as another Lev Tahor leader named Mayer Rosner, was arrested in late 2018 and 2021. And on Wednesday, they were convicted of child sexual exploitation and kidnapping by a federal court in New York.
The Times of Israel reported that they face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison for the conviction.
‘Nachman Helbrans and Mayer Rosner brazenly kidnapped two children from their mother in the middle of the night to return a 14-year-old girl to an illegal sexual relationship with an adult man. Today’s verdict makes clear that our Office – and our law enforcement partners – will not be deterred from achieving justice for victims of child sexual exploitation,’ said US Attorney Damian Williams.
Several others have reportedly been arrested and charged in the case.
He was able to flee to Canada and was taken in by child protective services. He was eventually adopted and is now an aspiring photographer
He was recently able to re-connect with his brother (left), who was thankfully able to escape the cult too. He has no communication with his other nine siblings or his mom
Mendy is now an aspiring photographer. He said: ‘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.’
He said he also likes to share his story on social media, and many people have reached out to him with positive responses.
‘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,’ he said.
Back in Guatemala, he unfortunately doesn’t have any information on what his seven brothers, three sisters, and mom are doing. But he was able to connect with one of his brothers, who was thankfully able to escape too.
‘No one knows any information from inside. It’s just so closed. There are no phones,’ he explained.
‘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.’
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