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Religion and the Law

Child Marriage Prosecution Opinion as to the Lev Tahor Ultra-Orthodox Group, Described by Some as "Jewish Taliban"

Featuring Guatemala, New York, and Iran.


From the start of Judge Nelson Román's (long) opinion, in U.S. v. Helbrans (S.D.N.Y.):

This case involves the removal of two minors … from their Mother in New York, by members of Lev Tahor, an "ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community currently in Guatemala," of which the Mother and the Minors were previously a part. Defendants Nachman Helbrans … and Mayer Rosner ("Rosner")… are members of Lev Tahor charged in a six-count superseding indictment for their involvement in the removal of the Minors with (1) conspiracy to transport a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2423(a), (e); (2) conspiracy to travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2423(b) and (e); (3) conspiracy to commit international parental kidnapping, unlawfully use a means of identification, and enter by false pretenses the secure area of an airport, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371; and (4) two counts of international parental kidnapping, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1204, in connection with a December 2018 kidnapping. (Superseding Indictment ("S2"), ECF No. 229.) Helbrans is also charged with an additional count of international parental kidnapping in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1204 in connection with a March 2019 attempted kidnapping. Defendants' requests to represent themselves pro se were granted by this Court following in-person hearings in February 2021. A trial of Helbrans and Rosner is scheduled to commence on October 18, 2021.

The Government has moved in limine: (1) for the admission at trial of (A) testimony regarding instances of uncharged criminal conduct, wrongs, or bad acts in connection with the rules within the Lev Tahor community; (B) statements by co-conspirators in furtherance of the conspiracy which are admissible pursuant to Rule 801(d)(2)(E) and/or statements against the declarants' penal interest under Rule 804(b)(3); and (C) certain business records on the basis of written declarations pursuant to Rule 803(6) and 902(11); and (2) to preclude the defense from raising irrelevant arguments at trial including: (A) historic persecution of Lev Tahor by the United States and Israel, (B) discriminatory prosecution based on their religious views, (C) that because the marriage between Minor-1 and J. Rosner was predicated on their religious beliefs, it cannot form the basis for a criminal charge; (D) that their conduct must be excused because the Minors consented to traveling with the Defendants out of the country and Minor-1 consented to have sex with an adult; and (E) the family court order giving the Mother custody of the Minors was fraudulently obtained.

Defendants have also moved in limine, and appear to seek (1) an order from the Court prohibiting the Government's use of the terms (A) "kidnapping" or "abduction" to describe the Defendants' actions because the Government admits the Minors were not removed by force, (B) "victims" to describe the Minors, or (C) "cult" or otherwise characterize Lev Tahor as a religious community in which leaders "control" the minds of the members of group or otherwise coerce them to practice their religion in a certain way. Broadly construed, Defendants papers and the exhibits attached thereto also suggest that Defendants intend to assert the following defenses at trial (1) they are not guilty of kidnapping and kidnapping conspiracy because (A) as the Government admits, no force was used against the Minors; (B) Defendants were rescuing the Minors from abuse, and therefore "unlawful" exercise of parental rights by the Mother; and (C) the Family Court order was improper and has no legal effect; and as to (2) Minor-1 consented to marry, be transported, and engage in sexual activity with Jacob Rosner, and any sexual relations between them were within their religious marriage, and therefore the sex trafficking charges do not hold water….

The Defendants are members of Lev Tahor, a Jewish religious community of about 250 members founded in the 1980s by the father of Defendant Helbrans ("the late Rabbi Helbrans"). Defendant Helbrans took over as the community's leader after his father passed away in 2016 or 2017. Regardless of their age, all brides in the Lev Tahor community are required to have sex with their husbands on predetermined intervals and new brides and grooms are instructed by community leaders on when and how to have sex before they are married.

In or about 2017, Helbrans arranged to have Minor-1, his then-twelve-year-old niece, engaged to be religiously "married" to J. Rosner, who was eighteen years old at the time. Minor-1 and J. Rosner were religiously "married" the following year when she was thirteen and he was nineteen. They were never legally married. They immediately began a sexual relationship with the goal of procreation….

In or around early November 2018, the Mother and her six children, including the Minors, left Lev Tahor and relocated to the United States.

On or about November 14, 2018, the Kings County Family Court in Brooklyn, New York … granted the Mother temporary sole custody of her six children, including the Minors, and enjoined the children's father, Aaron Teller …, a leader in the Lev Tahor community not named as a defendant in this case, from having any communication with the children. The orders of the Family Court are collectively referred to as "the Family Court Order." …

After the Mother and her children left Guatemala, the Defendants and others devised a plan to return the Minors, then fourteen and twelve years old, to Lev Tahor. At approximately 3:00 A.M. on or about December 8, 2018, Helbrans, Mordechay Malka, J. Rosner, and others removed the Minors from a home in Woodridge, New York. They, along with others, took the Minors to a hotel where they were provided with new clothes before they were driven to Scranton International Airport in Pennsylvania. Helbrans and the Minors, dressed in secular clothing, and using passports bearing the names of two of Helbrans's children proceeded through airport security in Scranton, flew to Washington, D.C., then to Texas, and then took a bus across the border to Mexico. Other Defendants, including Mordechay Malka and J. Rosner, took separate routes out of the country to Mexico. Once in Mexico, Helbrans and others transported the Minors to several hotels and residences with assistance from Lev Tahor members in the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala. At various times, Helbrans and the Minors were met by Rosner, J. Rosner, Matityau Moshe Malka, and others.

On or about December 18, 2018, Mexican law enforcement raided a house in San Miguel Tlaixpan, Mexico, and detained Helbrans, Rosner, J. Rosner, and Matityau Moshe Malka, among other individuals. On December 26, 2018, officials from Mexico's immigration authority, Instituto Nacional de Migración ("INM"), informed the FBI that INM had elected to deport Helbrans, Rosner, J. Rosner, and Matityau Moshe Malka—all of whom were and are U.S. citizens—from Mexico and deliver them into the custody of the FBI. On December 27, 2018, two INM officials accompanied Helbrans, Rosner, J. Rosner, and Matityau Moshe Malka on a commercial flight from Mexico City to New York. The FBI arrested Helbrans, Rosner, and J. Rosner upon their arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport …, pursuant to a Complaint alleging that Helbrans, Rosner, and J. Rosner conspired to kidnap two victims….

On or about December 27, 2018, the Minors were recovered at a hotel in Mexico. At the time, the Minors were accompanied by Shmiel and Yoil Weingarten. In and around December 2018, the entire Lev Tahor community was seeking asylum in Iran.

The court decision generally comes out against the defendants. Haaretz reports, as to the last point:

Hundreds of members of the Jewish ultra-orthodox Lev Tahor sect are trying to reach Iran, where they requested political asylum in 2019, but their relatives are afraid that Tehran may use the group, who hold Israeli and American citizenships, as bargaining chips.

On the other hand, from the Times of Israel:

The spokesman for an anti-Zionist Haredi cult was recorded praising the IDF in a clip retrieved by The Times of Israel Wednesday, in what could threaten the extremist group's ongoing efforts to seek asylum in the Islamic Republic of Iran.