WHITE PLAINS, New York — A U.S. federal court on Thursday sentenced the leader of extremist Jewish sect Lev Tahor to 12 years in prison on six counts, including child sexual exploitation and kidnapping.
Nachman Helbrans was sentenced in November by federal court for the Southern District of New York to a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison.
Another defendant in the case, Mayer Rosner, received the same sentence.
US federal marshals escorted Helbrans and Rosner into the courtroom Thursday morning. The two men’s tallits, or Jewish prayer shawls, dangled beneath their baggy orange coveralls as they greeted their lawyers and a Yiddish translator.
Helbrans brought a copy of the Talmud and a book on Jewish history into the courtroom in a garbage bag and spent parts of the trial rocking in his seat in prayer, sometimes singing softly. He looked gaunt but energetic.
Prosecutors sought a harsh sentence from Judge Nelson S. Roman, saying Helbrans both established the policy of illegal child marriages in Lev Tahor and carried out the kidnapping himself, taking the children from their mother’s home, disguising them and the transportation authorities have deceived.
“The defendant has not shown an ounce of remorse for his behavior, has not shown an ounce of remorse for his victims,” prosecutors said.
Instead, Helbrans accused the authorities of anti-Semitic persecution and continued to “slander” the victims, he said.
“Everything indicates that if he is released, he will commit the same crime again,” prosecutors said, noting that Helbrans had attempted to kidnap the children a second time after an initial arrest.
The kidnapped children’s mother, Helbran’s sister, begged for leniency.
“Although my children and I suffered from his actions, we have forgiven him,” she told the court.
She said Helbran’s “mental stability” plummeted after her father’s death in 2017 and he took command of Lev Tahor.
After his father’s death, “Something changed in Nachman. His face and eyes changed. His face turned white and he became gaunt and stooped,” she said.
He began praying obsessively and became “irrational and distant,” believing God was punishing the community, especially after another relative died of an allergic reaction, she said.
She asked that Helbran’s counsel and “guidance” be granted instead of jail time.
“My brother needs help,” she said through tears. “In prison, he cannot fully heal. The longer Nachman suffers, the longer I will suffer too.”
Helbrans’ attorney Bruce Koffsky said the victim, whose name is not given because she is a minor, sent a letter of support to Helbrans, as did other members of Lev Tahor Helbrans.
Koffsky likened the sentencing to the “Dayenu” refrain of the upcoming Passover holiday. The sentence means: “It would have been enough.”
Helbrans’ actions sprang from “a deep-seated sense of religion. Religion does strange things to people. For whatever reason, Nachman walked to the end of that street and walked a little further,” Koffsky said.
“What’s enough of a sentence where the court can say ‘dayenu’?” he asked, demanding the minimum penalty. “If the court sentences the accused to 10 years, it would be ‘dayenu’. That would do.”
Koffsky said the defense plans to appeal the conviction and the verdict.
When Helbrans was allowed to speak before the verdict was announced, he launched into a tirade, quoting from the Talmud he brought with him and comparing his prosecution to “harsh decrees” by the Roman Empire against Jews.
He held up the history book he had brought from the prison library and compared himself to a photograph of a Jewish child in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
He said he asked his wife and children to celebrate the day of his sentencing and “have a kiddush [blessing], and to keep this day as a holiday. The only reason I have the opportunity to be persecuted and punished is because I am a faithful Jew,” he said.
“Thank God for that.”
In addition to his 12-year sentence, Helbrans will serve five years of probation and register as a sex offender upon release.
He has been in pre-trial detention since December 2018, a time that counts towards his overall prison sentence.
Helbrans and Rosner, both US citizens, were convicted last year on all charges against them, including conspiracy to transport a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, conspiracy to travel with intent to engage in illegal sexual activity acts of involvement, and international parental abduction.
The case dates back to the kidnapping of the two siblings from a New York home in 2018.
Around 2017, Helbrans had arranged for the girl, his niece, to be “married” to an adult from the group. The girl was mated to the man when she was 13 and he was 19, although they were never legally married as such a union would be illegal.
The couple then “immediately began a reproductive sexual relationship,” in line with the group’s standard practice, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement last year.
Lev Tahor leadership, including Helbrans and Rosner, “prompted young brides to have sex with their husbands, tell people outside Lev Tahor they were not married, pretend to be older, and have babies in their homes instead giving birth in a hospital to hide the young age of the mothers from the public,” the statement said.
The girl’s mother fled the group’s Guatemala compound in 2018, fearing for the safety of her children, and fled to the United States. A Brooklyn court granted her sole custody of the children and barred the children’s father, a Lev Tahor leader, from communicating with them.
Helbrans and Rosner then devised a plan to return the then 14-year-old girl to her then 20-year-old husband. In December 2018, they abducted her and her 12-year-old brother from their mother in the village of Woodridge, upstate New York. They smuggled the children across the US border to Mexico in order to reunite the girl with her adult “husband”.
They used disguises, aliases, drop phones, fake travel documents and encrypted software to carry out the plan, the statement said.
The children were recovered in Mexico and the kidnappers arrested and brought back to New York after a three-week search involving hundreds of law enforcement officers. Lev Tahor made further attempts to kidnap the children in 2019 and 2021. Several others have been arrested and charged in the case.
Lev Tahor, an extremist ultra-Orthodox sect, was founded in Jerusalem in the 1980s by Helbrans’ father, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans. The group fled to Canada and then Guatemala in 2014 after facing intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities over allegations of child abuse and child marriage. The younger Helbrans took over leadership of the group in 2017 when his father drowned in Mexico and Rosner was serving as a “first lieutenant,” according to court records.
The group’s name means “pure heart” in Hebrew.
The group’s movements, machinations and plans are all murky. Several dozen members of the group have been bouncing around the Balkans in recent months. Some members of the anti-Zionist group applied for political asylum in Iran in 2018. Documents presented to a US federal court in 2019 showed leaders of the cult seeking asylum in Iran and pledging allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The group has been described as a sect and a “Jewish Taliban” as women and girls over the age of 3 are required to dress in long black robes that cover their entire body leaving only their faces exposed. The men spend most of their day in prayer and studying certain parts of the Torah. The group adheres to an extreme, idiosyncratic reading of kosher dietary laws.
The group’s membership is estimated at 200 to 300 people, including adults born into the group and dozens of children.