In Defense of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans

R. Shlomo Helbrans, Rabbi of the Lev Tahor yeshiva in Monsey, NY, drowned to death this past Friday while ritually bathing in a river in Mexico. While conspiracy theories do exist that implicate such elements as the Israeli Mosad and aggrieved family members of his adherents, circumstances at this preliminary juncture don’t seem to corroborate anything other than an accidental drowning, perhaps after being swept up by an unusually strong current.

Shlomo Helbrans was born to sephardi secular parents in Israel but was attracted in his early teens to haredi Judaism, a harbinger of a sephardi haredization trend that was fully realized in the 1990’s with the Shas movement and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. He took the additional radical step to oppose Zionism on religious ideological grounds, akin to and inspired by the one held by the Satmars, but amplified even further.

Eventually he ran into trouble with the authorities in Israel, initially for alleged collaboration with Israel’s Muslim-Arab enemies and later, after he fled the state unlawfully along with some of the teenage students of his Yeshiva, for kidnapping, since the families of his yeshiva students were often opposed to the haredization of their children and to the radical mode of living that he and his disciples embraced.

His trouble with the law doggedly and incessantly pursued him from that moment in the 1990’s until his death last Friday. He was deported from the U.S. back to Israel after serving a short prison term for kidnapping and he then obtained refugee status in Canada, but after a decade or so he was forced to flee from there too after being accused of various abusive acts against his students (corporal punishment, withholding food, protracted isolation, and no secular education). In Guatemala, where he reolcated from Canada, he was once again accused with kidnapping crimes under pressure by the Israeli ambassador there. That prompted him to flee to his final abode in Mexico.

At first blush the accusations against him seem substantive. They appear to be all the more credible with the cachet of multiple official state reports indictments and convictions. Critics who knew him personally, however, contend that he was not a violent man, did not hold views that were substantively different from mainstream American haredi sects such as Satmar (on which he modeled his own), and did not engage in anything that would intuitively strike a haredi observer as extraordinary or abusive. (Let us not forget that corporal punishment was de rigeur in the 1990’s in all haredi heder’s and yeshivos, not just Helbrans’.)

The root of hostility toward him stemmed from the same phenomenon that radicalized him: a trend in the 80’s and 90’s for Jewish youngsters to be attracted to haredi forms of judaism against the wishes of their parents (perhaps an alternative to other forms of hippyness popular with the baby boom generation). R. Helbrans likely elicited even greater pushback from his young followers’ families due to his mystical kabbalah-based teachings: they were likely to have appeared to family members as irrational hogwash that their children could only have internalized through “brainwashing” by a charismatic “cult” leader.

The truth is that kabbalah (from which the immensely popular hasidic movement drew and continues to draw much of its ideas and practices) and its mystical, irrational constructs of the universe, is a half-millennium old if not more, and has been followed by tens of millions over the years; it still has the allegiance –albeit nominal in some circles– of hundreds of thousands of haredi Jews. To exemplify, R. Helbrans maritally matched up boys and girls from among his followers on kabbalistic grounds as he perceived them. He would say “this boy has the soul of Abraham and this girl has the soul of Sarah; therefore they are meant to be together”. But his espousal of the kabbalistic worldview and ultra-Orthodox Jewish practices should not have been grounds for criminalizing him any more than it is to criminalize the entire haredi sector that is likewise remiss in teaching secular subjects and basic reasoning skills to its young charges as well as being antipathetic or hostile toward Zionism.

The first criminal charge leveled against him, by the Israeli government in 1988, that he “kidnapped” his students out of the country to America after he and his students departed Israel on fraudulent papers, is tendentious and unsound. Adolescent teens are not “kids” (perhaps we can call it “teen-nabbing”?) and Helbrans did not use physical force or even coercion to ferry them out of Israel; the boys followed him of their own free will, albeit –Helbrans’ detractors allege– after being beguiled and brainwashed by him.

His kidnapping conviction in America is even more dubious. The allegedly “kidnapped” thirteen-year-old boy, Shai Reuven, had been enrolled in Helbrans’ pre-bar-mitzvah course by his mother, a divorced non-religious sephardic immigrant to the U.S., but the boy then refused to return to live with his family, staying instead with Helbrans’ followers in Monsey and becoming observant. In court testimony the boy declared that hates his mother and his father and that he would “run away” again if he were forcibly returned to them. Nevertheless, the judge instructed the jury, under N.Y. State law aiding a minor escape from his parents constitutes kidnapping and the jury convicted him after hearing an emotional plea for revenge from the boy’s mother.

What we had, then, in essence, was a battle of wills between the secular parents and the devout sectarian Helbrans, and the respective worldviews and values that they represented. The proper way of fighting back was for the parents to ponder their own shortcoming in conveying the value of their secular lifestyle vis a vis the ultra-religious one adopted by their children, and to remediate that by learning how to communicate that message effectively. Failing that, they ought to have accepted the consequence of their own failure to perpetuate their secular heritage and not have sought the intervention of the state in their quest to scapegoat Helbrans, the mere bearer of an idea.

Haredi Jewry in America in the 1990’s, when the American kidnapping case against Helbrans was being tried, was more cohesive than it is nowadays. Even though Helbrans was running his own brand of hasidism, he was operating under the auspices and of Satmar and in consonance with the Hungarian-Hasidic zeitgeist it had established in post-WWII America. Dozens of haredi tehilim-muttering men and women showed up at the court on his trial day to show support and pray for his exoneration. His conviction at the time smacked of vindictive secular desperation at the vacuousness of its lifestyle and its inability to compete against the righteous and trendy haredi movement. It was redolent of the infamous Yossele Schumacher kidnapping case.

Over time, however, Helbrans’ quiet sympathizers in haredi jewry receded, and his few but emboldened enemies –now that he was convicted and served prison time– took center stage. He had made enemies by “poaching” a few families from mainstream hasidic sects into his “cult”. Kashau was furious at its loss of Rosner (a son-in-law of the Kashauer rav) to him and Satmar lost Teller to the cult. When Rosner’s wife –estranged by his defection to Helbrans’ Lev Tahor– refused to accept a get, Helbrans purportedly arranged for a contentious hetter meah rabbonim (dispensation by a hundred rabbis) for him to remarry.

Helbrans and Family

His holier-than-thou attitude didn’t help his cause either. He opposed Zionism even more than Satmar and the women in the sect veiled their heads and dressed in black only. He encouraged young marriages so as to preclude “ejaculation of sperm in vain” on the part of boys and the prompt fulfillment of the procreative duty on the part of girls.

By the late 90’s he was considered beyond the pale to mainstream Satmar-aligned folk. Satmar bohorim in Monsey, for example, –normally eager to patronize any available petty rebbe– considered him anathema and would not attend his shul, tischen, or the like.

By alienating Satmar he had lost a vital patron and ally. An adherent of the Shopron hasidic sect in Williamsburg, for example, operates under the patronage of Satmar and is able to access aid from government programs through mechanisms that the Satmars have developed and perfected over the years as enabled and protected by their political bloc vote. When an adherent of the sect goes to “kolel” he gets a government stipend by being officially enrolled in the Satmar-run U.T.A. school network since Shopron is too small and inept at managing such a government program on its own. When the government is contemplating charging a Shoproner with child abuse or even a traffic violation, it must fear the ensuing punitive consequence from a politically empowered community that can and does lash back at hostile statesmen and the government arms that they control by voting them out of office.

Helbrans’ big sin was that he did not pay tribute to haredi leaders around him. He was not unduly swayed by their opinions and he did not play the game. He was fiercely independent in ideology and he secured a core of supporters who were eager to aid him financially and morally in his quest to establish a utopian haredi community in America that did not compromise at all with modernity. By the new millennium, he had lost his haredi immunity and had fallen prey to the indignance of mainstream society –including, over time, that of the OTD (off the derekh) community– over his peculiar ultra-religious conduct.

More serious charges of child abuse were leveled against him in Canada. It was alleged that as punishment he beat his students, deprived them of food, and kept them in isolated confinement for an extended time. Such actions, if true, are indeed condemnable and arguably justify government intervention. But in a well of public opinion so poisoned against him it is easy to imagine that such charges would have been highly exaggerated if not outright fabricated. Let us remember that in the popular witch hunt against “satanic ritual” abusers of children in the 1980’s (a witch hunt that similarly involved accusations of child abuse by a “cult” leader) it turns out that there was absolutely no substance whatsoever to the accusations. The person who initially made the accusation in the Mcmartin Preschool Trial turns out to have had a mental illness, and the psychologists and prosecutors who subsequently interviewed the children had used leading questions to extract bizarre highly-damning reports from the children that did not have even a kernel of truth. The medieval blood libel and the Salem witch trials likewise were premised on complete falsehoods despite wide popular outrage over what they perceived at the time as real. (Psychologists now know that children are very suggestible and have learned from this case.)

The problem with the credibility of the Canadian allegations of child abuse is similar to the problem with the Mcmartin Preschool Trial: the prosecution and the public become so enthralled with the horror and obvious evil with the allegation that nobody bothered looking for a motive, not to speak of investigating the mentality of the individual and his or her subculture that gave rise to the condemnable alleged act. In Helbrans’ case –outside of his brazen outspokenness and his alacrity for forging a sect according to his personal religious ideology without regard to prevailing haredi sentiment, though much inspired by it– he was not a doozy. He did not conduct himself any different from dozens of other haredi “rebbelech” in Monsey and elsewhere. His dress, his schtiebel, his tisch, his yeshiva, all operated according to prevailing hasidic norms. Marrying off children at a young age –such as age 16 for the girl and age 17 for the boy (though not younger than that)– was common among mainstream hasidic sects at the time. Regarding secular studies, Yeshivas Oholei Torah in Crown Heights, operated by the Lubavitch-Chabad movement, still to this day illegally does not teach any secular studies to its pupils. In other American hasidic schools that do nominally teach secular studies for a bare two hours per day, they do so perfunctorily and only because they are required by law. Children commonly treat the secular studies time as play time and are not much transformed by anything acquired in the course (e.g. haredi graduates cannot read nor write narrative English and are mathematically innumerate at anything more than basic arithmetic). Why, then, is Helbrans singled out from the herd? How is he qualitatively and conspicuously different from the rest, even if we grant that he is so slightly by degree?

When it’s all said and done, Helbrans was a courageous man of great originality, fortitude and conviction. He successfully forged his own sectarian movement that attracted Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike. He was not deterred by the naysayers and detractors. He acted out of genuine conviction in the rectitude of his path consistent with a bona fide interpretation of Jewish religious tenets he had learned, processed and brought to bear on himself and those who would follow him. A man of lesser perseverance would have succumbed much sooner than the forty-odd years during which he stuck to his guns.

It behooves us to realize that fundamentalist ideals and institutions should not be assaulted by urging the state to intervene, but by popularizing positive modern progressive ideals in their stead and impressing them upon the youth. The true reason young people are attracted to fundamentalist “cults” and mystical movements is that they perceive the secular world to aimlessly occupy a moral vacuum. If we ponder the timeless humanist and rational ideals of the 18th century Enlightenment, if we internalize them and appreciate them, if we recognize their constructive effect on modern society –then we ought to easily be able to impart that sentiment to our progeny either directly or in loco parentis. There should be no need to unjustly channel our anger on the Helbranses of the world.

 

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