To the roughly 200 Lev Tahor adherents who followed their charismatic rabbi from country to country, Shlomo Helbrans knew the path to eternal truth.
To his numerous detractors, he was a dangerous charlatan who deserved to be locked up.
Now, after Helbrans drowned last week in Mexico at age 55, the future of the cult-like group has been cast into doubt, and a path that has jumped from Israel to the United States, Canada, Guatemala and Mexico looks less clear than ever.
“There is now a power vacuum,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania who has been watching the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect for about a decade.
She said it would be hard for anyone to replace Helbrans, particularly when his death was so sudden. “The attachment to a charismatic leader in a very isolated group that engages in illegal practices is so strong,” she said.
Helbrans and his followers had arrived in Mexico’s southern Chiapas province recently after spending three years in Guatemala. They had travelled to Guatemala from Canada, where child-protection authorities were moving to seize children allegedly suffering from neglect.
Helbrans founded Lev Tahor – Hebrew for Pure Heart – in Israel in the mid-1980s. The group moved to New York in 1991, fleeing the Armageddon Helbrans believed would come with the first Gulf War.
A criminal conviction for kidnapping a boy brought to him for religious instruction led to his deportation to Israel after he served a prison sentence, but in 2000 he arrived in Canada. He was eventually granted asylum from what he claimed was Israeli government persecution for his anti-Zionist views.
The strict rules Helbrans imposed led Israelis to nickname the cult-like group the Jewish Taliban, because female members wear burka-like robes beginning at age three and are confined to household tasks.
The group had been established on the outskirts of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, north of Montreal, for more than a decade before Quebec authorities began paying close attention.
As they prepared to move in to protect children in the sect in late 2013, community members left en masse overnight for Chatham, Ont. Before the next summer, they had moved on to Guatemala.
Court documents used by Quebec police to obtain warrants alleged that Lev Tahor girls as young as 13 and 14 in the community were routinely married off to much older men.
The allegations in the documents, which became public after the sect had fled and were never proven in court, included sexual and physical abuse of children.
La Presse revealed that based on a report of a former Lev Tahor member, provincial police had feared a mass suicide if authorities attempted to break up the community.
Speaking from Israel Tuesday, Hannah Katsman, a child-protection advocate who has researched Lev Tahor, said there are fears of what could come next for a group with a strong persecution complex.
“We know that some cults end with suicide,” she said. “There has been so much turmoil and chaos in the last few years, ever since they left Quebec.”
Oded Twik, who rescued his sister and her children from Lev Tahor in 2015, said family members in Israel are very worried about what will happen to sect members.
“There are a lot of people who are really damaged,” Twik said through an interpreter. “He was like a pope. He was their spiritual father.”
Helbrans was reportedly taking part in a purification ritual last Friday when he was swept away by an unusually strong river current. A report in El Orbe said his body was carried a kilometre downstream before it was recovered.
Lev Tahor members were in Mexico on a six-month visa.
In June, group spokesman Uriel Goldman told El Sol de Mexico that the 40 families had moved to Mexico after facing religious intolerance in Guatemala.
Hamilton noted that sect members include citizens of Canada, the United States and Israel, and she said Helbrans’ death could provide an opportunity for action.
“To the extent that there are children who are either American or Canadian citizens, at this point the authorities could swoop in and take them. Everything they are doing to those children, at least from the reports we’ve had, violate international standards,” she said.
“The concern was while (Helbrans) was in power that if the government got too close, he would turn them all against themselves and perhaps have a suicide pact or something horrendous.”