TORONTO — The unfolding drama surrounding a reclusive Orthodox Jewish sect in Canada includes an upcoming court hearing on whether 14 of the group’s children should be placed in foster care.

Last month, about 150 members of the group Lev Tahor (”Pure Heart”) decamped from a village north of Montreal to Chatham, Ontario, about 200 miles southwest of Toronto. Comprising about 40 families, the sect fled just before a Quebec court ordered 14 children into foster care. The children, from three families, range in age from 2 months to 16 years.

Quebec authorities said they had evidence of neglect, psychological abuse, poor health care and an education curriculum that fell below the province’s standards.

Earlier this month, Ontario child welfare authorities sought a warrant to uphold the Quebec order.

At a hearing Monday (Dec. 23) in Ontario, testimony from the Quebec court ruling painted a dire picture of life in the reclusive community. A court decision on child services was adjourned until Jan. 10.

One social worker, who the judge ordered to remain unnamed, said there was concern about the possibility of collective suicide by the group.

“They know that we are asking for these 14 children to be placed in protection, so they feel the trap closing,” said the witness. “The exit door — it is a possibility that could be considered.”

Other testimony alleged that adults gave melatonin to calm the children and that girls and women suffer from infections and fungus because they are forced to wear socks or stockings at all times. A social worker testified that the feet of one of the children were blue from the fungus.

The case was adjourned because one of the children under the court order is a parent herself and requires separate representation.

In a development unrelated to the court proceedings, Ontario child welfare authorities seized two young Lev Tahor children this month. A judge later ordered them returned to their parents under strict conditions and said he saw “some signs that the children were well cared for.”

All along, Lev Tahor members have said they are victims of a smear campaign by enemies of the anti-Zionist sect.

Chris Knowles, a lawyer representing the parents involved in the child protection cases, said there are no grounds to seize the children.

“It’s fair to suggest all the children are in good health,” Knowles said.

He added that the “warrantless, illegal seizure of children” would violate the rights of the person under Canada’s Constitution. He’s also arguing that seizing children would contravene the group’s rights to religious freedom.

The Lev Tahor group is often derided as “the Jewish Taliban” because female members wear floor-length black cloaks and headscarves to fulfill what they see as Judaism’s demand for total modesty.

The sect’s founder and leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, an Israeli citizen, was convicted in the United States in 1994 for kidnapping a young boy and served a two-year prison term before being deported to Israel. He was allowed to settle in Canada based on his claim that he would be persecuted for his anti-Zionist views if returned to Israel.

Most Lev Tahor members are Israeli-born with children born in Canada.

An Israeli parliamentary committee investigating the group has documented cases of violence, forced marriages and physical abuse of children.

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