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Last 3 defendants in Lev Tahor cult abduction case sentenced to more than 10 years in prison


(New York Jewish Week) — Three members of the extremist Jewish Lev Tahor religious cult were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison by a New York court on Tuesday.

Brothers Yoil Weingarten, Yakov Weingarten and Shmiel Weingarten were convicted in March of child exploitation and kidnapping for their role in abducting a 14-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother from the Catskills home of their mother in 2018.

Shmiel Weingarten was sentenced to 14 years in prison, and Yakov and Yoil were both sentenced to 12 years, the U.S. Southern District Court told the New York Jewish Week.

The brothers were the last of nine suspects in the case to stand trial, all of whom have been convicted or pleaded guilty. They include Lev Tahor’s leader, Nachman Helbrans, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2022 for kidnapping and transporting minors for sexual purposes and other charges.

The Weingartens and the other defendants were all leaders of Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart” in Hebrew. They were known within the group as the “Hanhala,” or management, prosecutors said. The men governed all aspects of life in the community, including marriage and sex between underage girls and adult men.

Lev Tahor is a secretive group and little is known about its inner workings. The group adheres to an extreme interpretation of Jewish law that largely shields its members from the outside world and places tight strictures on aspects of everyday life, such as their diet and dress. A group called Lev Tahor Survivors, which opposes the cult’s activities, has estimated the cult’s membership at several hundred people and says it is led by a core cohort, with the rest being held mostly against their will.

The kidnapping case threw the group into turmoil, and since Helbrans’ arrest some members have sought a new home, turning up in the Balkans and Morocco. But the majority appears to have remained in Guatemala, where the group has been based since around 2013, following stints in Israel and Canada during which they attempted to flee government oversight.

The Weingarten brothers were convicted after being extradited to the United States from Guatemala in 2022. They were held in the Westchester County Jail and tried in the U.S. Southern District Court in White Plains. They were convicted of all charges, including international parental kidnapping, coercion or enticement of a minor female, and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

In a letter to Judge Nelson Román last week, U.S. District Attorney Damian Williams asked the judge for a sentence “meaningfully greater than twelve years” against each of the brothers because, unlike other defendants in the case, they had committed obstruction of justice during the legal proceedings by providing false information to the court and tampering with witnesses. Yakov and Shmiel also committed perjury, Williams said.

“The defendants’ criminal conduct is deeply troubling and merits a substantial sentence,” his letter said. It added later, “The Court should therefore send a strong message that kidnapping children carries serious consequences.”

In the kidnapping case, in December 2018 members of the cult abducted a brother and sister who were staying in the town of Woodridge, New York with their mother, who had fled Lev Tahor. The kidnappers took the children from the home late at night and, using disguises and fraudulent identification documents, smuggled the siblings across state lines into Mexico to reunite the girl with the adult man they considered her “husband.”

Lev Tahor had a practice of wedding underage girls to adult men and forcing them to have sex with their “husbands,” U.S. investigators have said. The girl in this case was 13 when she was “married” to Jacob Rosner, then 18, another defendant in the case. The illegal marriage, which was never officially recognized, prompted the children’s mother to flee the cult.

The children were recovered in Mexico after a weeks-long search involving hundreds of investigators and law enforcement personnel, and returned to New York.

According to prosecutors, the three brothers and the other defendants planned the kidnapping, instructed others who were involved and played a central role in carrying out the abduction. Shmiel Weingarten bought disguises for the children at a Walmart ahead of the kidnapping and was in the car that took the children from the home where they were staying to an airport in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The children flew from there to Mexico, where they met with Yoil Weingarten and other members of the cult.

When law enforcement located the children in Mexico, they were with Yoil and Shmiel. After the children were returned to New York and reunited with their mother, Yakov Weingarten tried to kidnap the girl a second time and threatened her mother.

The defendants in the case claimed the mother had wrongfully removed the children from the community and that they were attempting a rescue.

The mother is the sister of Nachman Helbrans, the cult leader, who took the reins of the group after his father, Lev Tahor founder Shlomo Helbrans, drowned in a river in Mexico in 2017. She pleaded with the judge to show Nachman mercy at his sentencing in 2022.

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