Ultra-orthodox Jews forced from Guatemala village after local opposition

By Reuters Staff
August 29, 2014
(A young member of a Jewish community looks back while walking towards a bus as he and fellow members prepare to leave the village of San Juan La Laguna August 29, 2014. A few months after moving from Canada to a remote part of Guatemala to find religious freedom, a group of ultra orthodox Jews have been forced out of their homes in a bitter conflict with hostile villagers. The Lev Tahor community packed its bags on Friday in San Juan la Laguna around 150 km (93 miles) west of Guatemala City, to board buses bound for the capital after weeks of friction with sections of the local population. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez)

(A young member of a Jewish community looks back while walking towards a bus as he and fellow members prepare to leave the village of San Juan La Laguna August 29, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez)

A few months after moving from Canada to a remote part of Guatemala to find religious freedom, a group of ultra orthodox Jews have been forced out of their homes in a bitter conflict with hostile villagers.

The Lev Tahor community packed its bags on Friday in San Juan la Laguna around 150 km (93 miles) west of Guatemala City, to board buses bound for the capital after weeks of friction with sections of the local population.

Verbal abuse, threats to cut off power and eject them by force were the last straw for the Jews who began arriving in March from Canada, where the Lev Tahor group’s strict religious ways had clashed with authorities.

Founded in the 1980s by Israeli Shlomo Helbrans, the Lev Tahor practice an austere form of Judaism. Winning admiration from some Jews for its devoutness, the group is condemned by others as a cult-like sect.

Helbrans declined to be interviewed, but another Lev Tahor leader in San Juan, rabbi Uriel Goldman, fielded questions about the group, which granted extensive access to Reuters as it prepared to leave the lakeside village.

Goldman insisted most of the Guatemalan villagers were friendly toward the black-clad men, women and children of the Lev Tahor but that the group was pushed out by an aggressive minority he said were motivated by local politics.

“I don’t understand why they don’t want us, we’re doing nothing bad here,” said the bearded Goldman, who like other men in the Lev Tahor, which means “Pure Heart” in Hebrew, has his head shaved and wears sidelocks beneath a black hat.

Read the full story by Sofia Menchu and Jorge Dan Lopez here.

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