SAN JUAN LA LAGUNA, Guatemala — Merchants clad in bright, indigenous patterns greeted a boatload of tourists arriving on the shore of Lake Atitlán. But as some of the travelers disembarked, they directed their gaze at an incongruous pair.
They were a mother and daughter, dressed in black from head to toe, members of Lev Tahor, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish fringe group that has settled in this Guatemalan village of less than 10,000 people after fleeing Canada earlier this year. The municipality estimates that about 100 members live there.
“They scare away the tourists and … they don’t assimilate,” said Guillermo Cholotio, a local tour guide, pointing toward the cloaked figures. Only the pale ovals of their faces were exposed. “They don’t respect our customs.”
In the 1980s a fiery young anti-Zionist rabbi from Jerusalem founded Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart” in Hebrew. Today the community numbers in the low hundreds and comprises about 45 families living primarily in Guatemala, Israel, the U.S. and Canada. The group interprets Jewish Scriptures literally and aims to “go back to the original Judaism” of the Torah, said Lev Tahor spokesman Uriel Goldman.
Women often marry by age 16, and children are home-schooled to avoid secular subjects. These practices have put the group at odds with local laws where they reside.
Most Lev Tahor members lived in Quebec until the provincial government opened a child abuse lawsuit against the group in 2013. The court ordered 14 children into foster care after child protection services documented cases of child abuse and neglect. Members fled to Ontario and appealed the decision, which they eventually won — but not before many families headed south.
According to their Toronto-based lawyer Guidy Mamman, members chose Guatemala in part because they could all enter legally.
“There are few countries that will accept a sizable group like this,” he said, adding that Guatemala was a last-minute decision and may not be their permanent home.
Needing a place to practice their austere interpretation of Judaism, Lev Tahore members sought refuge in the Guatemalan highlands. However, friction with their neighbors has drawn national attention to the sect’s presence.
“Most of the town wants them to leave,” said Vice Mayor Domingo Gusman Ujpan as he rattled off a list of problems the group has brought to the overwhelmingly Mayan — and Christian — town. He said that Lev Tahor women scold their local counterparts for not having more children, as they say God commands, and that members do not contribute to the local economy because they do not work. He also alleged that group members often fail to pay taxi drivers and landlords.
“We have a constitutional right to protect our village and culture,” Ujpan said. “If they’re going to violate it, the people of the town have to make some decisions.”
In May several young men — uncompensated taxi drivers, according to Ujpan — threw rocks at Lev Tahor homes, shattering their windows. He said residents submitted a petition, with 300 signatures, asking the mayor to force the sect out of the town.
Goldman said the sect’s lawyer has barred him from commenting on the allegations though “not because we have anything to hide.”
Friends of the insular community, however, said the allegations are false.
Misael Santos and Jonathan Lima, two Guatemalans who converted to Judaism, said tourism to the village may have even increased since members arrived because they draw Jewish visitors.
They said anti-Semitism and a fear of the unfamiliar are behind the town’s effort to force out the community.
Some townspeople ran ads on local radio stations disparaging the group. Others gathered evidence to try to prove members were in Guatemala illegally and that they were abusing their children.
“It’s a witch hunt,” said Lima. “[Lev Tahor members] are bewildered because they have been harassed every day for more than eight months without a reason. But they are a peaceful people.”
Lima and Santos helped the group settle in San Juan la Laguna after a rabbi from the area introduced them to the first Lev Tahor family that arrived in Guatemala in late 2013. They share meals with Lev Tahor members, and their families play together. They said the sect’s children are healthy and well educated.
“There are all these accusations against them, but not one has been proved,” Santos said. “Jews have been persecuted throughout history. We will continue giving them the help they need.”
However they said the continued harassment might prevent Lev Tahor from staying.
Regardless of the local tensions, Lev Tahor members in Guatemala may need to leave the country sooner than anticipated. Julio Saguel, a lawyer at the Guatemalan attorney general’s department of child and adolescent rights, confirmed it has opened a neglect case against Lev Tahor for its failure to send children to school. Guatemalan officials are in contact with government representatives in Quebec, where some warrants are still active.
If they leave Guatemala, the tiny community has few options where they can put down roots next. But as their lawyer explained, “They don’t care where they end up.”
“There’s a lot of anti-Semitism in the world today,” Mamman said. “They just need a place to practice their own brand of Judaism in peace. Right now, they’re just happy to be together.”