A small group of ultra-orthodox Jews are searching for a new home in Guatemalan after being booted from land they were living on following heated disputes with the native Mayan population.
The 230 or so members of the Lev Tahor community – labeled by some as an extremist cult - relocated six years ago from the United States, Canada, Israel, Great Britain and Russia to the Mayan Indian village of San Juan la Laguna, about 100 miles west of Guatemala City.
The local population purportedly did not agree with the group’s way of life – and the fact that they apparently bathed nude in a nearby lake – and began threatening to cut off power to the community’s home. When the threats got unbearable for the 30 Lev Tahor families the group packed up and move into a rundown office space in Guatemala City.
"It is an uncomfortable building, especially for children and women, because it was designed for offices, not for living," Rabbi Uriel Goldman told the Zionist Israeli media network, Arutz Sheva.
Lev Tahor ("pure heart" in Hebrew) was founded in the 1980s by Israeli Shlomo Helbrans. Much like the Amish in Pennsylvania and other parts of the U.S., the group avoids technological devices like television and computers, but they do allow cell phones.
Men shave their heads but sport sidelocks underneath their black hats, while women wear austere dresses and veils in the muggy Guatemalan climate.
According to its leaders, the group moved to the Central American nation to avoid religious persecution. A court in Quebec, Arutz Sheva reported, ordered 14 children into foster care after critics and relatives of members accused the group of a variety of child abuse charges, including physical abuse and promoting the marriage of minors.
Goldman said that the most of the people in the Mayan community were nice to the Jewish group, but that they were pushed out by a small contingent that was driven by local politics.
According to Arutz Sheva, town elders were upset by the sect's disregard for local customs and culture, accusing them of bathing naked in Lake Atitlán.
"For us, the body is sacred, and women uncover only their face," Goldman said. "How could we swim in the nude?"
He added that members of the Mayan community’s elder’s council warned the Lev Tahor that if they didn’t leave their water and electricity would be cut off.
Miguel Vasquez Cholotio, a member of the elders' council, countered by saying that the group was expelled the villagers decided to expel the group because they refused to greet or have physical contact with the community.
"We felt intimidated by them in the streets. We thought they wanted to change our religion and customs," he said.
Goldman said that the group will not migrate to Israel because they views the Jews as a people in exile. Instead, they will try to find land elsewhere in Guatemala on which to resettle.
"We are going to look for a place where we can build the community's homes,” he said.