Mendy Levy is an enthusiastic 18-year-old Jewish DJ and photographer who loves to play his keyboard and share pictures and videos on social media. But growing up in the ultra-orthodox community of Lev Tahor, none of those activities were allowed.
"The synagogue, the rabbi's house, my own house, there's a lot of memories in each part of this place," Levy told Radio-Canada during a visit to the former Lev Tahor community in Saint-Agathe-des-Monts, Que. — about 100 kilometres north of Montreal.
"Bad memories, mostly," he said. "The abuse we had, the hitting, every single thing that I went through here.
"But I definitely have some good memories of being with my family, my mother," he said.
Founded by rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem in the 1980s, Lev Tahor came to Canada when Helbrans was granted refugee status in 2003. He had previously served two years in prison in the United States for kidnapping and was deported to Israel.
Helbrans and his community of around 200 followers set up in the Laurentians and stayed there for 10 years. In 2013, the community moved to Chatham-Kent, Ont. in the middle of the night, while under investigation for child neglect by Quebec's Director of Youth Protection (DYP).
The DYP had been watching the sect for several months — information that was made public after Lev Tahor left Quebec.
"Leaders told us to lie to social workers, not to talk to them," Mendy recalls.
"For the parents, [going to Ontario] was a very hard move...but for the kids it was a very happy day," he said. "Because in Lev Tahor we weren't exposed to anything of the outside world. Being able to go out, seeing buses, seeing lights, being outside of the community was the greatest pleasure.
"When I left, I started to figure out things were very wrong."
Going to Guatemala
Despite threats aimed at silencing the children, the DYP said it discovered hygiene problems, poor nutrition, forced marriages of minors and violence — findings that confirmed a denunciation made by a former member of the sect to the Sûreté du Québec in 2012.
The accusations have always been denied by Lev Tahor's leaders. After they moved to Ontario, the group's leaders declared several times to media that the DYP interventions were motivated by anti-Semitism.
Social workers in Ontario picked up the case where Quebec left off and eventually, the group decided to flee to Guatemala.
Recent reports suggest the community may be trying to move again, after two of its top leaders were convicted of child sexual exploitation and kidnapping in United States federal court.
Levy says he was able to escape Lev Tahor and make his way from Guatemala back to Quebec three years ago, thanks to some good Samaritans.
He doesn't want to share all the details of how he got away (one day he hopes to tell his story in a film) but says he had a difficult relationship with the group's leaders. He says he decided to leave because the group wanted to force him to get married at the age of 15.
"In Sainte-Agathe, Lev Tahor wasn't as bad as [it] is right now," he said. "I think it's a shame that the Canadian government let them go to Guatemala."
Part of the family
Last year, Levy found a new foster home with a Hasidic Jewish family in Côte-des-Neiges, a young couple with two young children that's taken him in as one of their own.
"His father is dead and his mother is still there in Guatemala, in the cult," said Bryndel Gniwish, Levy's foster mom.
"We have a very open relationship, he tells us everything and I know what he's been through, it's hell," she said. "He's safe here at our place, but there are still kids over there who are suffering abuse."
Gniwish says when she first met Levy he didn't know anything about the world outside Lev Tahor. Growing up in the community, boys are only allowed to study religious teachings and are forbidden from receiving a secular education.
Gniwish's husband, Ravi Klein, says Levy has been making up for lost time and is doing well in high school. Levy DJs at Jewish parties and events
"A lot of times I walk in the street and I just look at myself and I'm just like 'Yo, I'm so proud of myself," Levy said with a smile.
"I can't believe I'm actually out. I'm free."