Jul 15, 2017

'Hare Krishna!' takes an uncritical look at a controversial spiritual movement and its leader

Srila Prabhupada
Srila Prabhupada
Mark Jenkins
Washington Post
July 13, 2017

In 1965, a 70-year-old retired pharmacist from Kolkata arrived in New York with no contacts or support and very little money. What he did bring was, depending on your point of view, either (a) spiritual enlightenment or (b) a mind-control cult that ripped susceptible middle-class teens away from their families.

The documentary “Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All” mentions both possibilities, but clearly favors the first. Filmmaker John Griesser and his co-director Lauren Ross fill the film with footage of Srila Prabhupada, the man who, in 1966, founded a religious organization called the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and his intelligent and articulate disciples. Coverage of controversies involving ISKCON after the guru’s 1977 death (including an alleged murder conspiracy) is relegated to a montage of unfavorable TV news and a Hare Krishna gag from “Airplane II.”

For viewers who aren’t hostile to mysticism, vegetarianism and endless chanting, it’s a stirring story. Prabhupada arrived at a pivotal moment in American culture, setting up shop in a Lower East Side storefront behind a sign promising “Matchless Gifts.” He was soon communing with George Harrison, members of the Grateful Dead and Allen Ginsburg, who is shown singing “Hare Krishna” to a smirking William F. Buckley Jr. The swami’s goal was simple, he explained: “To see everyone happy.” But how tricky a goal that can be.

Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains drug references.


A cult in Benton Harbor: The good and (alleged) evil of the House of David

The House of David's leader, King Benjamin Purnell, second from right with beard, is released on $120,000 bonds on Nov. 18, 1926 after finally being captured after years of evading the authorities in Benton Harbor, Mich.
King Benjamin Purnell
Ron Grossman
Chicago Tribune

July 14, 2017

One of the most remarkable things about the Israelite House of David — a religious commune founded in 1903 in Michigan — is that it still exists.

Its tumultuous history weaves together the allure of a charismatic leader who was called "King Ben" by the newspapers, a woman dubbed "Queen Mary," a popular baseball team, a jazz band and a compound that drew tourists to its gardens and zoo.

But the House of David faced allegations that it had a sinister side too. The cult and its leader, Benjamin Purnell, were accused of subjecting young girls to improper sexual activity with Purnell. A series of court cases and a state investigation into alleged "immoralities" were covered extensively by the Tribune in the 1920s — before the cult split into two.

Now the two compounds — the original Israelite House of David and its offshoot, Mary's City of David — sit just across Britain Avenue from each other in Benton Harbor, a small city on Michigan's western shore.

"There's two of us left here," said Ron Taylor recently. He joined Mary's City of David in 1977. "There might be three or four over there," he added, indicating the Israelite House of David.

Before the split, the group had perhaps 600 members, and it was among a number of sects that, at the turn of the 20th century, shared a common millenarian belief: The end of the world is at hand, so it's no time to be distracted by the pleasures of the flesh.

An attorney who later headed the House of David explained the group's premise to officials in 1939. By the Tribune's account, the attorney said "his colony is devoted to educational and scientific advancement. Members wear their hair and beards long, he said, because they believe they can absorb electricity from the air with their long hair. And the electricity is just as important as food."

But not all food. By his clients' beliefs, meat was a no-no. So too were tobacco and alcohol. Sex was sinful, and procreation was prohibited. A husband and wife could join only if they redefined themselves as "brother" and "sister."

Sex was, indeed, the group's nemesis. Allegations spread that the cult's founder, Benjamin Purnell, and possibly other men in the group, had sex with girls as young as 10. The accounts by girls and women in Tribune stories read like pages of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale."

The House of David was founded by Purnell, a traveling preacher, and a woman named Mary, whom he had married in Ohio despite still being married to another woman in Kentucky. A judge in 1927 would later say of him: "In the minds of his people, Benjamin has established a kingdom separated from the world in which he has held temporal and spiritual dominance, ordering the physical lives of the members and directing the aspirations of their souls and the operations of their minds."

Purnell came early to his twin callings: preaching and selling. With Mary, he traveled the Midwest, hawking brooms and salvation. Eventually they joined a Detroit commune, whose leader, Prince Mike, proclaimed himself "the seventh messenger," the last of a series of divine emissaries forecast by the biblical Book of Revelation.

Then Purnell stunned an 1895 prayer service. "I am the seventh messenger!" he announced, according to a Tribune account. "Fire and brimstone await those who doubt me!"

Banished from the group, Purnell and his wife resumed their wandering and by 1903 he'd formed the outline of his theology. Perhaps he saw himself in the tradition of the Nazirites, an Old Testament sect. Members didn't cut their hair, drink wine or go near a corpse.

Whatever Purnell's inspiration, the neighbors were outraged when he and his wife skipped their own 16-year-old daughter's funeral in Fostoria, Ohio. So the couple moved to Benton Harbor, where their luck turned. Their new Israelite House of David steadily recruited new members — a necessity, as procreation was forbidden.

Purnell's genius at mass-mailing advertising was noted in a 1914 Tribune article: "He mailed out thousands of books and pamphlets to prospective converts in all parts of the world." Many came.

Still, no one could say that Purnell tried to impose the group's ascetic regime on outsiders. The House of David profited from catering to pleasure-seeking tourists too. It regularly advertised in the Tribune, noting that it was just a 2 1/2-hour drive from Chicago. Ads touted its Eden Springs amusement park, zoo and a beer garden. Over the years, cottages and hotel rooms were available. Guests could enjoy "open-air dancing" to the sound of "vaudeville bands."

Clearly King Ben had an entrepreneurial sense. The cult even fielded a barnstorming team of baseball players who ran the the bases — their long beards trailing — and gained a national following.

The House of David baseball team spread the cult's beliefs and was a money-maker. Under its player-manager Jesse Tally — known as the "bearded Babe Ruth" — the team took on semi-pro teams. It played spring-training exhibition games against major league teams. A 1933 Tribune headline noted: "Yankees Defeat House Of David, 5-3; Break Camp."

Yet despite the popularity of its gardens and ballplayers, there were persistent rumors of a dark side to Purnell's teachings. According to a Tribune article, several women told federal authorities what they witnessed when Purnell and his followers made a fundraising appearance at a 1910 street fair in Chicago. One woman claimed Purnell slept in the girls' tent. Another added that "he has the young girls dance for him at night in their night clothes."

The authorities couldn't get Purnell's side of the story; he'd disappear whenever they wanted to talk to him. In 1914, the Tribune reported: "Benjamin is said to have hidden himself in a vault behind the bears' den in the colony zoo."

In 1923, the Tribune reported that formal charges against the colony were based on "a foundation of deceit, immorality and fraud." A grand jury in that case found that beneath the commune's supposed purity lurked "the rouge and powder, the knowing nod and the meaningful drop of the eye of sophisticated sisters of the street," as the Tribune put it.

That view was both supported and denied at another trial in 1927, which the judge had to start without him. Testimony was heard that young women were "forced into loveless marriages to shield the House of David from state investigators." Of one member, it was said: "She was pulled from under her bed, forced to dry her tears and go and be married." Purnell was accused of having sex with teenage girls as a purification rite.

A defense witness, whose daughter and son were prosecution witnesses, said: "They are dirty scorpions and liars."

Belatedly, Purnell came to court on a stretcher. Emaciated and weak, he denied he was guilty of anything. In November 1927, the judge ordered Purnell to leave the cult. He died a month later, having never been prosecuted on any sexual misconduct charges. In giving his ruling, however, the judge excoriated Purnell for "his betrayal of the spiritual faith of his victims and ... the use of the sacred aspirations of religion to gratify his lust."

That ruling ended a yearslong battle by the state of Michigan to dissolve the cult. A Tribune headline summed it up: "King Ben Exiled From Colony Of House Of David."

But survive it did — even as the sect split into two and Mary's City of David was built. Mary Purnell's leadership had been challenged, and in 1930, she pulled her followers out and founded the rival sect across the street. The cult's assets were divided, right down to the baseball players. Her team was the more successful one, bolstered by ex-major leaguers, such as Grover Cleveland Alexander. Satchel Paige, a Negro League star, called his bearded teammates "the Jesus boys."

Mary's City of David and its tourist attractions had a following in Chicago's Jewish community, too, for three reasons: Many other resorts were "restricted" to Christians; Mary's didn't serve meat, making her menu roughly kosher; and it built a synagogue for its Jewish guests.

Yet after World War II, neither sect was attracting enough members to replace those who died. Mary Purnell died in 1953.

By now, there are only a handful of members left. Ron Taylor, one of the last of Mary's followers, is encouraged by that. He notes that the dwindling membership is consistent with her timing of the day of judgment.

"She said it will come," Taylor explained, "'when all my followers could fit in a clothes closet.'"



“Being Gay Is Not OK” – How a Cult Indoctrinates Kids Against LGBT People

David G. McAfee
July 7, 2017

You’ve probably seen them picketing gay pride events and yelling at students on college campuses, but do you ever wonder where anti-gay crusaders come from? They don’t just pop into existence. In many cases, they were indoctrinated with those beliefs since childhood.

One cult, known as The Way International, has been giving young kids propaganda demonizing the LGBT community since at least 1993. One reader, only identified here as “T.,” told me about her experiences growing up within that group.

She said being homosexual was “absolutely not allowed.”

“It literally angered people to talk about,” T. told me in a personal message.

T., who is now an atheist, recently found a children’s book about homosexuality that was given to her years ago by the church. She shared it with me, and I feel it gives powerful example of anti-LGBT propaganda within the Christian community. Here it is:

This is the cover of the Christian magazine for children.

Well, we’re off to a crazy start. We are informed right off the bat that “gay is NOT ok” and that it is somehow for the benefit of the children. It’s one step below “The sky is falling!”

“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” … seriously?

This panel is interesting because of the tired rhetoric (“Adam and Even, not Adam and Steve!”), but also because of its depiction of what I assume is supposed to be a gay man. He obviously has to have a pink “Gay Power” shirt on.

He’s saved!

Here we see one of the previously gay men, the one without the “Gay Power” shirt, has been saved and is getting married to a woman. Jesus wins! Right?

Statistically, not so much. Most people who previously preferred gay sex can’t completely turn that off, no matter how much “conversion therapy” is forced on them. Odds are this guy will get divorced from his beloved bride and go back to his boyfriend.

The man should be the head of his wife? Wow.

On this last page, we add sexism into the anti-gay equation. Now, women are supposed to be subservient to men (which is why same-sex relationships are frowned upon, apparently). This section also claims being gay is something people choose “in their mind,” which makes me wonder if the authors of this “book” wake up every morning and choose to be straight. I know I don’t.

In any case, this is how on cult (The Way) has indoctrinated children against gay people. It is best to know what our opposition is doing so that we know how to counter it.

If you have any questions, you can e-mail me at David@DavidGMcAfee.com. And if you want to support my work, please donate here: https://www.patreon.com/DavidGMcAfee

Yours in Reason,

David G. McAfee

Jul 14, 2017

Followers of Rev. Moon’s anointed son to protest “Peace Starts with Me” rally at MSG


July 13, 2017

On Saturday, July 15, members of the Unification Sanctuary, established by Hyung Jin Moon, the youngest son and anointed heir of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon will be protesting outside Madison Square Garden where Hak Ja Han Moon, head of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, also known as the Unification Church, will be speaking at a “Peace Starts with Me” rally.

Members of the Unification Sanctuary will be calling upon Hak Ja Han Moon to acknowledge Hyung Jin Moon as the anointed heir and the legitimate spiritual leader of the Unification Movement.

Hyung Jin Moon was appointed by Rev. Moon as the leader of the worldwide Unification Movement in 2008. Soon after Rev. Moon’s passing he was fired from all leadership positions by his mother, Hak Ja Han Moon. He moved to northeast Pennsylvania where he launched the Unification Sanctuary.

The demonstration will take place on 8th avenue between 31st and 32nd street from 12noon – 2pm. For more information, contact Kerry Williams, Director of Education for the Unification Sanctuary, at 502-419-8413 or kkwms27@gmail.com.

Unification Sanctuary, 889 Main Street, Newfoundland, PA 18337
www.Sanctuary-PA.org * www.UnificationismUncensored.com  * www.ChristKingdomGospel.org


Kerry Williams
(502) 419-8413


Jul 12, 2017

We must hold Beijing to account for its treatment of Falun Gong practitioners

Special to The Globe and Mail
June 28, 2017

Anastasia Lin is an actress, human rights advocate, and the current Miss World Canada

On June 19, I travelled to Geneva to testify before the United Nations Human Rights Council. I spoke on behalf of a Canadian woman named Sun Qian, who’s been imprisoned in China since February. The sole reason for her arrest was her spiritual belief. Sun Qian is a Falun Gong practitioner, and she has faced solitary confinement and torture in custody.

Toward the end of my speech, I switched from English to Mandarin. Suddenly, the Chinese delegate started banging on the table to stop my speech. Later on, Chinese delegate Yang Junzhi took the floor to respond.

China, said Mr. Yang, “expresses strong indignation and resolute opposition to the unfounded claims of some NGOs,” in a clear reference to me. He asserted that Falun Gong is not a religion, but an “evil cult,” which propagates “evil theories” and causes “grave physical and psychological harms” to its practitioners. But his most extraordinary claim was that the government of China has “arranged help for those tricked into practising Falun Gong.

What is the truth about Falun Gong?

Falun Gong is a practice of five meditative exercises and a set of moral teachings. At its core, the basic tenets of Falun Gong are shared with many faiths. It is a belief that the universe has not just a material existence, but a spiritual one. That there is such a thing as a moral order – rooted in principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance – and that human life is enriched by striving to live in harmony with these ideals.

The popularity of these beliefs – official sources estimated there were 70 million practitioners in China by 1999 – is what caused the Communist Party to see Falun Gong as an ideological challenge, ultimately leading to a massive and ongoing campaign to eliminate it. According to the NGO Freedom House, since 1999, hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners across China have been subjected to arbitrary imprisonment and torture, solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs. Thousands have died as a result of abuse in custody, and there is credible evidence that large numbers of Falun Gong detainees have been killed so their organs could be sold for profit.

The Chinese government uses propaganda and misinformation to undercut sympathy for Falun Gong. One method is calling Falun Gong an “evil cult”– a label that evokes visceral negative responses. The Chinese government claims, with no credible evidence, that practising Falun Gong leads to madness, murder, and suicide. Its media outlets report that practitioners are incapable of rational thought, thereby providing justification for the arbitrary imprisonment and forcible ideological reprogramming of innocent, law-abiding people. Sometimes they refer to Falun Gong practitioners as literal vermin – as “rats” that need to be smashed.

This should cause deep concern in the West. We know where this kind of dehumanizing rhetoric can lead, because we’ve seen it before in Nazi Germany, in Rwanda, in Bosnia. But instead of condemning it, we perpetuate it. We allow the Chinese government to set the terms of the debate.

In the West, Falun Gong is obviously not persecuted. But it suffers another kind of indignity: being marginalized, ignored, or softly belittled. News organizations refer to Falun Gong “members,” despite the fact that the practice has no system of membership. In far too many instances, Falun Gong is described merely as a group that was banned as a cult in China, a claim that is historically inaccurate and extremely prejudicial. Critical analysis of the Chinese government’s propagandist rhetoric is almost entirely absent from the journalistic discourse.

This isn’t entirely surprising; the Chinese government is powerful. Through its network of state-run media and the enormous commercial and political power it wields, it has a tremendous ability to influence how the Western world understands China. In the past, the party-state has successfully persuaded foreign publications to kill sympathetic stories on Falun Gong or to white-wash documentaries on its persecution.

This persecution is a human-rights catastrophe, yet it is often overlooked because the victims – Falun Gong practitioners like myself – are somehow seen as unworthy of sympathy.

Collectively, we have been more responsive to the slander of a dictatorship than the victims’ cries. But we still have a chance to stop further killing in China. Sun Qian is still imprisoned in China. It’s time to bring her home.


Convictions for 3 rabbis for forced divorces

The Associated Press
July 7, 2017

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A federal appeals court Friday upheld the convictions of three Orthodox rabbis for their roles in a ring that used brutal tactics to force unwilling Jewish men to divorce their wives.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed arguments by the rabbis that the convictions should be overturned on a number of grounds, including the right to religious freedom.

Rabbis Mendel Epstein, Jay Goldstein and Binyamin Stimler were convicted in 2015 on charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping. Epstein, 70, lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, while Goldstein, 61, and Stimler, 41, are from Brooklyn.

Epstein, who was accused of being the ringleader, was sentenced to 10 years. Goldstein got an eight-year term, and Stimler a three-year sentence.

The attacks were carried out from 2009 to 2013 in New Jersey, New York City and other locations. Prosecutors said the group used brutal methods and tools, including handcuffs and electric cattle prods, to torture the men into granting the religious divorces, known as gets, which their wives were seeking.

Jewish law mandates that the get be presented by a husband to a wife to make a divorce official.

During his sentencing in December 2015, Epstein told District Judge Freda Wolfson that he got caught up in his tough guy image, which he said helped him persuade men to give their wives the religious divorces. Epstein said he was helping the women out of a sense of compassion because they couldn’t remarry without it.

Epstein’s attorney, Peter Goldberger, argued before the appeals court in January that Wolfson erred during the trial by not allowing evidence that explained the rabbi’s religious beliefs. The attorneys also argued that federal authorities didn’t get a warrant to obtain private cellphone records and that the evidence against Stimler wasn’t enough to justify a conviction.

The appeals court judges dismissed those claims.


This story has been corrected to show that the rabbis appealed in December 2015, not in January 2017.


Polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs pleads 'not guilty' in fugitive, food stamp fraud case

JULY 10, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY — Polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs appeared in federal court on Monday, pleading not guilty to charges related to food stamp fraud and his time as a fugitive.

Jeffs, once a bishop in Utah’s largest polygamous sect, the Fundamentalist LDS Church, made an initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Brooke Wells.

In court, Jeffs appeared thinner since he disappeared last year. Shackled, he wore an orange and white striped jail jumpsuit and Crocs.

Judge Wells asked if Jeffs would admit to violating the terms of his pre-trial release. His attorney, Kathy Nester, said he would not be able to admit it, because prosecutors obtained an indictment charging him with failure to appear. However, he would not contest the violation.

Judge Wells ordered Jeffs jailed pending trial.

“Not guilty,” he told the judge on the failure to appear charge.

Judge Wells scheduled a two-week trial beginning Sept. 18. Jeffs’ defense attorney said she believed it would take longer than that to try him.

Jeffs vanished last year after a judge allowed him to be released on home confinement pending trial on food stamp fraud charges. As FOX 13 first reported, the FBI believes he used olive oil to slip out of a GPS monitoring device.

He was arrested last month in South Dakota, where authorities said he had been living out of his pickup truck. Police got a tip that Jeffs had been trying to pawn some tools.

“It’s kind of nice to see him in a similar condition to what he put thousands of people in. They’re in mental chains, he’s in physical chains,” said Brenda Nicholson, an ex-member of the FLDS Church who was in court on Monday.

Nicholson, who left the church in 2012 and has said she knew of food stamp fraud within the polygamous sect, said she still wished the federal government would pursue tougher charges against him.

“It makes me wonder if the comprehend the gravity of the harm that man has done to so many people,” she told FOX 13. “It just seems like they’re still taking it like it’s not a big deal.”

Jeffs was once a bishop in the FLDS Church, but the FBI believes he has been ousted from his leadership role by his brother, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs (who is currently serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for child sex assault related to underage “marriages”).

Lyle Jeffs is the last defendant in a massive food stamp fraud case leveled by the federal government against FLDS Church members. Prosecutors alleged faithful members were ordered to hand over their Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to church leaders to do with as they wished. In court documents, the feds alleged taxpayers were bilked out of as much as $12 million.

The defense argued the FLDS had a religious right to hand over their benefits, saying their belief system has them consecrate their property to the church.

The other defendants in the case have either struck plea deals or had their case dismissed.


Drowning of Lev Tahor leader raises fears over ultra-Orthodox sect's future

Shlomo Helbrans
The strict rules Helbrans imposed led Israelis to nickname the cult-like group the Jewish Taliban, because female members wear burka-like robes beginning at age three.

National post
Graeme Hamilton
July 11, 2017

MONTREAL — To the roughly 200 Lev Tahor adherents who followed their charismatic rabbi from country to country, Shlomo Helbrans knew the path to eternal truth. To his numerous detractors, he was a dangerous charlatan who deserved to be locked up.

Now, after Helbrans drowned last week in Mexico at age 55, the future of the cult-like group has been cast into doubt, and a path that has jumped from Israel to the United States, Canada, Guatemala and Mexico looks less clear than ever.

“There is now a power vacuum,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania who has been watching the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect for about a decade.

She said it would be hard for anyone to replace Helbrans, particularly when his death was so sudden. “The attachment to a charismatic leader in a very isolated group that engages in illegal practices is so strong,” she said.

Helbrans and his followers had arrived in Mexico’s southern Chiapas province recently after spending three years in Guatemala. They had travelled to Guatemala from Canada, where child-protection authorities were moving to seize children allegedly suffering from neglect.

Helbrans founded Lev Tahor – Hebrew for Pure Heart – in Israel in the mid-1980s. The group moved to New York in 1991, fleeing the Armageddon Helbrans believed would come with the first Gulf War.

A criminal conviction for kidnapping a boy brought to him for religious instruction led to his deportation to Israel after he served a prison sentence, but in 2000 he arrived in Canada. He was eventually granted asylum from what he claimed was Israeli government persecution for his anti-Zionist views.

The strict rules Helbrans imposed led Israelis to nickname the cult-like group the Jewish Taliban, because female members wear burka-like robes beginning at age three and are confined to household tasks.

The group had been established on the outskirts of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, north of Montreal, for more than a decade before Quebec authorities began paying close attention. As they prepared to move in to protect children in the sect in late 2013, community members left en masse overnight for Chatham, Ont. Before the next summer, they had moved on to Guatemala.

Court documents used by Quebec police to obtain warrants alleged that Lev Tahor girls as young as 13 and 14 in the community were routinely married off to much older men. The allegations in the documents, which became public after the sect had fled and were never proven in court, included sexual and physical abuse of children.

La Presse revealed that based on a report of a former Lev Tahor member, provincial police had feared a mass suicide if authorities attempted to break up the community.

Speaking from Israel Tuesday, Hannah Katsman, a child-protection advocate who has researched Lev Tahor, said there are fears of what could come next for a group with a strong persecution complex.

“We know that some cults end with suicide,” she said. “There has been so much turmoil and chaos in the last few years, ever since they left Quebec.”

Oded Twik, who rescued his sister and her children from Lev Tahor in 2015, said family members in Israel are very worried about what will happen to sect members. “There are a lot of people who are really damaged,” Twik said through an interpreter. “He was like a pope. He was their spiritual father.”

Helbrans was reportedly taking part in a purification ritual last Friday when he was swept away by an unusually strong river current. A report in El Orbe said his body was carried a kilometre downstream before it was recovered.

Lev Tahor members were in Mexico on a six-month visa. In June, group spokesman Uriel Goldman told El Sol de Mexico that the 40 families had moved to Mexico after facing religious intolerance in Guatemala.

Hamilton noted that sect members include citizens of Canada, the United States and Israel, and she said Helbrans’ death could provide an opportunity for action.

“To the extent that there are children who are either American or Canadian citizens, at this point the authorities could swoop in and take them. Everything they are doing to those children, at least from the reports we’ve had, violate international standards,” she said.

“The concern was while (Helbrans) was in power that if the government got too close, he would turn them all against themselves and perhaps have a suicide pact or something horrendous.”

• Email: ghamilton@nationalpost.com |


California Beach Party Brings Together Ex-Believers

July 4, 2017

Heard on All Things Considered

When people leave religious groups, they sometimes feel adrift. Some formerly faithful folks in Southern California are looking for ways to build community specifically for ex-believers.


When people leave religion behind, they sometimes feel stranded. They can lose communities, friends, even family. Some ex-believers are coming together in Southern California looking for a new sense of belonging. From member station KCRW, Luke Vander Ploeg reports.

LUKE VANDER PLOEG, BYLINE: It's a windy Saturday at bowls the Bolsa Chica State Beach in Long Beach, Calif. The sun is out, the waves are lapping, the ribs are cooking. And if you listen hard, you might catch some light blasphemous humor. This is no ordinary beach party. It's the annual Southern California Interfaithless Summer Kickoff Beach Party. Since 2014, the ex-religious have been coming together to spend a day at the beach with other former believers. It started out as just a couple of ex-Mormons but now...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm an ex-Scientologist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Evangelical.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm an ex-Jehovah's Witness.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Ultra-orthodox Judaism.

MAHA AHMED: I'm an ex-Muslim.

PLOEG: That last voice you heard belongs to Maha Ahmed. She left Islam about eight years ago, and it wasn't easy.

AHMED: I was looking for this thing called faith, and everyone around me seemed to have it. And I just couldn't feel fulfilled with religion. It took me a long time to realize that it was OK and I could just walk away.

PLOEG: Still, Ahmed wasn't quite able to walk away completely. It took her a long time before she told her siblings. And her parents?

AHMED: They don't know. I think it would change our relationship to something that might be irrepairable.

PLOEG: She discovered the beach party a few years after she left Islam and it was revelatory.

AHMED: I didn't realize I still carried kind of that burden, that I felt lonely about it. And it lightened the load on my heart a lot.

MORRIS BIRD: It's something that people can't get anywhere else.

PLOEG: Morris Bird is the founder of the Interfaithless Beach Party. It goes back to a group that he pulled together back in 2011, when he left Mormonism. He felt isolated, so he reached out online and invited some other ex-Mormons to a meet-up.

BIRD: At the end, they looked at me and said, you're in charge of the next one.

PLOEG: As the group continued to grow, Bird got to thinking.

BIRD: Mormons aren't so unique. There's a lot of other people from other backgrounds who have been through a lot of the same things, and I'd like to meet them.

PLOEG: So he took to the Internet once again, reaching out on Reddit and messaging boards for the ex-religious with great success. People of all different former faiths flocked to the beach, Morris says, for a chance at meeting others in the same boat.

BIRD: People come from Vegas or Bishop, Calif., or Camerino or Bakersfield because they know it's a place where they can have someone who understands them.

BART CAMPOLO: What Morris is doing is identifying the hunger.

PLOEG: That's Bart Campolo. He was at the beach party as well. I spoke with him a few days later. Bart, like his father Tony Campolo, was a pretty big evangelical leader for most of his life. He left Christianity in a very public way, and people immediately started to reach out to him.

CAMPOLO: I hear from lots of people who say, I don't believe in God anymore but I miss it.

PLOEG: They don't miss trying to make sense of horrible tragedies or parse through thorny theological problems.

CAMPOLO: What they miss is the music and sitting down to talk about how we can be better people and how we can make other people's lives better. They miss the community.

PLOEG: Campolo missed it too, and now he's trying to recreate it. He's the humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. And although he doesn't think the secular world has quite figured out how to make this kind of community work, he has a lot of hope.

CAMPOLO: There are all these people. They need a party, but they don't know how to throw one.

PLOEG: For now, but fewer and fewer Americans identify with religious groups every year, and many still hunger for community. And as they continue to find each other, Campolo says, eventually they're going to figure out how to throw that party. For NPR News, I'm Luke Vander Ploeg in Long Beach, Calif.



How much power does a polygamous sect have in Hildale, Utah? It will be put to a vote

Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, right, speaks with Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow at left, Sept. 15, 2015, after a flash flood went through the polygamous Utah-Arizona border community killing 13 people. Earlier in 2017, Cox's office provided training to Hildale and its candidates for office on how to run an election.
The Salt Lake Tribune
July 11, 2017

Not a referendum on polygamy » Candidates stress that they want everyone, FLDS or not, to have a voice.

Through all the troubles they've had the past 15 years — arrests, lawsuits, the seizing of homes — members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints held all the seats on the municipal governments of Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz. Now that might change. Hildale will hold an election Nov. 7 for mayor and three of its six council seats.

While the election is nonpartisan, two unofficial parties have emerged.

Each of the four offices on the ballot has two candidates — one who is still a member of the FLDS, according to locals, and one who is not.

"It's actually going to be the first official election held in Hildale," said Donia Jessop, a candidate for mayor who left the FLDS four years ago. "Like, we're actually going to have a campaign and hold an election where people can choose who they have in office."

Previously, according to Jessop and others who used to belong to the church, FLDS leaders told everyone whom to vote for through word of mouth. Even on the rare occasions that someone who wasn't an FLDS member ran for office, the church members had the numbers.

It's unclear if they do this time. Perhaps hundreds of FLDS members have moved from Hildale and Colorado City rather than cooperate with their former land trust, called the United Effort Plan, which Utah seized in 2005.

In recent years, the trust has sold or is in the process of selling about 80 percent of the homes in Hildale. Some in the town estimate that a majority of Hildale residents are now non-FLDS.

Colorado City, where property transfers have been slowed by a dispute over how to subdivide parcels, does not have a municipal election scheduled for this year.

Incumbent Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow, who is running for another term, acknowledges new people are moving into town. But he said he doesn't know what the religious split is in Hildale and isn't concerned with it.

"I don't know anything about any churches because I haven't checked with anybody about what they are," Barlow said. "So that really is a nonfactor."

Barlow, who declined to speak about his own faith, is 54 years old and works at Streamline Automotive — a Hildale business that has appeared in court records through the years as being an employer of faithful FLDS members.

It's unclear how the FLDS slate was selected. For the non-FLDS candidates, there was a meeting April 28 at Water Canyon School that worked much like a party convention. Candidates made their pitches to the voters in attendance, who selected the nominees. A few people who appeared to still be FLDS members attended and voted, said Jared Nicol, a candidate for City Council who was nominated that day.

The non-FLDS candidates say they have no opposition to anyone just because of the church to which they belong. Maha Layton, 30, a candidate for a council seat who lived in Hildale until age 15 and returned four years ago, says she has some family who are FLDS and some who are not.

"It's easy for me as a councilwoman to know that I can represent all Hildale citizens," she said. "It's not two-sided to me."

Layton and the other non-FLDS candidates say they just don't like the way Hildale has been managed and how people who do not follow FLDS President Warren Jeffs, who is serving a sentence of life in prison plus 20 years in Texas for crimes related to his sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives, have been excluded from decisions.

The town's insurer has paid millions in settlements in recent years to end civil rights suits that accused Hildale and Colorado City of favoring FLDS members. Both towns are about to receive a court-ordered monitor to observe council meetings and other municipal functions and report to a federal judge whether any discrimination or favoritism is continuing.

In the mayor's race, both Jessop and Barlow talk about ensuring Hildale has enough drinking water, but Jessop wonders why the town government is buying new lots to drill wells when there are lots available through the UEP. She believes it's another example of the FLDS refusing to work with the land trust.

If elected, Jessop wants to go through the town budget to see where money has been spent and what employees have been paid. Many of the non-FLDS residents have complained Hildale and Colorado City do not provide enough information about their finances.

"It's like we're buying a farm, sight unseen," Jessop said. "We have no idea what we're going in on."

Barlow said he and the town's council have worked to take care of infrastructure. He points to how Hildale is applying with the state for grants and loans to improve flood control there. A 2015 flash flood in Hildale killed 13 people.

Both Barlow and Jessop talk about wanting to provide good municipal services to Hildale residents — all of them. Jessop makes it a point to say that she doesn't want to drive away the FLDS members.

"Those are my family," Jessop said. "I don't want them gone. I will want them to stay. I will want them to keep their homes."

There are worries about how fair the election will be. Many FLDS members work out of state, and the non-FLDS residents have been concerned people have registered or will register their addresses in Hildale and cast absentee or mail-in ballots.

Jessop said supporters of a new municipal government are going door-to-door in Hildale and asking whether the registered voter really lives there. When the answer is no, Utah law allows submitting a challenge to the official responsible for the election — in this case the Hildale city recorder — who sends a notice asking for proof the person is eligible to vote.

Mark Thomas, director of elections in the office of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, said Cox and other state election officials have already visited Hildale to train municipal employees and candidates on procedures. Hildale has contracted with the Washington County clerk to run the election.

The mayor's race, at least, will not be a referendum on polygamy. One of Barlow's sons told The Salt Lake Tribune last year that the mayor has two wives. Jessop says her husband has a second wife she calls her "best friend."

No debates are scheduled between Barlow and Jessop. That's OK with Jessop. She says Barlow and the other FLDS candidates are already under stress to represent the FLDS, and a debate might cause him to say something the leaders don't like.

"I know the pressure they're under," she said. "I'm not about making them miserable or uncomfortable."



Jul 10, 2017

A short history of vaccine objection, vaccine cults and conspiracy theories

Edward Jenner, who pioneered vaccination, and two colleagues (right) seeing off three anti-vaccination opponents, with the dead lying at their feet (1808).
The Conversation AU
July 9, 2017

Ella Stewart-Peters, PhD Candidate in History, Flinders University
Catherine Kevin, Senior Lecturer in Australian History, Flinders University

Disclosure statement

Ella Stewart-Peters receives funding from an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

Catherine Kevin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.


Flinders University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU

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When we hear phrases like vaccine objection, vaccine refusal and anti-vaxxers, it’s easy to assume these are new labels used in today’s childhood vaccination debates.

But there’s a long history of opposition to childhood vaccination, from when it was introduced in England in 1796 to protect against smallpox. And many of the themes played out more than 200 years ago still resonate today.

For instance, whether childhood vaccination should be compulsory, or whether there should be penalties for not vaccinating, was debated then as it is now.

Throughout the 19th century, anti-vaxxers widely opposed Britain’s compulsory vaccination laws, leading to their effective end in 1907, when it became much easier to be a conscientious objector. Today, the focus in Australia has turned to ‘no jab, no pay’ or ‘no jab, no play’, policies linking childhood vaccination to welfare payments or childcare attendance.

Of course, the methods vaccine objectors use to discuss their position has changed. Today, people share their views on social media, blogs and websites; then, they wrote letters to newspapers for publication, the focus of my research.

Many studies have looked at the role of organised anti-vaccination societies in shaping the vaccination debate. However, “letters to the editor” let us look beyond the inner workings of these societies to show what ordinary people thought about vaccination.

Many of the UK’s larger metropolitan newspapers were wary of publishing letters opposing vaccination, especially those criticising the laws. However, regional newspapers would often publish them.

As part of my research, I looked at more than 1,100 letters to the editor, published in 30 newspapers from south-west England. Here are some of the recurring themes.
Smallpox vaccination a gruesome affair

In 19th century Britain, the only vaccine widely available to the public was against smallpox. Vaccination involved making a series of deep cuts to the arm of the child into which the doctor would insert matter from the wound of a previously vaccinated child.

These open wounds left many children vulnerable to infections, blood poisoning and gangrene. Parents and anti-vaccination campaigners alike described the gruesome scenes that often accompanied the procedure, like this example from the Royal Cornwall Gazette from December 1886:

Some of these poor infants have been borne of pillows for weeks, decaying alive before death ended their sufferings.
Conspiracy theories and vaccine cults

Side-effects were so widespread many parents refused to vaccinate their children. And letters to the editor show they became convinced the medical establishment and the government were aware of the dangers of vaccination.

If this was the case, why was vaccination compulsory? The answer, for many, could be found in a conspiracy theory.

Their letters argued doctors had conned the government into enforcing compulsory vaccination so they could reap the financial benefits. After all, public vaccinators were paid a fee for each child they vaccinated. So people believed compulsory vaccination must have been introduced to maximise doctors’ profits, as this example from the Wiltshire Times in February 1894 shows:

What are the benefits of vaccination? Salaries and bonuses to public vaccinators; these are the benefits; while the individuals who have to endure the operation also have to endure the evils which result from it. Health shattered, lives crippled or destroyed - are these benefits?

Conspiracy theories went further. If doctors knew vaccination could result in infections, then they knew children died from the procedure. As a result, some conspiracy theorists began to argue there was something inherently evil about vaccination. Some saw vaccination as “the mark of the beast”, a ritual perpetuated by a “vaccine cult”. Writing in the Salisbury Times, in December 1903, one critic said:

This is but the prototype of that modern species of doctorcraft, which would have us believe that their highly remunerative invocations of the vaccine god alone avert the utter extermination of the human race by small-pox.

Of course, this is an extreme view. But issues of morality and religion still permeate the anti-vaccination movement today.
Individual rights

For many, the issue of compulsory vaccination was directly related to the rights of the individual. Just like modern anti-vaccination arguments, many people in the 19th century believed compulsory vaccination laws were an incursion into the rights enjoyed by free citizens.

By submitting to the compulsory vaccination laws, a parent was allowing the government to insert itself into the individual home, and take control of a child’s body, something traditionally protected by the parent. Here’s an example from the Royal Cornwall Gazette in April 1899:

[…] civil and religious liberty must of necessity include the right to protect healthy children from calf-lymph defilement […] trust […] cannot be handed over at the demand of a medical tradesunion, or tamely relinquished at the cool request of some reverend rural justice of the peace.
What can we learn by looking at the past?

If anti-vaccination arguments from the past significantly overlap with those presented by their counterparts today, then we can learn about how to deal with anti-vaccination movements in the future.

Not only can we see compulsory vaccination laws in Australia could, as some researchers say, be problematic, we can use the history of vaccine opposition to better understand why vaccination remains so controversial for some people.


Analysis Will the 'Jewish Taliban' Survive the Death of Their Spiritual Leader?

The followers of Lev Tahor, which was ruled a 'dangerous cult' by an Israeli court, followed Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans from country to country until his reported drowning this week.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
July 9, 2017

The saga of a cult of ultra-Orthodox fundamentalist Jews whose controversial practices have led them to wander the world – from Israel to the U.S., Canada, Guatemala and finally to Mexico – could be heading into a dramatic final chapter.

Mexican media outlets are reporting that the charismatic leader of the Lev Tahor sect, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, drowned in a river.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman told Haaretz that an official from the Israeli consulate in Mexico is headed to the country’s southern region to confirm the death and identify Helbrans’ body. According to Mexican media reports, Helbrans, 55, was overtaken by river currents in the southeastern state of Chiapas while taking part in a ritual immersion.

The fact that members of the group, ruled a “dangerous cult” by an Israeli court, were living in Mexico was little-known. Oded Twik, an activist for the families of Lev Tahor members, said that Helbrans had quietly led his followers out of Guatemala several months ago, crossing the border into the Chiapas, where they were seeking asylum status, without alerting the media. The Mexican government, he said, had allowed Helbrans and his followers to temporarily remain in the country for 180 days, and the group had already begun a campaign to convince the Mexicans to let them stay longer.

When the news of Helbrans’ drowning first broke on Saturday, Twik thought perhaps they weren’t true and it was some kind of a ruse. “I suspected that he staged it” in order to evade authorities who were chasing him, he said. But over the course day on Sunday, he checked with his contacts in the region and the reports appeared increasingly credible.

Twik was told that Helbrans was not yet been buried and that his body was in refrigeration, awaiting official identification, but his family members would not permit an autopsy. The activist, who extracted his own family members from Lev Tahor in Guatemala two years ago, said he was concerned about ensuing actions by the group’s leadership following Helbrans’ death. He also worried that distressed members could harm themselves: “These are people in a cult who have lost their spiritual leader. The reaction could be extreme.”

There is little that isn’t extreme about Lev Tahor, comprised of an estimated 250 members (though the precise number of adherents is unknown).

The group is known as the “Jewish Taliban” in the Israeli press because the women wear head-to-toe black robes, reminiscent of what women in Afghanistan had to wear during Taliban rule. The group’s name means “Pure Heart” and reflects the philosophy of Helbrans, who preached that members must purify themselves from the corrupting influences that defile the rest of the world – including other ultra-Orthodox groups, from which many of his followers came. He dictated a closely supervised, spartan way of life and rejected modern technology, going beyond the decrees of even the strictest ultra-Orthodox streams. He did share with them an anti-Zionist philosophy and a belief that the State of Israel is an evil and illegitimate entity.

Twik and other relatives of Lev Tahor members charge that the cult keeps its members in line with cruel and extreme methods, including physical violence, psychiatric drugs, the removal of children from their parents and forcing underage girls to marry older men.

Helbrans was born into a secular Israeli family. As a teenager, he became religious and joined the anti-Zionist Satmar Hassidic sect. In the late 1980s, Helbrans developed his own following, preaching the future apocalyptic destruction of the State of Israel and basing his predictions on biblical prophecies. In 1990 he moved his followers to the United States, and founded a yeshiva in Brooklyn. Four years later, he was convicted of kidnapping a 13-year-old who was sent to the yeshiva to study for his bar mitzvah by convincing him to become ultra-Orthodox, sever ties with his family and join Lev Tahor.

After serving two years in prison for the crime, he was granted parole and moved with his followers to Monsey, New York, where he again ran a yeshiva, but the local ultra-Orthodox community became hostile toward the group. In 2000, the United States deported Helbrans back to Israel, but he and his followers soon moved to Quebec, Canada, seeking – and receiving – refugee status from the Canadian government. Helbrans claimed he was persecuted by Israel for his anti-Zionist views. The group remained in Canada for a decade, but their troubles with authorities followed them, with allegations of child abuse mounting over the years. In 2013 the scrutiny of the Quebec child protection services drove them out of that province and to Ontario, but they remained on the radar of Canadian authorities – and the Canadian media, which reported on their severe practices extensively.

After several of the sect’s children were placed in foster care and it appeared that group's leaders would face criminal charges, members fled Canada in 2014, heading for Guatemala.

After an initial stay in Guatemala City, the group moved to the village of San Juan La Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlan, but they were soon forcibly driven out after clashing with the villages’ Council of Indigenous Elders. The town’s former mayor ended up with a year-long prison sentence for forcing them out of the town.

After the expulsion, Lev Tahor members moved back to Guatemala City, but after authorities there raided the sect’s compound amid allegations of physical and mental abuse of their children in 2016, they moved once again, this time to Oratorio, a village 50 miles southeast of Guatemala City.

On April 25, 2017 a ruling by an Israeli court declared that the sect was a “dangerous cult” that abused children. The court was petitioned by families of Lev Tahor devotees to increase pressure on the government to repatriate Israeli children living with the sect abroad and try to prevent others from being taken out of the country.

Evidence showed “the Lev Tahor community treats the children of the community ... with severe physical punishment, with underage marriage ... with spouses who sometimes have age differences of up to 20 years," wrote Judge Rivka Makayes wrote in her decision. She added that “there is a punitive policy toward members of the community that includes the separation of children from their parents – even in infancy – and the transfer of children to be raised in another family; the prevention of formal education and isolation from the outside world and all external sources of information.”

According to the Foreign Ministry, the mandate of the diplomat headed to Chiapas is strictly to confirm Helbrans' death, not to investigate the state of the Israeli Lev Tahor members there.

Twik says Israel has turned a deaf ear to the appeals of families of Lev Tahor members over the years, and has not done enough to help the children he believes they have abused. He said that he “took the matter into my own hands” two years ago and “rescued” his family members by force from Guatemala himself after concluding that “the state wasn’t going to do anything.” Twik’s sister and her children now live in New Jersey. He said they were in “complete shock” at the news of Helbrans' death.

He said he was not at all certain that the death of the group's founder would mark the end of Lev Tahor. Although the loss of the spiritual leader will cause “cracks,” Twik believes that overall, the organization is a “well-oiled machine,” and that other powerful members of the group, including Helbrans’ son Nahman, are capable of taking over the leadership role. He noted that during the times Helbrans was detained or imprisoned, the sect – made up mainly of Israeli and American Jews – continued to function.

Israeli officials “should go there now, talk to the people, calm them down, check up on them. There are Israeli children there,” said Twik. “It’s a crazy group with crazy practices. I look at my family and they were abused badly – not just by Helbrans, but by powerful families in the group.”


St. Petersburg Church of Scientology head to remain in detention

Defendant in St. Petersburg Church of Scientology case put under house arrest.
Mikhail Telekhov
July 10, 2017
The St. Petersburg City Court has upheld detention of the Church of Scientology of St. Petersburg leader Ivan Matsitsky, who stands charged with participation in an extremist organization, the Unified press service of St. Petersburg courts told RAPSI on Monday.

Matsitsky is also charged with illegal business, inciting hatred and enmity, and violation of human dignity.

According to investigators, Matsitsky was coordinating activities of the organization and cash distribution. From 2013 to 2016, the organization received over 276 million rubles (about $5 million) for rendering its services. However, the Church of Scientology of St. Petersburg has not been incorporated under the law, a representative of the Federal Security Service (FSB) said in court earlier.

In June, executive director of the Church of Scientology in St. Petersburg Galina Shurinova, chief of the official matters department Anastasia Terentyeva and chief accountant of the religious group Sakhib Aliyev were detained alongside Matsitsky until August 5. Terentyeva’s assistance Constance Yesaulkova was put under house arrest.

Dianetics and Scientology are a set of religious and philosophical ideas and practices that were put forth by L. Ron Hubbard in the US in the early 1950s.

The scientific community never recognized it as science.

A resolution passed in 1996 by the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, classified the Church of Scientology as a destructive religious organization.

The Moscow Regional Court ruled in 2012 that some of Hubbard’s books be included on the Federal List of Extremist Literature and prohibited from distribution in Russia.


Jul 9, 2017

Shlomo Helbrans, Lev Tahor Cult Leader Drowns In River While 'Toiveling' On Friday

"Lev Tahor" leader Rabbi Shlomo Halberantz
Yeshiva World News
July 8, 2017

According to multiple media reports, Shlomo Helbrans, the leader of the Lev Tahor cult, drowned on Friday in Mexico. He was 55.

Local media reports said his body was found in a river that he used as a Mikva.

The Israel Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the reports were being looked into by the Israeli embassy in Mexico.

According to local media, Helbrans’ body was pulled from the river by rescue forces on Friday afternoon after he was swept away by strong currents.

About three and a half years ago, Canadian authorities blocked the group from transferring underage members to Guatemala after Canadian courts issued a decree requiring some children to be transferred to foster families after being found to have been severely abused.

Welfare officials in Ontario and Quebec claimed that they had evidence of abuse involving beatings, underage marriage, and illegal education. However, the sect succeeded in transferring a number of the children to Guatemala giving rise to a legal battle over the last few years to expel them back to Canada.

In September 2016, at the request of Israeli authorities, Guatemalan law enforcement raided the Lev Tahor compound and arrested its leaders on suspicion of child abuse. The raid prompted its members to leave the site to a new location in eastern Guatemala, and complain that they were being persecuted due of their faith.

Helbrans and the group had crossed the Guatemalan border into the Mexican state of Chiapas several weeks ago.

Originally a citizen of Israel, cult leader Shlomo Helbrans went to the United States where he was convicted for kidnapping in 1994 and served a two-year prison term before being deported to Israel in 2000. He then settled in Canada.

In 1994 he was convicted in Brooklyn for the 1992 kidnapping of 13-year-old Shai Fhima Reuven, a Bar Mitzvah boy he was tutoring, and served a two-year prison term in the U.S. He was originally sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, but in June 1996 an appeals court reduced the sentence to two to six years. Three days later, he was placed in the work release program for prisoners less than two years away from the possibility of parole, where inmates are freed from prison if they have a job. After protests, he was moved back to prison.

The high-profile case drew much attention in the U.S., and gained further attention when Helbrans successfully convinced New York prison authorities to waive their requirement that all prisoners be shaved for a photograph upon entering prison, and to accept a computer-generated image of what he would have looked like clean-shaven instead. After the State Parole Board decided in November 1996 to release Helbrans after two years in prison, the case rose to near scandal with suspicions that the Pataki administration was providing him special treatment.

After his release from prison, Helbrans ran a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y., and was deported to Israel in 2000. He then settled in Canada, where in 2003 he was granted refugee status, claiming his life was being threatened in Israel.


Report: 'Lev Tahor' leader has drowned in Mexico

"Lev Tahor" leader Rabbi Shlomo Halberantz on Friday drowned in a river in Mexico's Chiapas province
Leader of ultra-stringent group dies while immersing in river, Foreign Ministry investigates.

Arutz Sheva
July 8, 2017

"Lev Tahor" leader Rabbi Shlomo Halberantz on Friday drowned in a river in Mexico's Chiapas province, local media reports said.

Halberantz, 55, was immersing himself ritually in the river in preparation for Shabbat (Sabbath) when he drowned.

Israel's Foreign Ministry on Friday night said the Israeli Embassy in Mexico is investigating the report.

According to local media, rescue services found Halberantz's body on Frirday afternoon, after it had been swept away in the current. The report also said that Halberantz had drowned in front of his followers and family, while immersing in the river prior to Shabbat.

Halberantz was the leader of a 40-family ultra-stringent group which crossed into Chiapas from Guatemala approximately three weeks ago.

In September 2016, Lev Tahor relocated within Guatemala, saying they had been harassed by local authorities.

Canadian and Guatemalan authorities have suspected Lev Tahor of performing child marriages and abusing members, including children.


Jul 8, 2017

B.C. prosecutor urges 'strong message' in sentencing for child bride case

The Globe and Mail
June 30, 2017

A special prosecutor has asked a judge to send a strong message of denunciation in sentencing a man and woman who took a 13-year-old girl over the U.S. border to marry the now-imprisoned leader of a polygamous sect.

Peter Wilson told a B.C. Supreme Court judge in Cranbrook on Friday that Brandon Blackmore should serve a jail sentence of 12 to 18 months, while Gail Blackmore deserves a six to 12 month sentence.

The former husband and wife were convicted earlier this year on a charge of taking a child under the age of 16 out of Canada for sexual purposes.

The trial heard that in 2004, the girl was secreted into the United States to marry Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who is serving a life sentence for assaulting two of his child brides.

Wilson acknowledged that it’s an unusual case and there’s no volume of Canadian law to assist Justice Paul Pearlman in reaching an appropriate sentence.

But he said the sentence must deter other members of the secluded community.

“Deterrence might have particular importance in this case because other persons who could potentially commit the offence are, I would say, a very, narrow group,” Wilson said. “The likely group of potential offenders is probably small and could very well be limited to other adherents of the FLDS as it’s being espoused by Mr. Jeffs.”

Wilson said Brandon Blackmore is more culpable than Gail Blackmore, but both were present at the wedding of the girl and knew what would happen. He said the teen and many women in that church live cloistered lives.

“The fact that the victim was 13 ... had spent her whole life in Bountiful, and was not what I would call a worldly person, which I submit would have rendered her more vulnerable.”

Pearlman scheduled sentencing for Aug. 11.

The young woman, whose name is protected by a publication ban, was sitting in the front row of the courtroom.

Brandon Blackmore’s lawyer said his client, who is 71, was ex-communicated in 2012 and has no contact with any of the members of his former church.

John Gustafson said his client has begun to have some insight about his actions, but was “taught his whole life that Warren Jeffs was God’s representative on earth.”

He asked for a conditional sentence, a form of house arrest, for his client.

“He is not in a position, even if he wanted to, to commit these acts again,” Gustafson said.

Gail Blackmore, 60, declined to say anything during sentencing but Joe Doyle, a lawyer appointed as a friend of the court, spoke on her behalf.

Doyle said the woman should not be painted with the “polygamist brush.” He said she is less culpable because women in the church are taught to have “absolute obedience” to the male head of the household.

“It is now 13 years later. Mr. Jeffs is in jail for the rest of his life,” said Doyle.

“She doesn’t have a husband who’s going to order her to do anything. There’s no need for individual deterrence for Mrs. Blackmore.”

James Oler, a former leader in the polygamous community of Bountiful, was acquitted of the same charge after the judge ruled there wasn’t proof he crossed the border with a 15-year-old girl.

Wilson is asking British Columbia’s Court of Appeal to overturn his acquittal or order a new trial.


Transcendental Meditation for Everyone

Bob Roth, chief executive of the David Lynch Foundation, teaches transcendental meditation to a range of students, from elementary-school children to CEOs.
Alexandra Wolfe
Wall Street Journal
June 30, 2017

Bob Roth knows his field sounds a little like "woowoo" spirituality, as he says. But as a teacher of transcendental meditation, he now works with a wide-ranging clientele that includes celebrities such as Katy Perry and Jerry Seinfeld, hedge-fund managers, inner-city students, prisoners and veterans. He has the same goal for everyone: to teach them the virtues of T.M., as it's called—a practice that involves silently reciting a mantra over and over for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day.

Proponents say that the practice reduces stress and raises self-awareness. Bridgewater founder and co-chairman Ray Dalio, a student of Mr. Roth's for more than a decade and a donor to the foundation, is a believer. The practice has been "integral to whatever success I've had in life," he says. "It makes one feel like…a ninja in a movie, like you're doing everything calmly and in slow motion."

Mr. Roth, 66, is chief executive of the David Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit he co-founded with the film director in 2005 that is dedicated to teaching transcendental meditation, particularly to at-risk populations, "to improve their health, cognitive capabilities and performance in life," as the foundation's website says. Some of its funds come from teaching courses to companies and individuals; a four-day training course costs up to $960 a person. The foundation has 60 employees in the U.S. as well as partners in 35 countries.

In early June, Mr. Roth opened the nonprofit's first office in Washington, D.C., where he says he is currently teaching a dozen members of Congress. His organization has also been participating in studies in prisons recently. In a study published last year in the Permanente Journal, 181 male inmates at the Oregon State Correctional Institute and the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem either took a transcendental meditation program through the foundation or did nothing outside their usual routine. The researchers found greater reductions in anxiety, depression and trauma symptoms in the group that had taken meditation.

Mr. Roth finds an analogy in the sea. "The ocean can be active and turbulent on the surface, sometimes with tsunami-like 30-foot waves, but is, by its nature, silent at its depth," he says. "The surface of the mind is the active, noisy, thinking mind—often racing, noisy, hyperactive, turbulent. But like the ocean, the mind of everyone is quiet, calm, silent at its depth."

T.M. was developed in India by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a physicist turned meditation teacher, in the 1950s; it gained popularity in the 1960s when he worked with the Beatles and other celebrities.

The son of a doctor and a teacher, Mr. Roth dreamed of being a senator when he was young. He started meditating in college at the University of California, Berkeley, after a friend suggested it as a way to relax amid the student riots on campus.

He was skeptical at first but soon became hooked. After he graduated in 1972, he started teaching meditation to children in inner-city schools in San Francisco. A few years later, he traveled to Europe to study under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi before returning to California to continue teaching over the next decade. In 1982, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he eventually met Mr. Lynch, the director of "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks," who had taken up the practice in the 1970s. "If you are a human being, [transcendental meditation] works," says Mr. Lynch.

Contrary to what you might expect for a meditation teacher, Mr. Roth often wears a suit with a crisp white shirt. (More predictably, he has a serene demeanor.) He lives alone in New York, and in his downtime enjoys trying new Asian fusion and Italian restaurants and watching sports, especially baseball. "I grew up with Willie Mays, who was my first hero," he says.

He spends half his time teaching and the other half running the organization. For all of his new students, instruction is the same. He conducts a short ceremony in which he acknowledges past teachers and gives each student a mantra—a sound or word that has no meaning and is to be repeated silently during the meditation. (The student keeps that mantra forever.) After that, the student closes his or her eyes for 20 minutes and silently recites the mantra while sitting in a comfortable position.

In follow-up sessions, Mr. Roth discusses the benefits of the practice, refreshes students' techniques and answers any questions they have, often meditating alongside them. Critics have said that the practice isn't any better than therapy, exercise or medication at reducing stress, but Mr. Roth points to studies that have shown it to be effective, including in reducing high blood pressure. "It's not a matter of 'either or,' " he says. "It's a wiser matter of 'and also.' "

The foundation is now participating in a study with the University of Chicago's Crime Lab to research whether T.M. can reduce violence and improve scores in a trial with 2,000 children in five Chicago public schools. Next year, the research will expand to 800 students in two public schools in New York.

Mr. Seinfeld has been working with Mr. Roth for the past eight years and has performed at some of the foundation's benefits. "It completely changed my ability to do work and be active and do the things I want to do," he says. "Wives like to go out to dinner and husbands just want to lie there, but now I find I can do anything, with the T.M. to restore me," he adds with a laugh.

Write to Alexandra Wolfe at alexandra.wolfe@wsj.com



Peter J. Leithart
First Things
July 7, 2017

Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to salute the American flag. In the case of Minersville School District v. Gibitis (1940), the Supreme Court rejected the Witness argument that being forced to salute the flag was comparable to the Nazi demand that Germans acknowledge Hitler. Felix Frankfurther dismissed the analogy: “It mocks reason and denies our whole history to find in the allowance of a requirement to salute our flag on fitting occasions the seeds of sanction for obeisance to a leader” (quoted in Richard Ellis, To the Flag, 104). The Court determined that children of Jehovah's Witnesses could be compelled to salute the flag.

To prove that this wasn't a step toward fascism, Americans started acting like Fascists.

Richard Ellis writes, “Across the nation, Witnesses were subjected to brutal attacks by vigilante mobs, often with the assistance of local law enforcement officers. Wild rumors spread that Witnesses were Nazi agents, a particularly perverse accusation in view of the systematic persecution and murder of Witnesses being carried out by the Nasic regime” (106).

In Richmond, West Virginia, Witnesses were rounded up, marched through the streets, and exhorted to pledge allegiance to the flag. Those who resisted were forced to drink castor oil. “When the Witnesses refused to join the flag salute, they were marched to the outskirts of town in military drill and instructed to get out of town.” Their cars were painted with swastikas and mottoes like “Hitler's spies” and “Fifth Column” (106).

Witnesses came to Litchfield, Illinois to evangelize in June 1940. The townspeople tried to force them to salute the flag, and when they didn't the vigilantes slammed their heads against a car hood covered with a flag. One witness reported, “The chief of police sat in his car while all this was going on.” One citizen explained, “We almost beat one guy to death to make him kiss the flag” (106). Across the country, Witnesses were expelled from public schools (108). Ellis writes, “The Court's decision seemed to legitimize the patriotic vigilantes who now took the law into their own hands” (108).

The violence elicited a vigorous response from newspapers, law enforcement, and the federal government. By 1942, the Court had reversed itself and declared that Gibitis was “wrongly decided” and inconsistent with the first amendment (109).