37 members of the little-known ultra-orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor were spotted in the town of Kumanovo in North Macedonia during the weekend. The sect’s members’ unusual appearance and behaviour caused concerns among citizens with some calling on social media for the authorities to expel them, prompting the authorities to step in to reassure local residents that they are not in danger.
Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart” in Hebrew, has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban” in part because women and girls older than three years old are required to dress in long black robes covering their entire body, leaving only their faces exposed. The men spend most of their days in prayer and studying specific portions of the Torah, The Times of Israel wrote earlier this month.
Some of its unusual practices include children singing and chanting into the night, and the group’s tendency to isolate itself behind its compound’s heavy locked gate.
The group is estimated to number 200-300 people in total. It adheres to an extreme, idiosyncratic reading of kosher dietary laws, and illegal marriages between minors and older members are common.
The majority currently live in Guatemala, having fled government oversight or legal consequences in the US, Israel and Canada.
A few dozen members of the group, including many children, arrived in Kumanovo on February 10, where they rented two houses in the Zelen Rid neighbourhood.
Before arriving in North Macedonia, the group spent some time in Bosnia & Herzegovina, but its members were deported two weeks ago due to the complaints from residents.
An interior ministry official was cited by broadcaster Kanal 5 as saying that the sect’s members have legal documents and that there is no need for concern.
“The appropriate checks have been made. These people are staying legally in the country. The group consists of citizens of the US, Canada, Belgium and South American countries. No illegal activities were reported,” Toni Angelovski from the ministry in Skopje said.
The mayor of Kumanovo, Maksim Dimitrievski, said citizens were upset because the members of the sect have been moving around in large groups, dressed unconventionally.
"However, they are welcome in Kumanovo if they respect the regulations and rules in the city," Dimitrievski said.
KumanovoNews reported, citing unnamed police sources, that the members of the group are preparing to leave the town on February 15 at the latest.
An official from the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities was cited by Vecer.press as saying that there is on room for panic and that the members of the sect will leave Kumanovo soon for Albania.
“The persons from the group have not established any contact with the Macedonian Jewish religious community, nor do they have an approved stay for performing religious services or lecturing. Their stay is not correlated with religious purposes,” the director of the Commission, Darijan Sotirovski, was cited by Vecer.press.