MONTREAL — A rabbi who served two years in prison for kidnapping is fighting to retain refugee status in Canada, claiming that he has a “well-founded fear of persecution” if forced to return to Israel.
In 1994 an American court in Brooklyn, N.Y., convicted Rabbi Erez Shlomo Elbarnes, 41, for kidnapping a 13-year-old boy. The child’s mother had enrolled him in Elbarnes’s yeshiva for bar mitzvah lessons.
The saga won notoriety in the American media and inspired a 2001 book, “The Zaddik: The Battle for a Boy’s Soul,” by Elaine Grudin Denholtz.
Elbarnes, an Israeli native and a Hasidic rabbi who also has used the name Helbrans, entered America illegally in 1990. He spent two years behind bars for the kidnapping charge before being paroled in 1996.
Elbarnes and his wife, Malka, who had been convicted on lesser charges, were deported to Israel in 2000 by American authorities.
But three years ago, on a temporary visa, the rabbi settled in Ste. Agathe, Quebec, a resort community north of Montreal. He was joined by 30 Jewish families, many with household members who held dual citizenship in Canada and the United States, enabling them to move back and forth across the border.
Most of these followers were adherents of the Satmar Hasidic sect, formerly headed by the late Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, who settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Teitelbaum ruled that Jews are forbidden to create a Jewish state in the Land of Israel before the coming of the messiah.
For his part, Elbarnes is the founder of an aggressively anti-Zionist movement called Hisachdus Hayereim, or “Union of the God-Fearing,” and has burned the Israeli flag in public on Israeli Independence Day.
In a recent letter to a pro-Palestinian conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, Elbarnes wrote that Israelis “empower themselves by controlling who is allowed to vote, restricting most Palestinians and Anti-Zionists from voting, and by importing over 2 million gentiles from Russia and other countries, to appear as the majority, to the world. These racist actions have inflamed antisemitism in the entire world, causing great damage to Authentic Jews.”
Last October, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board, an independent tribunal, accepted Elbarnes’s claim that he would be in danger if deported to Israel, and so it granted him refugee status. This month, however, the Federal Court of Canada granted leave to the federal government to appeal the tribunal’s ruling. The appeal is to be heard October 5, probably in Montreal.
“No one here [in Montreal] wants to be associated with him. He is only a cause of consternation and embarrassment among Jews here,” said Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Montreal’s Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron. Poupko said that Elbarnes has had no contact with the Orthodox rabbinate in Montreal: “I don’t think we’re Jewish enough for him.”
Last year, the Vaad Hoaskonim, a New York-based rabbinical council with members in Williamsburg, Boro Park, Monsey and Queens, ruled that Elbarnes’s movement is “a great threat, spiritual and physical, to the Torah-observant community.” The council forbade members of their communities to associate with Elbarnes and urged his followers to leave him.
Elbarnes did not respond to a request for an interview, and his lawyer, Julius Grey, declined to discuss the refugee case. A spokesman for the refugee board said that it does not release details on why asylum claims are upheld or denied.
A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Ottawa said that Elbarnes’s case is being reviewed by Israel’s Justice Ministry, but he declined to explain the purpose of the review. The spokesman noted, however, that fiercely anti-Zionist sects such as Neturei Karta, or Guardians of the City, function freely in Israel and enjoy equal treatment under Israeli law.
The rabbi’s American felony conviction originated in 1992, when Shai Fhima Reuven, 13, vanished after his mother, Hana Fhima, an immigrant from Israel living in Ramsey, N.J., took him for bar mitzvah lessons to Elbarnes’s Brooklyn-based yeshiva.
Elbarnes testified at trial that he gave sanctuary to Shai because the child was suffering from domestic abuse — and was destined to become a tzaddik, or saintly person. Shai testified that he had stayed willingly with Elbarnes’s small religious group, moving between the United States, France and Israel. His parents, however, accused Elbarnes of having brainwashed and abducted the previously secular youth. Years later, as an adult, Shai maintained he had not been indoctrinated or abducted.