Views On ‘Cult-like’ Retreats Vary Wildly

To critics, Call of the Shofar flirts with foreign worship and uses deception; supporters say it has improved their lives.

02/26/14
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To Dr. Rashi Shapiro, a Brooklyn psychologist with many Orthodox patients, Call of the Shofar “can be highly influential in helping people change their thinking.” But the program is not a cult, he says in an open letter about the program.

Shapiro, who says he has deprogrammed cult victims for more than 35 years, said the techniques “do not inhibit thinking, but rather expand awareness.”

Citing extensive conversations with Call of the Shofar, aka COTS, participants and its founder, Simcha Frischling, Shapiro concludes that the program aims to “enhance productivity” and “uses Jewish themes and thought to enhance the program and make it more palatable to its participants.”

On the other side of the world, Raphael Aron, of Melbourne, Australia, who also counsels people affected by cults, came to the opposite conclusion about the program.

“When you are convincing or compelling a person, within a particular value system, to exit [the program] a person radically different, albeit on a subtle level, then we have a problem,” said Aron, who recently conducted an investigation into the controversial self-awareness program that has been banned by Chabad Lubavitch leaders in Brooklyn.

“People are coming back [from COTS retreats] with different standards of Yiddishkeit,” said Aron. “This is a situation that demands very careful scrutiny.”

How can two experts look at the same program and speak to some of the same people and come up with such divergent viewpoints?

Welcome to the enigmatic world created by Simcha Frischling and a handful of friends in Baltimore 12 years ago.

Program participants leave their families for three days of unusual and at times deliberately awkward interaction that includes silent meals, cellphone bans to cut off the outside world, fervent dancing, breathing and chanting, shared purging of pain and close physical contact. The group’s motto is “Jewish Wisdom as a Framework for Personal Growth.”

While sessions use Jewish holiday themes, much of the program seems to mimic large group awareness training (LGAT) techniques used by other controversial organizations such as Landmark Worldwide and ManKind Project. Like COTS, ManKind also has intense “carpet work” encounters while insisting members cut themselves off from the outside world during the retreat.

Frischling lists both ManKind and Landmark among his influences on a biography on his blog.

Call of the Shofar largely operated quietly in Baltimore, Israel and more recently Morristown, N.J., until late last year when it caused a rabbinic uproar after it gained popularity within the Chabad movement.

Crown Heights rabbinical boards pushed back by banning it, and two participants who taught in a Chabad yeshiva were temporarily removed from their classrooms while they were examined by a psychologist for signs of brainwashing, according to a letter from the yeshiva to parents posted online.

Now, Frischling has canceled upcoming programs and blames the critics for harming his livelihood as he ponders the future of Call of the Shofar from his new home in Sydney, Australia, where he and his family moved recently to help care for his wife’s parents.

What is Call Of The Shofar?

Call of the Shofar makes no claim that its workshops, alone, will transform anyone’s life, and it instead encourages participants to do intensive follow-up either with a 10-week course provided by COTS or with conventional one-on-one therapy.

When asked if he is a proponent of LGAT, Frischling told The Jewish Week, “I don’t have a clear definition of what a LGAT is.” He added, “We are a group. We do promote awareness. We do not define ourselves as therapy, rather we are educational. I make it clear that the program is not for everyone.”

COTS lists as its board of rabbinic advisers Rabbi Michel Twerski of Bnai Jehudah in Milwaukee, Rabbi Yakov Hopfer of Shearith Israel Congregation in Baltimore, and Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Breitowitz  of Yeshivah Ohr Sameach in Jerusalem.

Repeated calls to Rabbis Twerski and Hopfer over several days seeking comment about COTS were not returned. In an email, Rabbi Breitowitz said on Tuesday, “I presently have no comment to make. I am in the process of evaluation.”

Frischling said on Tuesday that Rabbi Twerski has communicated to him that he continues to stand behind COTS.

An endorsement letter Frischling said was written by Rabbi Twerski before last month’s uproar states that Call of the Shofar “is not intended to be a venue for alternative religious experience or a substitute for Torah and Mitzvos, Mussar [advice], Chassidus [chasidic practice], or Hashkafa [philosophy]. It is designed for individuals who are in pain, conflicted, arrested [in their development] and choking on things which compromise their ability to live happy and fulfilling lives.”

The letter says the Lubavitch Beth Din decision to ban COTS is “built on ignorance” of the program, and that COTS it is definitely not a cult.

But Aron insists the program has cult-like aspects. 

“He does not walk around in saffron robes and have people eat off the toes of his feet, so it doesn’t fall into that category,” said Aron in an interview from Melbourne on Monday, referring to Frischling. “But when you talk about mind control, and people doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, it begins to change the locus.”

A rabbi who studied psychology at the University of Melbourne, though his degree was in commerce, Aron founded Cult Consulting Australia and because of his research has become a sought-after authority on the topic. He is author of “Cults, Too Good to be True” (HarperCollins, 1999) and “Cults, Terror and Mind Control” (Bay Tree Publishing, 2009).

During a recent New York visit and via email, text messages and phone calls since his return to Australia, Aron said, he has communicated with about 100 people involved in some way with COTS, either pro or con. That includes about two dozen people who participated in the workshops as well as family members and friends.

“Most of the people I spoke to did not feel they were harmed as much as felt gypped or duped,” said Aron. This week, he is releasing a 40-page report based on his research. Aron said he did not speak to Frischling in preparing the report. “I don’t think that by speaking to him I would gain much more than I already know,” he said.

The report, in part, says COTS is deceptive about whether it consitutes therapy or, as Frischling claims, education; contains Taoist and Buddhist elements, and its staff lacks professional qualifications.

Aron also questions recruitment practices. He  notes that prospective participants he spoke with had asked what happens at the retreats and were told they would find out when they got there.

“That’s the first act of submission,” Aron said.

In the letter by Shapiro, which was provided to The Jewish Week by Frischling, the therapist says the COTS techniques “have foundations in various modalities of psychotherapy. I personally have been utilizing most of these strategies in my own therapy groups for over 30 years.” Shapiro did not return calls for comment.

As to the criticism from Crown Heights rabbis that COTS taps into Eastern religious thought, Shapiro says the methods “may stem from many diverse original sources, [but] there is no indication that they are meant to pursue any foreign religion or avoda zara [strange worship.]”

‘It’s A Tragedy’

Mendy (not his real name) was drawn to COTS because he was feeling out of sorts. He wasn’t depressed, but wasn’t happy either and he frequently felt angry. A relative referred him to the program.

About 18 months later, he looks back on the Morristown retreat as transformative.

He recalls exercise, “carpet work,” intensive self-disclosure and the recitation of a mantra: klal, prat, klal. Translation: community, solitude, community, or a sense of disengagement and re-engagement.

At the outset, retreat members must “check in,” or verbally commit to participation and sharing. Participants are allowed to call home just once, before Shabbat.

Conversation outside the sessions is also limited. At one point, Mendy recalls, there was a session with intensive breathing that left participants feeling high.

“Until that time I was considering leaving,” Mendy said. “But I had a breakthrough. I felt free.”

Declining to be identified because he does not want to be ostracized in his community, Mendy said there is still a vibrant segment that rejects the ban and wishes the retreats would continue.

“In my opinion it’s a tragedy,” said Mendy of the ban. “It did a lot of wonders.”

Mendy’s theory about opposition to COTS is that critics primarily feel it waters down Judaism and directs participants to answers that lie outside the chasidic world.

Another COTS participant, Shmuel Pollen, says he “wavered back and forth” in his support of the program, dealing with his doubts by trying to lure Frischling into Chabad theology.

Pollen paid $300 each time to participate in three sessions. He became a believer quickly, reveling in “an incredible experience. I felt a very close connection, a sense of euphoria, on top of world, like I could do anything. It’s a very manic state.”

A conversation with an elder of Chabad later convinced Pollen that the workshops were heretical.

He noted that participants and facilitators sometimes removed their yarmulkes during exercises, used foul language, held hands and locked legs with each other in an awkward manner and listened to non-Jewish music during the sessions. Beyond that, he said, the fact that no one questioned this behavior suggested that they were being brainwashed.

Pollen recalls one young chasid who emerged from a workshop declaring that he no longer felt obligated to wear a hat and jacket, as Lubavitch men generally do, to be a good Jew. “He said, ‘I don’t have to prove anything to anyone,’” Pollen recalled. “You remove all pressure from yourself. It’s a radical change in the way you look at things.”

Even Mendy, the supportive veteran, agrees that this is a negative aspect of COTS. “You lose all of your fear — not just fear of speaking in front of a crowd, but you also lose a piece of your fear of God.”

Pollen is also concerned that people sharing painful experiences of their past can lead to lashon hara, or evil gossip, because participants from the close-knit community know each other’s families.

“One of the biggest ways to break down inhibitions is the feeling of closeness with other people in the program,” says Pollen. “What you wind up doing is dishing a lot of dirt that not everyone in a family necessarily needs to hear,” he said.

(Frischling says he implores participants to maintain confidentiality.)

But in an article about COTS published online at COLLive.com, Pollen raised doubts about whether some participants actually experienced real epiphanies. “Is it at all possible that some of us ‘conjured up’ something from our childhood just so we can fit in with the group, because, after all, ‘everyone has a story?’” Pollen asks. “If so, how serious a crime is it to brand a person with a problem, and make it a focal point of their life when it wasn’t one they had at all?”

He notes a Purim-themed exercise is designed for release and Frischling “is not content until you have this release.”

But Mendy said nearly every person has some form of inner torment. “There’s always something, one little bullying [incident] that can have a negative affect on you for the rest of your life,” he said. “You work on that one thing and it opens you up.”

Some critics of COTS say that without professional training in psychology, the group and its facilitators may not be prepared to deal with the intense feelings the sessions awaken. Aron notes that because COTS is not accountable to any board of directors that would provide oversight, “there are no procedures for making a complaint.”

Frischling insists his program does include follow-up. “We are very open about continuing therapy,” he said. “There is no inkling that you have to stay with this organization: if you’re in therapy you should continue, whether you need a mentor or a guru. We never pushed anyone to places they weren’t safe in.”

Frischling says that, on occasion, session participants declare that they have been abused in the past.

Asked how he proceeds in such a scenario, Frischling told The Jewish Week, “I was never working with children who were currently being abused. I advised participants to seek professional help or continue the professional help they were already receiving.”

'About Relationships’

Despite the ostracism of the group, some Chabad community members continue to speak out about the positive experiences at COTS. That includes Asher and Chaya Lieblich, who were recruited for the program by their son, Moshe, who was a staff member of the group.

“I found it to be very inspiring,” said Chaya Lieblich, who attended a session led by Frischling’s wife, Ruth.

“There was a special closeness between all the women. All of them left satisfied and inspired.”

Moshe Lieblich, who is the founder of a Brooklyn yeshiva high school, said “For me it was about relationships, caring about people. I’m in chinuch [yeshiva education], which is all about feeling for another person.”

Asher Lieblich, who has an accounting and financial planning business in Crown Heights, said, “It’s one of the better programs I ever attended. It helped me develop and strengthen my emotions and understand people better.”

Frischling stands by the Jewish nature and values of the program.

“We are not a cult, we do not practice mind control, we do not practice [and are not] sourced in avoda zara,” he said. “We created a halachically Orthodox and kosher venue for our workshops. For 12 years we had hundreds of rabbis and yeshiva students participate without any of the above accusations; we have literally thousands of extremely positive testimonials.”

But Pollen disagrees, saying he regrets getting involved with the organization. “It’s very subversive — just like Jews for Jesus except with Buddhism instead of Christianity,” he said. 

adam@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

03/15/2014 - 15:02

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I have participated in COTS and have found it immensely benerficial. The workshop had nothing to do with eastern cults. It helps the participant identify negative self-judgments that stymy personal well-being and growth, and then discover which emotional wounds of his past gave rise to those judgments. The participant is shown that while these judgments once served in his childhood to protect him from emotional hurt and promote a sense of emotional safety, now as a mature adult they no longer serve him and actually sabotage his emotional and psychological development. His negative judgments are gradually replaced with positive self-evaluation and self-esteem as he disengages from past wounds and is reconnected to reality. This is difficult but rewarding personal work that can be immensely beneficial. It is a severe loss to the Jewish community at large that COTS is suspending its activites.

This post and your earlier one are misleading and, in fact, contradictory to COTS/Frischling's statements and teachings: The group goes out of its way to say that they are not engaging in therapy, only experiential education(whatever that is). Yet, your entire description reads like a therapy session! And it is absolutely been shown that there is not a single, trained, licensed, or certified therapist on staff, let alone conducting these workshops. Regarding your statements about religion, I would refer to the recently released report by Raphael Aron, which shows that Frischling's philosophies and principles are indeed religion; and they are not drawn from Judaism, rather Buddhism and Taoism. Steven Frischling is admittedly not a Torah observant Jew. That's ok. But he poses as one, even calling himself a "rabbi", and that is deception, just like the deception involved in stating that what he does "education" and not therapy, "well-being" and not religion, and hiding both his techniques and beliefs from potential recruits, to mention only a few of the falsehoods. It is hard to admit that one has been duped, especially if it is someone who one believed in and made life changes because of that relationship and influence. For that reason, I feel sorry for the trauma that former COTS members will undergo as they come to realize this.

Also, it is important to state that the opposition to COTS is not simply a Chabad-feeling-threatened matter, as some have tried to marginalize this. It is a matter of Torah versus Frischlingism and an astoundingly irresponsible and dangerous attempt at psychotherapy by people who are utterly untrained or trained by the utterly untrained. The fact that people may experience some momentary feeling of empowerment or release means nothing as far as legitimizing this group or praising it. I strongly disagree that COTS suspending its activities is a loss to the Jewish community. It is a victory in protecting unsuspecting but well-meaning individuals from a panoply of potential harm. The only loss, if there is one, is to Mr. Frischling. He will now have to find a legitimate occupation.

As far as calling Simcha a missionary for his beleif system: during rest periods and meals Simcha does give short talks outlining the philosophical underpinnings of Shofar, which are based on well-known fundamentals of Judaism. He emphasizes, however, that these talks are optional and whoever does not understand them should not be concerned since the main thrust of the workshop is not philosophy or beliefs but the processes and work that enable one to achieve emotional well-being. In fact, at the very start of the workshop SImcha declares in no uncertain terms that the workshop is not intended to change or strengthen anybody's religious beliefs, and the focus is on improved well-being. Participants include secular, Reform, Conserative, and Orthodox Jews, and not only does no one feel threatened, but there is an incredible amount of fellowship and bortherhood among Jews of all stripes that permeates the workshop. The notion that Simcha is actively missionizing for a particular belief system is ridiculous.

How remarkably irresponsible for a licensed therapist to associate his name with someone whose "training " consists of a collection of misfits, pop-psychology groups, and at least one probable psychotic. One is compelled to ask what is behind Dr. Shapiro's statement . Does he really employ the same techniques in his practice as Mr. Frischling does at his workshops? Does he blindfold his patients and scream at them? Does he have those in his group therapy sessions lock legs, stare into each others eyes and have the hold each others hands to their hearts? Does he force them to dance wildly to blaring music while blindfolded? Again, what us behind Dr. Shapiro's seeming endorsement? Maybe the Deparment of Health should be asking this question as well?

Does the Jewish Week not notice the irony of Chabad calling another group a cult?

The reason for the popularity of COTS in the Chabad community is a result of their decision not to appoint a successor to Rabbi Menachem Schneerson after his death 20 years ago. Young Chabadsters need a warm blooded Rebbe with whom to farbreng and relate; not videos of Rabbi Schneerson and gravesite prayers.
The community is envious of other Orthodox and Hasidic sects who have grown far beyond what Chabad has to offer in both Torah education and Jewish spiritualism. They turn to COTS as a means to replace the belief of the vast majority of Chabad that the deceased Rabbi Schneerson is the moshiach and “controls the world”.

If COTS methods are anti-Jewish by incorporating other religions or philosophies then of course they should cease,

Equally important is for Chabad/Lubavitch to publicly announce that the Rebbe is not moshiach and explain why- because prophesy is not found today, and that false prophesy is a huge avera.

Approximately 50% of Chabad believe the Rebbe is moshiah- this is a huge failing, a huge waste, a huge tragedy, and a huge task to rectify, as that lie about the Rebbe has seeped into the minds of people in such a fashion, that it could be very difficult to heal these people from their misconceptions.

In any case this task is truly overdue and truly urgent

Note the following: "we had hundreds of rabbis and yeshiva students participate without any of the above accusations; we have literally thousands of extremely positive testimonials.” In previous news articles the total number of people attending was put at 2000 and of those 80-90 % were Chabad adherents. It has not been active in Chabad for 12 years but took off not longer than 2 years ago. How can he have "thousands of testimonials"? Raphael Aron is claiming a number of counter testimonials. Frischling's numbers are not correct.

A self-appointed Buddhist guru in Jewish clothing who gets support from orthodox rabbis and a psychologist for his mind-control workshops? Very progressive!

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