Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Call of the Shofar, Brainwashing, and Kiruv

     I just read "Confessions of a Shofar Staffer," written by Chabad member Shmuel Pollen, in which he discusses his experiences at the Call of the Shofar retreat. For those of us who believe that there is such a thing as deceptive kiruv, the similarities in Mr. Pollen's revelations are very similar to those experienced by people who look critically at Jewish outreach. If you were to switch the organizations from Call of the Shofar to any of the Big Kiruv organizations, you'll be able to see how Mr. Pollen may have experienced the very thing that many of us have been decrying for a while now. I am posting excerpts, but feel free to click the link in the first sentence to read the article in its entirety.

It suddenly occurred to me that this organization which seemed benign and elevating, was actually, a threat to our very souls.

How so?

Let me begin with the allegation that people who went to Shofar have been brainwashed. I dismissed this when I heard it. It seemed ridiculous to me. Then I thought to myself: If someone actually is brainwashed, how would he know? Wouldn't the brainwashing itself dictate to your brain that you're in line with reality? Wouldn't it convince you that what you believe now is even more real because you're "enlightened"? And wouldn't it dictate that anyone who says you're brainwashed just "doesn't understand?"

I came to the conclusion after some serious introspection that I actually was brainwashed, assuming the definition of brainwashing is being manipulated to believe something you otherwise would not have. It's possible for someone to brainwash another, while the brainwasher doesn't think that that's what he's doing. He may himself be brainwashed to believe that his work is holy. I believe that to be the case here.
     This is very interesting. Pollen's statement about brainwashing allows for the idea that those who are brainwashing others may be brainwashed himself, and doesn't even realize that is what he is doing. Yet, this is the very thing that kiruv workers scream that they are not doing. So I ask, is it possible that outreach workers do the same thing without even realizing it? If a Chabad member can suggest that Call of the Shofar people are doing it, it becomes impossible to argue that any outreach professional isn't engaging in the same brainwashing.

"That's a monumental change to our entire life's purpose -- in three days, mind you. How could we have given license to a man we know nothing about, to redefine our life's purpose?"

But isn't this what Chabad and other Jewish outreach groups attempt to do when they take students on weekend or week-long "retreats" and/or trips to far-off locales in order to "redefine [their] life's purpose?"
And now let's address the "experience". The great "feeling of closeness to G-d and to each other." This was the one I always continued to believe in. But when I started thinking about this differently, I started to wonder.

What did we actually feel there? Was it holiness? Was it G-d? Was it the soul?

      The above lines are very interesting. I've often wondered about those Israel experiences many of us have had. You know, those run by kiruv organizations that leave us with the same exact feeling of closeness to those around us and to what we are led to believe is "God." But let's face it. These experiences are contrived in order to convince us that we are feeling these things. Our feelings may be real, but are they based on reality? Or are they based on a mind-trip the leader of such an experience is taking us on?

According to the video Captive Minds that Rabbi She Hecht mentioned, it would appear otherwise. The suggestibility tactics used at Shofar are used at all kinds of vicious cults to create a euphoric experience.

Afterwards, the cult leader tells them that what you felt was G-d. That's what you got here: G-d. Only here. People who tell you to leave here? That's Satan trying to keep you from G-d.
    Wait a second. "Suggestibility tactics?" Being told that you are feeling God? The idea that anything holding a person back from observance is a manifestation of "the Satan?" This all sounds vaguely familiar.
     Upon further reading of the article, I saw that the leader of this Shofar program allegedly has Landmark Education credentials. I've known about Landmark for about twenty years, and I've known people who've gone through their programs and have appeared to become very changed after their experiences. I stand by those who deem Landmark a cult. But this post isn't about Landmark. To people involved in Landmark Education, it is not a cult. They may not see that there are cult tactics in use.
     Pollen laments:
That's a monumental change to our entire life's purpose -- in three days, mind you. How could we have given license to a man we know nothing about, to redefine our life's purpose?
And yet, doesn't this same thing happen in kiruv? How is this not the same? Mr. Pollen further states that:
We were sold a mind-game and told it's G-d, and now we believe this workshop is the best way to get close to Him (Sounds a bit like the definition of avoda zara, come to think of it).
     Again, I ask, isn't that what the different kiruv organizations do? They sell unsuspecting young people a bill of goods, in which they convince potential recruits that by doing what the kiruv professional (and his/her organization) says, they will be able to get close to God. What makes this any different from what Mr. Pollen has experienced? But then, Mr. Pollen says this, which convinces me that maybe he really doesn't see the parallels:
Every baal tshuva knows that happiness through freedom from rules leads only to misery. They found more happiness in living a Torah lifestyle made even more meaningful by its rules. 
How could we have allowed someone we barely know to make us forget this fundamental truth of why we're here in this world?Could it be we were in too much a state of suggestibility to notice what was wrong here? Doesn't that sound like brainwashing at a very deep level of your belief system?
     In this case, I think that it's easy to see that Mr. Pollen is upset to see so many of his brethren manipulated, yet, as he stated much earlier on, very often those doing the brainwashing may not realize they are brainwashing others, nor realize that they may be brainwashed themselves. He complains of this "brainwashing at a very deep level of your belief system." Perhaps it's a bit like recruiting non-orthodox students and challenging their beliefs with well-rehearsed arguments meant to awe and convince, and meant to leave them without a proper way to argue back.
     I don't expect that anyone in kiruv or in the orthodox world will agree with these comparisons. But they don't need to agree. But in this case, it sounds like many of us feel the same way: we don't want organizations attempting to use the very same techniques on our children or on us. We want the same respect that Mr. Pollen wants. We don't want to be unknowingly brainwashed by those who may not even know they're doing such things to us. Above all, the same legitimate feelings of having been spiritually violated that Mr. Pollen has experienced, are the same legitimate feelings that many of us who oppose deceptive kiruv have experienced.

Update: This post also appears as a link on The Cult News Network at http://www.cultnews.net/Scroll down to January 1, 2014 "Call of the Shofar, Brainwashing, and Kiruv."

 All quoted material from:
Pollen, Shmuel. Confessions of a 'Shofar' Staffer. ColLive. December 31, 2013.


  1. Violated. That so sums up my experience with kiruv. From the initial selling of kiruv Judaism as "just Jewish," to the marrying off of BT's, kiruv violates everything in life that is right or good or honest or decent.

    1. I'm hurt by your pain. I'm sorry you met the wrong people. G-D bless you.

  2. And as hard as I tried for 13 years, after the initial newness wore off, I never found that doing the most banal mitzvot made my life more meaningful. Sure, bikur cholim, hachnasat orchim and the rest of the bein adam l'chaveiro mitzvot improved my life, butthe rest were just cumbersome in their minutae.

    1. And as hard as I tried for 13 years, after the initial newness wore off, I never found that doing the most banal mitzvot made my life more meaningful.

      That's because you didn't try hard enough, your emunah wasn't deep enough, you didn't have the right teachers, weren't hanging out with the right people, etc...

      They'll come up with any rationalization not to have to admit their belief system is flawed.

    2. I can totally relate, Chananechama. The BT honeymoon period is very different from reality. The fact that people in kiruv go to such great lengths to hide that reality certainly doesn't help people who are becoming religious.

  3. Brainwashed themselves is why I think some Kiruv professionals (i.e. Chabadniks) honestly do not believe they are doing Kiruv.

    1. Oh, of course not. My young cousin in Chabad has told me he doesn't approve of the concept of kiruv. "We aren't trying to make people frum; we're just trying to get them to perform mitzvot!" He actually believes this. I can't even bring myself to speak to him any more.

  4. I think it is amazing also how the non-religious are more aware about confirmation bias than the religious.


  5. I've said it hundreds of times, and I'm sure I'll say it hundreds more: fundamentalists have no sense of irony.

  6. Good post. I find these types of comparisons to things that the other people understand are effective.
    Your posts help me understand how much these types of methods (removal from outside influences, loving environment, brotherhood etc.) played a role in my life when I moved from Modern Orthodox to Chareidi.

    1. Thank you for the compliment, SJA. I hope that whatever path you are on in your life is the path you've chosen, and that you're happy.

  7. I just found your blog today and I have a lot of reading to do in order to catch up to the debate. I just had a couple of points, as a baalas teshuva and rebbetzin that I wanted to share. I started learning more about Orthodox Judaism when I was a teenager. I joined NCSY in 8th grade. Most of what they taught resonated with my beliefs and put my beliefs and religion into perspective. I did not actively start "becoming frum" (I guess the best way of expanding on this is to say "start keeping shabbos") until I was in 11 grade. Basically, I sat back, listened and learned before making any moves at changing my own lifestyle. When I did actually start keeping shabbos, it was very, very gradual. I also distanced myself at that time from NCSY because I wanted to prove to my parents (& myself), that I was doing this for me. I went to a very liberal public high school in Manhattan, and my core group of friends, of all different religious and ethnic backgrounds, were for the most part very supportive of my spiritual journey. (Not so my liberal teachers, particularly the Jewish ones, but that's a different story..)
    My husband and I do sometimes worry when we see people become "frum overnight". We generally advise "baby steps" when people seek our help in obtaining a more observant lifestyle..
    As for "brainwashing", when I made the decision to defer college for a year in order to more fully explore Torah in Israel (Neve Yerushalayim), my parents did send me to a pschologist in Manhattan who specialized in deprogramming brainwashed teens. She declared that NCSY and Orthodox Judaism in general, were NOT cults. She was actually very helpful in facilitating communication between my parents and me.
    In terms of my own children, I do pray that they live and find fulfillment in the lifestyle my husband and I have chosen. My oldest (almost 17) is going through a rough spiritual journey of his own, and I honestly do not know where it will lead him. All we can do is love, support, and pray for him.

    1. It appears that your comment somehow ended up in a spam file, so my apologies that it didn't come up until now. Thank you for sharing your experiences. While orthodox Judaism and programs you mentioned are not cults, there are often deceptive practices in use in order to bring people into such programs and observance. The issue here is really when deceptive and cult-like tactics are used. There is nothing wrong with people opting to become observant and taking a gradual path of changing their lives. There is everything wrong with brainwashing, pressure-tactics, and deception used on people who are vulnerable and not expecting anything other than friendship.

    2. I also want to wish you strength in your son's journey. Be there for him and love him unconditionally, even if his choices are not those that you'd make for yourself.

  8. Great post, Rebecca. I almost got married off several times while at various kiruv yeshivot. Looking back at all of them, they would have been difficult to disasters. In the end, I did finally get married to a ba'alat teshuvah anyway. Now that I'm rather skeptical about it all, I'm - we're - also having some difficulty.

    It took me a year to take the BT plunge, when I finally gave in, thinking that I had had a real epiphany. Looking back, it was just that I couldn't hold off - that I let myself be subject to - the assault any more. I wish that I had asked more questions then, but I was younger and more impressionable, and it was before the Internet era.

    Oh – and Happy New Year! :D

    1. Thanks for your comment and for sharing your story, Phil.
      I think that many of us can relate to being young and impressionable when we got involved. There's a degree of peer pressure as well, and the desire to please our teachers. We're human and we thrive on pleasing people to some degree.
      I hope that whatever you do, you are able to somehow find a happy medium in order to live the happiest life you can live.
      Happy New Year to you!!!!!

    2. Thanks for the hope. Won't be easy.

  9. I have found Rabbi Hecht's book, Confessions of a Jewish Cultbuster to be very helpful in understanding this controversy. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Confessions-of-a-Jewish-Cultbuster/1374737249439951

    1. Hi Shui,
      I found the book really unhelpful as it plays on people's fears without examining real facts. Hecht is a self proclaimed cult buster who dramatizes his stories. I don't think he is a reliable narrator.

  10. Hi,
    I am a baal tshuva of 30 years that was "kiruved" in Israel. I needed the structure of halacha to get out of a serious hole and the rules and community helped me get my life back on track. Thank Gd I married someone sane (I could have married any of the crazies "special middos guys" I was set up with). I also stopped giving birth on demand after deciding I owned my own reproductive rights and that a rabbi was not going to determine how many kids I had or didn't have. This took a while. I was entrenched. No one in kiruv tells you that no matter how much you learn, you will never be a trusted leader in the community (as you are a BT) or be able to decide your own relationship with halacha.
    I also participated with Call of the Shofar and found the criticisms baseless and founded on hysteria. I think the problem that Chabad had with Call of the Shofar, is that it de-brainwashed you. I have done Landmark too and their goal was to get you to do more and more programs. Not so with Call of the Shofar. It was basically a spiritual retreat with exercises and meditations, like other non Jewish retreats. Definitely not a cult. The fees covered all amazing kosher food and great lodging and the price compared with other retreats. No after payments or donations needed.

    The Chabad participants who came to the retreats were often victims of abuse in their own communities, a situation that was often covered over by some of their leaders. Hecht (from the Chabad Community) decided that this non Chabad program was too popular and coincidentally, he had recently reprinted his book on cults. Perfect timing. He made up some lies about the organizer's salary and screamed "avodah zara" really loudly a lot to many people (he seems to have the luxury of a lot time on his hands, unlike many frum women). The Call of the Shofar leader made a teacher's salary (yes, I saw the actual tax records for the organization) and his family lived simply and humbly. If the organization were Chabad or kiruv focussed, it would never have been a problem.
    I have questioned for many years the cultish tactics of kiruv. Once you're in, unless you follow orders from the rabbis, you are out. Children of BTs are not treated the same way as the frum borns. Call of the Shofar tried to take Torah out of this strict box and gave the possibility of living life from freedom of choice (a neglected Torah concept) and ironically was accused of cult practices. As one of the commenters said, fundamentalists have no sense of irony. The whole thing is a witch hunt. The Shofar leaders weren't frum enough in the end and so were spat out and any means, including lying and character assassination, justified the ends. No discussion, no trial by jury. Just kill an organization that has helped many get their lives back. The whole process to destroy the man and the organization was very "un-Torah" like but the perceived threat of freedom from rabbinical authority was averted. Mashiach now?

  11. Good point. However, there is no comparison between the "suggestiblity tactics" at a Chabad retreat to one at Call of the Shofar.

    There is no hypnosis for instance in a Chabad retreat. There is at COTS.

    There's no forced silence. There is at COTS.

    There are no bars on asking questions. There is at COTS.

    There are no people so into the program they take their clothes off. There is at COTS.

    You cannot root suggestibility out of our lives. We would have to ban billboards, and lawyers too!

    There is a line here. Between acceptable suggestiblitiy and non-acceptable suggestbbility. They cross that line.

    1. I can turn around and say hey...I was REALLY brainwashed by all the hours and hours of t.v. I watched as a kid.

      There is no QUESTION that had a huge impact on me. And finding Chabad has shown me a path out of THAT brainwashing.

      So if brainwashing means changing your beliefs. It is likely that whatever beliefs you had have been brainwashed in some way into it.

      At the end of the day though. Chabad gives me a life with meaning.

      Secularism. Budhism and the rest of it give me a life with no meaninig.

      So I'm going with the meaningful life. And I don't see a community shunning people. I see a few haters in the bunch that are getting a lot of attention.

  12. My name is laurent Boer (laurentfreetheSS@hmamail.com), and I have been harrassed and manipulated by an unknown hidden cult organization
    They drugged me insidiously, hypnotized me, they programmed my mind with hypnosis and several different kind of drugs, and they didn’t hesitated to do many illegal things including:
    - Under hypnosis, mental conditioning to make me feel terror to talk about them and what they do
    - use some addiction drugs to enforce the power of the hypnotizer on me
    - At work, air spray some kind of GHB drugs to train me to work harder
    - Under hypnosis, format my personality to fit their needs
    - Follow me in shops and coffee places to make me feel paranoid, harassed and under their control
    - Under hypnosys make me watch horror and homo movies every day under addictive drugs to get addicted to this
    - Installed software on my computer so they can remotely send subliminal trigger images
    - Under hypnosis make me hear for hours daily their speech teaching me that what they do to me is great and usefull

    How to get rid of this kind of secured powerfull worldwide organizations?

    Best Regards,


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