Thanks to TB for submitting her account of her child's experiences with aggressive ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach.
Is the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Outreach movement “brainwashing” students?
By a concerned Jewish mother
Our family practiced Conservative Judaism. My son graduated valedictorian from high school and went on to the University of Pennsylvania where he was accepted into the Wharton school of business. This was the school of his dreams and economic and finance were his career aspirations.
Our son was a person who was always surrounded by a warm family and many friends. He excelled in almost everything he tried and he was the kind of person who always put other people’s needs before his own.
During his time at the University of Pennsylvania, he was active at the gym, joined a fraternity, and excelled academically. He won an award secured a position at a prestigious investment bank in New York. My son was at the cutting edge of his field, with a bright future and a role model to others.
But then he became involved in Jewish outreach or Kiruv organization named Meor. During his second year of college my son was approached by Rabbi Shmuel Lynn of Meor. He was offered a large sum of money (for a college student) to attend a weekly lecture series, where he was supposed to become in touch with his “Jewish roots.” He was recruited into the so-called “Maimonides Leadership Program,” which purportedly would make him somehow become a “better person” and “successful leader”. He would attend weekly seminars and Friday “Shabbats” with other students who were raised within secular Jewish families or families that practiced Conservative Judaism or Union of Reform Judaism. These seminars were led by Rabbi Shmuel Lynn and culminated in a “FREE” trip to Israel and Poland where they were to learn about the Holocaust, the existence of God, and the importance of getting in touch with your Jewish roots.
When our son came home from the Israel trip, he had changed. He began to keep Kosher. He began to isolate himself slightly from his fraternity and his friends. He began to become more heavily involved in the Meor program. After graduating the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania our son sat down with his father and me one night while at a Sushi restaurant and announced, “I decided I don’t want to take my job at the investment bank. Instead I want to study in a Yeshiva in Israel – at Machon Yaacov.”
We pleaded with him to at least spend a few years working at the investment bank before make such an abrupt change. His father and I asked him if he would at least work for two years. And if he still wanted to give the Yeshiva a try after that we would be more likely to support it. He reluctantly agreed.
Our son moved to Manhattan and started working in the city for the investment bank. He lived with one of his fraternity brothers who also graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
My son went to weekly Shabbatons in New York and would met regularly with local Rabbis of the community. After one year of working at the investment bank he became involved in the West Side Kollel, Kollel Yisroel VeShimshon, where he met Rabbi Mordechai Prager. Shortly after that our son’s life took a drastic downward spiral.
First, our son declared that he would no longer work on Shabbat. And that he must leave work early to go and study at the Kollel. He also broke off an engagement after Rabbi Prager told him that he must honor “Chok Hanegiya” and was not allowed to be in the same room with his fiancé until they were married.
His relationship with his family also deteriorated. Our son’s behavior became erratic and he would run away in the middle of a sentence. He neglected his father, even when he became ill with lymphoma. He lost all care and interest in his niece and nephews.
Rabbi Prager and Rabbi Prager’s wife recommended that my son take time to study in Israel. He was then introduced to another rabbi in New York, whose name he never disclosed. This rabbi recommended that he go to study at Yeshiva Tehilas Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva school run by a group of Haredi Litvak Jews. Our son was told by the rabbis not to disclose under any circumstances where he was going. He was also told to lie to his parents and told us that he would only be going for two months. And that he would be back soon to go back to work after completing two months of Yeshiva study in Israel.
Our son left in the middle of August 2017 to Yeshiva Tehilas Shlomo in Jerusalem, which is headed by Rabbi Pinchas Leibovic. At the end of September our son announced that he was not coming back. Not in one year. Not in two years. Now our son announced that he would stay at the Yeshiva for at least five years. He had no intention of going back to work or coming back to live in the United States.
My husband attempted to reach out to Rabbi Pinchas Leibovic. But his calls were not returned. My daughter’s husband tried to reach Rabbi Liebovic and after a dozen attempts, a disgruntled man picked up the phone and said “I can see why he left his family. If you were my family I would leave too.”
In December 2017 our family took a trip to Israel to visit a sick family member. Our son told us that he would not be able to meet with anyone or see anyone because it would cause too much conflict.
We decided to go to the Yeshiva he attended, which is located at Ramat Hagolan 57 in Jerusalem. We found our son living in a run-down apartment. He had not showered, was unshaved, pale, dressed in a black hat, white shirt, and a black suit, soiled and covered with stains. He looked unkempt and dirty. His face showed no emotion and instead he had a flat affect, and appeared subdued and depressed. He agreed to go to a restaurant, but would not eat any food.
At the end of our visit he thanked me, his father, sister, and niece for coming and gave them a hug.
We were able to persuade him to come home for a visit during Pesach. He returned home in 2018 six months after beginning his studies at the Yeshiva. Our son planned to visit us for two weeks. Immediately after coming off the plane, his brother-in-law noticed that he was quite withdrawn. Our son seemed restless and agitated in the car when music was playing and walked with his head down, looking at the ground. When he arrived home he announced that no one could enter his room to keep it free of Hametz.
We soon found out that the restrictions set up by his rabbis were endless, extreme, and very difficult to accommodate. He was not allowed to eat in restaurants, even if they claimed to be Glatt Kosher and were in Orthodox religious enclaves, including New Jersey and New York. Our son obsessively inspected every piece of food for very specific Hekshers. He would not use a phone, not even to navigate when he had to drive. He would not look out the window.
We agreed to all of his demands as best we could. We koshered our oven, even catered strictly Glatt kosher food and purged every bit of hametz per his instructions, following every rule he had been told by his rabbis.
But our son stopped talking to us. He would only read and study the Talmud. He woke up at 5 AM, dressed in a suit and tie, never showered, and left for the nearest ultra-Orthodox synagogue to pray or to some Hasidic Yeshiva to study. And when he was home he would pray by himself, reading his Talmud and isolating himself from everyone that was not ultra-Orthodox, including his family and old friends. He also said bizarre and completely uncharacteristic things. For example, during a Seder he mentioned that women do not need to use a pillow because “Women don’t need to recline, only men do.” This was rude and confrontational, which is totally unlike our son.
The rabbis from Yeshiva Tehilas Shlomo called our son as soon as Pesach was over. They wanted to check up on him to make sure he was following their restrictions and regulations in our home. After those phone calls, our son’s mood changed for the worse. He became stressed, overwhelmed, agitated, and restless. He was ill-tempered and curt with us. He stayed in his bedroom totally isolating himself. He acted depressed and did not readily communicate with us.
We were very worried about his behavior and asked our son if he would sit down and have a serious family discussion to address our concerns.
The next day, he announced that he was unable to stay in our home, eat any of the kosher food we had purchased, and was so uncomfortable that it was necessary that his visit be cut short. Instead of a two-week visit he ended up staying for only one week.
We begged our son and pleaded for him to stay and talk with us and have some quality time devoted to family interaction and discussion. He repeatedly refused.
My son was living in fear. He acted like he was in a state of horror. His mind was not his own.
Our son was transformed by Meor and a network of “Jewish Outreach” rabbis that completely changed his life through their undue influence. He was once independent, analytical, well-informed, free thinking, happy-go-lucky soul. Now he has been distorted into a miserable, tired, rigid, condescending, racist, and empty person dependent upon his “leaders” for every basic life decision.
Beware of the Jewish Outreach movement promulgated by ultra-Orthodox rabbis like Rabbi Mordechai Prager. What they call getting in touch with your “Jewish roots” seems more like so-called “cult brainwashing” than legitimate Jewish studies. They recruit on college and university campuses much like controversial religious groups called “cults” preying upon vulnerable and naïve students. Everyone should be more aware about who they are and how they negatively affect families. Hopefully our story will help to enlighten people and serve as a warning.