Late last year, 2,000 people gathered at a Crown Heights yeshiva in answer to a call for an asifa, or emergency meeting. Speakers came from within the Chabad Lubavitch community in Crown Heights, from nearby Borough Park and from as far away as Los Angeles to issue dire warnings of a serious threat to the souls of Orthodox men and women.
The cause of the Dec. 24 meeting at Yeshiva Oholei Torah was the increasing popularity of Call of the Shofar, a self-awareness group that runs three-day workshops promising to help its mostly male participants “wake up from the slumber of day-to-day distractions and reconnect with your deeper essence.”
Critics, of which there are a growing number, call the program a heretical, cult-like, even dangerous phenomenon that stands not only to alienate participants from Judaism but also to cause emotional harm and rifts within the close-knit chasidic community.
“People are searching and searching is a good thing, but you need to know where to search,” said Rabbi Yoel Kahn at the asifa, as reported by the website COLLive, which covers Crown Heights Jewish life.
Speaking in Yiddish, Rabbi Kahn — an expert on the teachings of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died nearly 20 years ago — told the men gathered that they could continue to find the answers to life’s challenges in the rebbe’s wisdom.
“People said [Call of the Shofar] had to be shut down … that we have to kill it before it takes root,” said Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, who was in the audience at the emergency meeting. He told The Jewish Week that the asifa crystallized months of criticism and concern in Crown Heights about the group founded 12 years ago by Simcha Frischling.
Part of the concern stems from the fact that Frischling, 61, has neither a license to conduct therapy nor any formal training in psychology or social work, and appears to be an adherent of the controversial movement of large group awareness training (LGAT), which is often linked to cults.
Frischling, who mostly makes his living repairing antique furniture, has only one official credential: semicha from an online rabbinical school — and that was recently revoked.
‘A Feeding Frenzy’
Now, with bans from several Crown Heights rabbinical boards, and others sounding alarms, Call of the Shofar’s programs have been suspended and its future is in doubt. Frischling, now living in Sydney, Australia, says he is unsure of his next move.
“It’s been a feeding frenzy,” he said in a phone interview last week. “I’m going to regroup and see where I want to go with it, but right now I don’t know. People are scraping around looking for reasons to shut this down, [such as] I’m not so frum looking.”
A low-budget operation with a small staff, Call of the Shofar had an equally low profile until it started to attract large numbers of Chabad-associated chasidim to seminars on the grounds of a Vallevue Estate in Morristown, N.J., the town that is home to Chabad’s rabbinical college. Previously its activities had revolved around the Baltimore area, where Frischling lived at the time.
Organizers say about 2,000 people have now participated in (Call of The Shofar) COTS workshops, and in recent years, 90 percent have been affiliated with Chabad, which prides itself on outreach toward unaffiliated Jews.
Critics cite offbeat rituals like blindfolded dancing and “carpet work” bonding sessions that explore hidden pain, and others that ask men to hold hands and stare at each other. They describe sessions where communication between participants is severely limited, especially during meals, and where cellphone use is banned, except for a pre-Shabbat call home.
Supporters of COTS say the workshops, with sessions based on Jewish-holiday themes, have helped them improve their self-esteem, overcome fears and gain the understanding that they are not necessarily to blame for troubling incidents of the past or their feelings of alienation.
To aid with recruiting, Frischling hired Pinchas Lew, a man with a checkered past; he drove the getaway car in a 1991 armed robbery while he was working as a mashgiach (certifier) at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. In a plea agreement he served time briefly and was given probation. Lew was later accused by a maid of indecent exposure while working as a Chabad emissary in North Carolina, JTA reported in 2001, though a judge eventually threw out the charges. He has since stayed out of trouble and says he has benefited from COTS.
Also on board for the recruiting was Moshe Lieblich, founder of a Brooklyn yeshiva high school and owner of a kosher catering business. Word of the COTS workshops spread quickly, and participants were strongly encouraged to refer friends; if they did so successfully, they were offered a discount on future programs. Among those Lieblich recruited were his parents, Asher and Chaya, both of whom continue to strongly defend the program.
But the growth of COTS — its revenue jumped from $130,989 in 2011 to $241,981 in 2012, according to IRS documents — hit a snag after Frischling granted a Dec. 11 video interview with DovBer “Berry” Schwartz, whose website, Healthy Judaism, strives to “rectify the toxicity that has seeped into the way many of us were taught Judaism.”
In the interview, Frischling, who grew up in Washington Heights, discussed the difference between choosing to do mitzvot and being obligated to do them.
In the course of Schwartz’s interview, Frischling spoke of healthy and unhealthy ways to be religious and seemed to criticize a person who observes mitzvot because of peer pressure as opposed to one who is“coming down the pike from a place of well-being, because he has faith in this system and has a responsibility to the greater klal that he’s choosing to belong to.”
The interview was a first public exposure to Frischling’s mindset, says Yehuda Ceitlin, editor of COLLive.com, and therefore prompted more discussion in the community. “He seemed to be saying there were alternatives to chasidus and you can be happy with that,” said Ceitlin.
Asked by Schwartz why it was necessary for participants to make themselves “vulnerable” in a group setting, a central part of the program, Frischling said, “The ikar [essence] is that we get in touch with our fundamental desire, we get in touch with that which we really want, and that is best done in the container of a group setting. ”
As concern about COTS grew, Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a prominent haredi psychiatrist and expert on the treatment of addiction, convened a meeting in Brooklyn to investigate the group, apparently because he had been asked to endorse COTS and wanted to hear all sides of the argument.
And so on Jan. 15, Frischling and two followers found themselves making their case before a kind of halachic inquest at the home of Rabbi David Cohen of Gvul Yavetz in Midwood, Brooklyn, who is a widely respected halachic decisor.
Also present, in the role of prosecutor, was Rabbi Shea Hecht, the well-connected scion of a prominent Chabad family who wrote a book about his work fighting cults and helping people ensnared in them. The rabbi, who with his brother, Shulem Ber, run the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, has never attended a COTS workshop but went to a recruitment meeting at which he questioned Frischling and later decided to oppose the group.
“Based on what the director himself has said about his background and the roots of his methods, some of the fundamental COTS techniques are based on Buddhist practices,” Rabbi Hecht wrote in a public statement after his first meeting with Frischling. In the same statement, he instructs people who may have encouraged others to participate in COTS to “go back to that person and apologize, using whatever influence you have to inform him that there are pagan practices used by this group.”
At the hearing at Rabbi Cohen’s home, when Rabbi Hecht felt he did not have ample time to make his case against COTS, and facing pushback from COTS supporters, Rabbi Hecht asked for and was granted a second meeting one week later. This time he brought reinforcements: Rabbi Shlomo Segal, a member of the rabbinical court of Crown Heights, and Rabbi Dr. Chaim David Kagan, director of a Chabad high school in Monsey.
According to an account of the rabbinic proceedings at the latter meeting on the website Crownheights.info, written by Robin Garbose, a California-based anti-cult activist and filmmaker, the lengthy questioning of Frischling and two associates dwelled less on the programs of COTS, but more on Frischling’s religious beliefs and habits, or what is known as hashgafot in Orthodox vernacular.
For example, Rabbi Cohen asked if Frischling prays three times daily and whether he believes in the concept of Moshiach, a mortal Jew who will emerge as a savior of his people. Another person present at the meeting, speaking to The Jewish Week off the record because it was not a public gathering, confirmed this account. The source also said Frischling gave a lengthy answer that ultimately revealed that his view of a messiah was more conceptual than the traditional Orthodox view. He also said that he did not regularly daven, but that he believed prayer was a personal matter.
The meeting, according to Garbose, ended with Rabbi Cohen declaring that Frischling was a person whose teachings should be shunned, and he would say so to anyone who asked his advice. But in a brief phone conversation with The Jewish Week, the rabbi would not confirm or deny this, saying only that he does not grant interviews.
Rabbi Twerski was also non-committal about COTS, saying Monday that he had heard “pros and cons” about the group, but “I don’t feel that I can make a statement.” Asked if his reluctance had to do with the fact that his brother, Rabbi Michel Twerski, was an early endorser of COTS, Rabbi Abraham Twerski, in a very hesitant and seemingly perplexed tone, said “not really.”
Concern about COTS has spread beyond Crown Heights. Jews for Judaism, the national organization founded to fight Hebrew Christian missionaries and other cultic influences competing for Jewish souls, has received about 25 calls about Frischling’s program, mostly from the Baltimore area, according to the group’s East Coast director Ruth Guggenheim.
“Groups like Call of the Shofar often take individuals who don’t always know what they’re getting into, and they are not equipped to handle psychological ramifications of the intensity they are exposed to,” Guggenheim told The Jewish Week.
“Some families we dealt with fear that their loved ones may have chosen to question their level of observance. That’s [their] premise: be true to yourself.”
One COTS participant, who asked to be identified only as Mendy (not his real name), said he believed Chabad elders were troubled by COTS’ emphasis on people thinking for themselves and questioning the underpinnings of chasidus.
The elders, he said, realized that “a lot of young Chabad guys were coming and the guy running it didn’t have a beard and never really learned Tanya [Chasidic mysticism] — and that seemed to be of concern. They were scared that by going to this program it was going to undermine chasidus as a whole.”
While the central rabbinical boards of Crown Heights and Chabad have now come out against COTS, it’s clear the group, at least initially, caused a rift within the sect, at a time when Chabad is seeing its first generation come of age without any personal memory of the late rebbe, and there is no successor in sight.
“[Chabad leaders] would like a monopoly on doing outreach and defining what is popularly Jewish, and along comes this group that says we are independent and can do what we want,” said Queens College sociology professor Samuel Heilman, who has written extensively about contemporary ultra-Orthodox life.
Defenders of COTS say many of the critics have never attended its workshops.
One critic who did is Shmuel Pollen, 32, a Chabadnik who was at first so impressed with the seminars that he signed on as a staff member at another COTS programs in Morristown, at his own expense and later went to an advanced seminar. Initially feeling that the workshops would help him train to be a life coach, Pollen said a discussion with a respected community elder led him to question the group.
A turning point, he says, was when participants were encouraged to dance together, and one reluctant person stood at the sidelines with his hands in his pockets. Frischling, he claimed, screamed at the wallflower until the man joined in the revelry. During a period of heavy breathing exercises, which can lead to a sense of euphoria, Pollen saw one participant strip off his clothes, while he himself purposely slammed into a wall.
“I think COTS goes way over the line into the realm of unlicensed therapy,” said Pollen, a San Diego native who lives in Morristown and has his own marketing business.
But, Frischling countered, “We are not doing therapy, we’re doing principles of well-being and doing it in an experiential way.” He said cellphones were banned during the weekends to maximize participants’ engagement. “I don’t want people checking baseball scores.”
Frischling said criticism of the group has been based on lies.
“We are not a cult, we’re not doing brainwashing, we’re not making a fortune,” he said. “All these things are not true.”
To those who gathered in December to warn the community about COTS, he countered, “How about an asifa to deal with all the [child] abuse? I’m helping people that were being abused and neglected, and we were doing it within a Torah context. Is that such a crime? Is that such a terrible thing to do?”
In Part Two: Inside perspectives on the Call of the Shofar workshops.