Steven Frischling doesn’t have an epic, inspiring story to tell. He didn’t go from rags to riches or survive a crisis or transformative experience, he says. As motivational speakers go, he comes across low-key, even boring, in a phone interview.
“I was just searching,” he says of the journey that led him from a secular Jewish home in Washington Heights — where his father owned a small grocery — to Torah study and greater observance and, for the past years, a would-be guru to Orthodox men who are yearning for more meaning in their lives.
“It grew out of a group of people meeting together once a week, all Orthodox guys,” he said of Call of the Shofar’s origins in the Baltimore area. “We really helped each other be better fathers and husbands.”
A graduate of Stuyvesant High School who briefly attended Beloit College in Wisconsin, Frischling doesn’t recall precisely what made him become religious in his 30s. But he said at one point a friend convinced him to see “the Torah as more than just the history of going from Mitzrayim [Egypt] to Israel, but as more of a personal journey.”
Frischling, 61, studied for a time at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva in Monsey in the late 1980s, and then later went to Israel to look for a study program there; he came back instead with a wife, Ruth, a native of Sydney, Australia. The couple settled in Baltimore and raised four children as Frischling, now using the Hebrew name Simcha, which means happiness, made his living repairing antique furniture. Ruth has a master’s degree in education with a major in guidance counseling from the University of Sydney, according to her LinkedIn profile.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Frischling speaks slowly and affably, even when he discusses his detractors and the people in Brooklyn who have effectively derailed his career as a self-help guru.
On his personal blog, Frischling, who is mostly self-educated, lists under “training” his studies at Ohr Sameyach, the Orthodox outreach organization primarily for ba’al teshuvahs (returnees to the faith), as well as instruction in the ManKind Project, which is known for its outdoor New Warrior Training programs intended to build masculinity. He also lists Landmark Education, a program focused on personal development, and that he has studied under the wing of Richard Moss, an Ojai, Calif., doctor who holds retreats focused on “conscious living and inner transformation,” according to his web site.
Moss told The Jewish Week Tuesday he mentored Frischling as part of a three-year program during which he met with him on a regular basis.
“He’s a very bright and thoughtful man,” sad Moss. “He is an Orthodox Jew who is very open-minded, very bright, very capable of translating new ideas framed from different traditions into his own tradition.”
Frischling received ordination from Pirchei Shoshanim, a distance-learning yeshiva founded by Rabbi Fishel Todd, a tax lawyer in New Jersey who has also founded the Shema Yisrael Movement. Pirchei Shoshanim coordinates lessons via email but requires exams in person. Frischling says he recently heard from Rabbi Todd that the ordination was revoked because of Call of the Shofar’s activities.
Rabbi Todd declined to comment on the matter when contacted by The Jewish Week Tuesday.
Responding to the uproar over COTS, Frischling insisted his workshops are “profoundly positive,” and said they are successful because no one else is running similar workshops.
Frischling said he is unsure how he will support himself now that the organization is on the verge of collapse.
On paper, Frischling appears to have been a noble servant of the COTS cause. In 2011 his compensation listed on the organization’s IRS disclosure was $37,253. In 2012, although revenue went up considerably, his reportable pay dropped to $18,000 as the only paid member of the board of directors. Frischling says he makes most of his income as a “world-class antique restorer.”
Shmuel Pollen, a former facilitator with COTS who has now become one of its leading critics, said he never believed Frischling was in it for the money and says he is a “very deep believer in his philosophy … a missionary who wants to convert people to a new belief system.” But, he adds, “I don’t think he is nearly as concerned as he should be with the well-being of people who go to his workshops."