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.”
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.