On the surface, it all seemed so simple: Bring a group of men together to explore whatever was preventing them from individually achieving success, whether in business or in their professional and family relationships. It was touted as an earnest look at problems, both from a Torah perspective and from using therapeutic techniques developed from across several platforms, some not necessarily Jewish.
Prior to two weeks ago, in fact, few outside of the close-knit and predominantly Lubavitch neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Jewish community in Baltimore had heard of Call of the Shofar. But then its founder, onetime Baltimorean Rabbi Simcha Frischling, granted an interview to a Jewish website; within days, an outcry from Crown Heights leaders and a ruling from the neighborhood’s rabbinical court led to the firing — and reinstating — of two spiritual guides from one of the Lubavitch movement’s central educational institutions. Some called Call of the Shofar a cult; others went so far as to pin its roots on idolatrous practices.
Frischling, who recently moved with his wife and children from their Cross Country neighborhood home to Australia, vehemently denies the charges of being a cult leader. He also has the rabbinical approbations — from Shearith Israel Congregation’s Rabbi Yaacov Hopfer, as well as from Rabbis Michel Twerski of Milwaukee and Shmuel Kamenetsky of Philadelphia — to back up his defense.
He speaks of the Call of the Shofar project — like the hugely popular Landmark Forum program, Call of the Shofar falls into a subset of techniques some psychologists term large group awareness training — as a way to craft a “peak experience” that allows participants to confront their limitations and move along a spectrum of personal growth. Frischling, although not licensed as a therapist, says he earned rabbinical certification through the Pirchei Shoshanim project in Israel, studied at Yeshiva Ohr Samayach in Monsey, N.Y., and became acquainted with a host of alternative and Eastern-based philosophies, including Landmark. Call of the Shofar, he says, takes the best from those approaches and grounds them in Jewish principles.
“A lot of the principles or qualities that really worked for me in terms of my own growth and transformation are in the Torah,” explained Frischling. “I didn’t just Scotch tape Torah words on New Age philosophy. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’ve had a lot rabbis come through the program.”
Begun 12 years ago, Call of the Shofar reportedly has served close to 2,000 people, mostly men. It became popular among Lubavitchers about two years ago, and Frischling found himself running retreats in Morristown, N.J., near the movement’s Rabbinical College of America. The three-day weekend retreats, which cost about $750, are followed up by ongoing teleconferences. Today, by Frischling’s own estimate, maybe 90 percent of participants could be considered Lubavitch community members.
That’s a startling statistic to Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, a Lubavitcher Chasid and ethnographer whose books look at the history of the movement’s last century. He says that what worries his community’s leaders is the idea that younger members are apparently fleeing time-honored practices for an outside group neither grounded in Chasidic teachings nor recognized by professional psychological organizations.
“The cause for the alarm is that a community which is so dedicated to Chasidic thought and to the teachings of the Rebbe,” said Dalfin, referring to the late Lubavitch leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, “departed from its natural comfort zone. [Normally], when you have an issue of unhappiness, you speak to a rabbi, a spiritual guide, a friend in the community.”
In Crown Heights, Rabbis Yaacov Schwei and Yosef Braun announced in a letter that after launching an investigation into Call of the Shofar, they were forced to forbid participation in the program until they could be certain that its techniques and practices were 100 percent permissible according to Jewish law.
“Many therapies possess elements of avoda zara,” they wrote, using the Hebrew term for idolatrous practices, according to a translation of the letter published by websites popular among the worldwide Lubavitch community. “All therapies must be reviewed to ensure they have no inkling of serious halachic concerns.”
Hopfer’s approbation, though, states that Frischling’s program was “the beginning of a life-changing process” for many men known to him.
“Those of us who work with people and their personal issues are all too aware of the problems that come up in marriages, in relationships with our children, and in all aspects of our lives,” Hopfer wrote in September 2010. “Many of these problems are the result of poor communication skills and lack of personal awareness. The Call of the Shofar programs offer our community a practical, experiential method for learning principles and for practicing skills over time which impact men’s lives, create healthier marriages and help us function as better parents.”
Some participants and friends of participants, however, talk of coercive marketing tactics and brainwashing, the kind of critiques against Landmark and its progenitor, the hugely popular EST program from the 1970s.
“I remember a couple that I was involved with in Marin County in California years ago,” recalled Dalfin. “They were big in EST, were counselors. I remember that they were so caught up in the hype. Whether it was a cult or not, the hype takes over and manipulates, and when that happens, you convince yourself that you can change in the space of just three days.”
Back then, EST wasn’t so popular in the Lubavitch community, notes Dalfin. The allure of Call of the Shofar could be rooted more in the fact that it’s been almost 20 years since the Rebbe passed away in 1994. While on the one hand, the Lubavitch movement responded to that shock by strengthening and expanding institutions catering to Jews the world over — the many Chabad Houses and thousands of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries are evidence of that push — many within the movement contend that the home neighborhood of Crown Heights was not a beneficiary of such renewed focus.
“What this is showing us is there’s a breakdown between the teachings of the Rebbe and the implementation and actualization of actually living those principles,” said Dalfin. “As soon as you strip chasidut from a Chasid, you get a fine Jew, but not a Chasidic Jew.”
Dalfin instead proposes that every Jewish community institute a professional program of licensed therapists and rabbinic oversight to ensure that members’ psychological needs are adequately taken care of.
Introduced to the phenomenon of Call of the Shofar just last week, Professor Jonathan Moreno at the University of Pennsylvania, who’s writing a book about groups such as EST and their place in modern American history, says that such movements fit into the uniquely American strain of decentralized religious authority.
“Jews, like everyone else, are looking for answers,” he said. The cult question isn’t important; what matters is how participants end up.
“The damage I’m sure people are worried about is an open-ended financial commitment,” explained the professor. “Are these participants leaving their friends and family? If people think they’ve had a good experience, there are a lot of worse things out there.”
For his part, Frischling says that “people are getting turned on to” what he’s offering.
“Are there things that need to be tinkered with? Possibly,” he stated. “I’ve always been open to that. I think it’s clear there’s a need in the community for emotional help, and if you can provide a program that’s powerful and is doing it in a language that’s acceptable to the community, then why not?”