I may not have a white beard, and I may not be an expert on cults. I’m not an authority on Chasidus, or psychology, or theology. I don’t have legions of adherents to give credence to my declarations.
All I have is one man’s opinion. That’s it.
I’ve been to Call of the Shofar. Until now, this has been a somewhat private experience in my life. I’m not embarrassed or hiding anything. It’s just that it was a personal experience for me. I wouldn’t tell you about conversations I’ve had with a therapist, even if you were doing research on clinical psychology. Even if you had the confidence to ask me about it. Because it’s personal. It’s private.
And yet, I have been asked. Conversations nowadays go something like this: “You’ve gone to Call of the Shofar. What do you think? Is it a cult?”
It’s pretty frustrating to entertain a conversation that begins in this way. Opposition has been raised, now it must be confirmed or denied.
I don’t consider it my duty to defend Call of the Shofar. It’s not my workshop. Yes, I’ve participated. I’ve even staffed. But in the end, it remains my experience. I speak as an individual, not as an organization. As a result, I usually don’t sum up the enthusiasm to humor these conversations. Especially when someone says something like, “It’s for people who are sick.” Thanks, buddy. After that, proving that Shofar has merit has not really been my cup of tea. I understand that this is not everyone’s approach. Some people are very open. Perhaps too open. They may have discussed it with their friends and family, wanting to share the experience. Perhaps even urging them to go. Can you blame them? This is something that worked for them, and helped their lives. It would be most natural to recommend it to a friend, just as one would with a self-help book.
Call of the Shofar is not a perfect program. To the best of my knowledge, it has never claimed to be. I will say this though: the goal of Call of the Shofar weekend has been to allow a person to view themselves outside of the context of a negative self-image. Beyond the weekend, the work of continuing Shofar can be dumbed down to a basic process of self-control and self-awareness.
The results have helped many people find the road to fulfillment in life, healthy self-esteem, meaningful relationships… Are these not desirable goals?
But, oh no. The four-letter C word was used. Cult.
Can’t you hear it echoing down dark forbidden corridors? Can you hear that harshly whispered word that chills the blood and extinguishes candles at midnight? Cult.
It’s the dirtiest of words to label any new movement or program. Scrolling down on some comments…
“Chasidus has all the answers.” “Speak to a mashpia.” “Avoda Zara.” “Cult.”
In my experience, I have gained much from farbrengens and from helpful rabbis in yeshiva. I imagine that there must be a strong support group in every frum community, and that coming together for Shabbos and holidays must really give a person fulfillment.
But it isn’t everything. I believe a person should search for meaning with all the resources at their disposal. What teachers and communities leaders may lacking, might be provided by psychologists and occupational therapists and financial advisers and and even fitness professionals, as per the needs of the individual.
You can believe that Chabad Chasidus is the pinnacle of service-to-God philosophy, but you can’t condemn someone for attending Call of the Shofar. It has helped many people, after all.
“You can’t judge from the results. If it’s bad, it’s bad.”
Ok. Some methods employed are subject to speculation. This is understandable. After all, aren’t we above methods that seek to indoctrinate rather than educate?
Take a Yeshiva like the Rabbinical College of America, in Morristown NJ. Classes start at 7:30 AM, and they end at 9:30 PM. Between classes there is ample time for davening, breakfast, lunch and supper. Beyond that, it’s a pretty closed environment. Phones are discouraged or forbidden altogether, music and books are monitored for content, internet access is unavailable or restricted, dress code is prominent, foul language prohibited. One must obtain permission before leaving campus.
I don’t think this is a bad thing. If this system works to its fullest, a student will be fully immersed in his studies without the worries of the outside world, without the distractions of sports, music or movies. They can get the most out of their experience.
There are many yeshivos like this.
There are no campaigns against large yeshivos. The student is subjected to the influence and teachings that he has signed up for. He may well get exactly what he’s looking for.
And yet, this approach didn’t work for me. It didn’t work for many people. Does the fact that it’s imperfect make RCA an ineffective program? Hardly. Can the methods employed be referred to as cult-like? I wouldn’t think so. Then again, I’m no authority on the matter.
In Call of the Shofar, efforts are made to ensure that the experience is meaningful. I can’t speak for everything. While I certainly valued silence, and no phones, I can see why someone would get a little edgy about some processes. But cult-like?
Let’s understand that anything can be taken out of context, and that anything can be abused. It really depends how it is approached. If I had thought Shofar would solve all my problems, I’d either be disappointed or delusional at this point. I didn’t, and therefore I’m not.
There are people who have done exceptionally well in a yeshiva like Morristown. Their experience is their own. They can say it worked for them, while I can say it didn’t work for me. It really depends on the person. If farbrengens and Chasidus work for you, go for it!
In the meantime, be wary of broad, sweeping generalizations.
It’s easy for someone who never went to condemn this program, if they wished. Just as it’s easy for someone who attended the weekend to endorse it.
If someone tells you that an experiential workshop which they have not experienced is evil, take it with a grain of salt.
If someone tells you that an experiential workshop that they have experienced is the best flippin’ thing since dried mango was discovered, take it with a grain of salt.
Is it perfect? Nope.
Is it evil? Nope.
Is it for everyone? Nope.
Be aware that there are plenty of nay-sayers and plenty of Shofar advocates. Do your research but keep a level head. Continue to search for the answers to your life questions, whether you find them in Shofar or in a Maamer or in the realm of secular psychology.
To quote someone who never went to Shofar: “The journey of life is the process of discovering that we have not been experiencing our true selves.”
For my part, I’m still committed to climbing.