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It’s Not What You Think

Machla Abramovitz

Today’s popular large group therapy seminars claim to help us heal from our egocentric thoughts and entrenched defenses that skew the way we relate to the people and situations around us. Is it just more new age mumbo jumbo infiltrating our communities, or should every spiritually conscious Torah Jew on a quest for emotional well-being and personal growth run to sign up?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

It’s 11 a.m. Friday morning. About 30 men — mostly chareidim of various ages and backgrounds — are seated in a circle in absolute silence at a retreat outside of Jerusalem. Over half of them are here for the first time, and the anticipation runs deep. The facilitator explains the ground rules for the next three days: no random talking, no watches, and a time limit on Erev Shabbos phone calls. This will help them focus on the experience ahead. Outside, the midday sun glistens; the scene is rural and serene. Inside, the men are instructed to rise, blindfold themselves and dance to the loud undulating rhythms of electronic music that begins reverberating throughout the room, in order to help them release their inhibitions. Some get into the spirit, waving their hands and dancing freely to its metallic beat. Others barely move their legs. Minutes later, the music stops and the blindfolds are removed. Then the men follow their designated coaches into private groups, where the real work takes place. By Sunday evening, friends have told them, they will have arrived at an understanding of themselves like nothing they’ve ever experienced. Some are excited, others are wary — but everyone is prepared to do whatever it takes to make that happen. This is “Call of the Shofar,” one of several experiential workshops — known as large-group awareness training (LGAT) — frequented by Orthodox Jews in their quest for emotional wellbeing and personal growth. All these programs are based on the theory that as we become aware of the mechanics of how we unconsciously think and act, the more healthily we’ll be able to relate to the people and situations around us. After going through an LGAT seminar, participants come to realize that lack of wellbeing is not contingent on circumstances, but on the way we think about and interpret those circumstances, and that this thinking is the result of old, often unhealthy or destructive patterns we’ve carried around from childhood. Some of the groups that frum Jews are flocking to these days to improve their quality of life include Call of the Shofar, created by Simcha and Ruth Frischling; “The Possible You” (TPY), created by Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser; “Innate Health” (IH), run by the Twerski Wellness Institute in Milwaukee; Tikun IH’s program in London, England (all of the aforementioned are geared toward Orthodox Jews); and the more controversial “Landmark Education,” a nondenominational movement. Can a weekend retreat where you start out blindfolded really help you have a better life? Mention LGATs, and some declare their fierce opposition to what they see as new age mumbo jumbo infiltrating our communities, while others passionately defend their value and benefit. What, in fact, are these programs? Are they therapies run by unlicensed amateurs, or are they mussar vaads, a kind of peer counseling? What do they purport to offer? What concerns do they raise? What voids do they fill within our community, and why do so many remain suspicious of their foundations and efficacy?

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