Confessions of a ‘Shofar’ Staffer


Recently, and article posted by named “Confessions of a ‘Shofar’ Staffer” has garnered a flurry of attention. This is primarily because most of the articles, statements and comments against the Shofar program have been coming from individuals who have not attended and know little about the program — i.e. hearsay. So when somebody from the inside decides to “reveal all”, it catches on like wild-fire.

Deborah Feldman, in her book Unorthodox receives similar acclaim, mainly from people who are “chalishing” (strongly desiring) to believe exactly what she claims — that she is going to reveal the inside “truth” about Chassidic life. What I find interesting, is that many of us in the Orthodox community were appalled and aghast at how fast and powerfully Ms. Feldman’s book caught on. Such a one-sided (lop-sided) perspective on being frum, and yet this was being paraded as “truth” because it came from somebody on the inside! While Deborah was being courted by the likes of CNN, Oprah Winfrey, The Today Show, The View, Barbara Walters, etc, attempts on our side to get even a tiny slice of media attention to challenge the slander proffered by Deborah were, for the most part, ignored. For the record, Deborah has book II coming out this year.

An Older Chossid told me it was BAD!

Pollen’s article is quite long. But I believe it is an important read because although it contains truthful information, it also contains within it many of the myths and misunderstandings that people can fall prey to. Pollen’s disassociation with Shofar is based on a conversation he had with an older, anonymous chossid (Rabbi), who, after Pollen’s description of the program, called it against yiddishkeit, and forbidden to go. Thus begins his transformation against the shofar – his tshuva, so to speak.

However, while Pollen may have been moved to change, this cannot be a lesson for the masses.  It is basic and foundational that any Rav cannot render judgement without accurate information. And nobody can speak authoritatively about the Shofar, except those who are representatives for the organization i.e. Simcha, Moe, Aharon, Benzion, etc. For example, I have been to many Chabad houses, but I cannot speak for them, or become the voice of Chabad. Unless there is the complete inability to garner official information, then for a Rabbi to pass judgement for the klal based on your personal experiences makes no sense at all. I believe he needs “Drisha V’Chakira”, not some participants personal understanding after attending three sessions. So, from the start, nobody can take Pollen’s story as anything more than an informal discussion about his Shofar experience. To jump to “1000% forbidden to go” is just too huge chasm to cross given that Pollen is in no way authorized to speak for the Shofar.

I was Brainwashed!

Pollen then goes on to inform all of us Shofar attendees that we have been “brainwashed”. This is because, in Pollen’s mind, being brainwashed means “being manipulated to believe something you otherwise would not have.” This is not a definition of brainwashed, at all — a simple Google search would have clarified this mistake — “Brainwashed: make (someone) adopt radically different beliefs by using systematic and often forcible pressure.”  But let’s just give Pollen the benefit of the doubt – let’s say that “being manipulated to believe something you otherwise would not have” is a valid definition. Pollen’s examples of how he was brainwashed don’t even fit his own definition.

Pollen: attendees were brainwashed because they saw people’s yarmulkas fall off, and after awhile they accepted it.
Truth: Nobody at the Shofar asks you or encourages you to take off your Yarmulka. That is your choice. I didn’t, and neither did my facilitator.  In any case, certainly nobody is trying to “manipulate you to believe” in taking off your yarmulka.
Pollen: attendees were brainwashed into accepting and using four letter words, and came to accept it
Truth: Nobody at the shofar asks you to use foul language — I didn’t, and neither did some of the other people in my group, and neither did my facilitator. In any case, certainly nobody is trying to “manipulate you to believe” in using four-letter words — nobody said  “in order to do the Shofar, you need to use four letter words” or even “using four letters words is OK”. Some people did, some didn’t. You may have been uncomfortable, or not — it was up to you.
Pollen: attendees at the Shofar were brainwashed because they used non-Jewish music for some of the exercises, and came to accept it
Truth: although at the Shofar program, they did play some non-Jewish music, nobody asked you to believe in it, condone it, listen to it when you got home, etc. You could have opted out of any experience, any time. Similarly, the belief or the succumbing to goyish music was in no way central to the program (i.e. brainwash). You may not approve, and that is good for you, but nobody is trying to “manipulate you to believe” that listening to goyish music is OK. 
Pollen: attendees were brainwashed because we spent Shabbos in silence, primarily absorbing the philosophy and message of the Shofar. 
Truth: Agreeing to be silent for a brief period doesn’t fit any real definition of “brainwash”. Weird, different, strange, maybe, but not brainwashed. To be fair, this is a blatant mis-characterization of the experience as there was a lot of discussion going on during the entire program, including during our “silent” time. Participants asked many, many challenging and clarifying questions throughout Shabbos, which were encouraged and responded to. Further, by Motzoi Shabbos, when the request for silence during our breaks was lifted, we spent hours and hours discussing all the details of the program with each other. 
Pollen: attendees are brainwashed into participating in an intimacy exercise where they lock-legs with another man.
Truth: It was your choice to “lock-legs” with another man. When I was staffing, my partner did not feel comfortable with that level of closeness. Nobody asked him to do anything he did not feel comfortable with. Even so, agreeing to try something new for fifteen minutes in no way fits any category of brainwash – nobody was trying to “manipulate you to believe” that in general, you should lock-legs with other men who are strangers (or even friends 🙂 )

Maybe I was Misdiagnosed?

Pollens next quandary is whether the staff, not fully outfitted with Phds in psychology, should be trusted in accurately diagnosing your childhood trauma.  At some point in the program, Shmuel must have imagined he heard Simcha claim that he is a doctor. However, the Shofar never, ever, claims to diagnose anything, nor is diagnosing an integral part of the program.  You are asked to consider whether your current reactions to events could be based on a childhood experience (or some other preconceived notions). Those people who could trace their emotions back to a childhood-wound used that experience as a step to the next level of the exercise. Those who said “nothing comes to mind”, continued without that benefit. At no time did any member of the staff in anyway diagnose the origins of your story or your trauma — that is up to you. Shofar is not staffed with trained therapists, and nobody performs any official therapy or diagnosis, and never claims to.

Coming Closer to Gd is not part of Torah!

Pollen is also concerned whether the Hashkafa at the Shofar is kosher, because it doesn’t sound to him like the Tanya. I would suggest that you ask anybody knowledgeable in Chassidus if one of the purposes of creation & Geula is that the Yidden should have a deeper, more intimate relationship with Hashem. Not as a a by-product, but as one of the purposes. I understand that the Alter-Rebbe focuses on Dirah B’Tachtonim in the Tanya, absolutely. However, that in no way negates Hashems ability to have multiple reasons to do something. Again, just ask any Mashpia (Paltiel, Jacobson, Rapp, Labkovsky, Avtzon, take your pick) if one of the central points of Geula is so that the Yidden should have a deeper, more intimate and knowledgeable relationship with Hashem. This obviously Torah-true “slice” of the greater pie is what the Shofar is focusing on during this weekend.

I didn’t really feel Gd at the Shofar!

Pollen next tries to de-legitimize the Shofar program by questioning the authentic spiritual nature of the weekend, suggesting that we really didn’t feel Gd during the weekend. This would be so funny if it wasn’t that so off the mark. The workshop never claims to be a “religious” experience, nor is it positioned as the best way to get close to Gd  (as if you need the workshop to come close to Gd?! – Huh?).  The premise is that living your life from an authentic place — meaning, shedding the toxic stories you are currently generating your life from, is essential to serving Hashem in truth. The workshop simply helps you to identify some of the baggage you are carrying around with you, and helps you experience life in the present — essential to serving Hashem. It was never meant to be, nor advertised as a religious, Gdly experience.

Stop telling me that I Matter!

Pollen takes issue with some core concepts at the Shofar — mainly the message that “I matter” and that “I’m good enough”. According to Pollen, these ideas are treif, because they encourage you to do averios (sins).  Pollen appears to be confusing “I’m good enough” with “I am perfect”.  As is explained by the Rebbe,  the purpose of these messages is not to sit on your laurels and chose not to grow. The truth is the exact  opposite (as stated many times in the workshop and Chassidus). Without a proper perspective on your potential and the reality of why you are important, your cannot live up to be the true “you” that Hashem wants from you. This is a basic and integral part of Chassidus. How you jump from this foundational point in Chassidus to doing averias is the exact opposite of the message that was given over. It is when you think you don’t matter that you do averias. When you have convinced yourself that just like you don’t take yourself seriously, neither does Hashem. That because you are insignificant, so are your actions — then your life begins to fall apart, i.e. a few averios here and there are no big deal, because honestly, I too am no big deal. Understanding that you do matter, and that you are good enough to be in relationship (i.e. that you are lovable), is the foundation of proper service of Hashem. This is basic Judaism.

The New Shofar Religion?

Finally, Pollen stoops so low as to compare the Shofar to Christianity (probably the saddest part of the whole article). It is more than obvious that the Shofar is not trying to start any religion here, at all. This is not a substitute or replacement for Halacha in anyway. Nobody acts as as spiritual mashpia, or discusses your level of Yiddishkeit at all. Nor is this weekend supposed to be a spiritual coming of age or anything. As Simcha states many times, he is sharing principles that if practiced and applied properly, can help you serve Hashem better, in the way you see fit. If anything, the Shofar staff are extremely respectful of your personal religious observances. Founded and mainly run by a few Modern / Sephardic / Orthodox men, they go well out of their way to ensure that Halachic standards are met for the most Chassidic amongst us (Chalov Yisroel, Mikvah, Nusach Ari, Minyanim, Glatt Kosher Lubav meat, etc, etc). None of these things may be important to the founders, but yet they go to great lengths and expense to ensure that you can comfortably serve Hashem the way you see fit. This is the exact opposite of Christianity, which tried to convince you not to keep Halacha! How can a program which makes no comment on your religious observance, does not claim to be a spiritual workshop, and goes out of it’s way to keep the highest standards of Torah observance be called Christianity?

Hey, what if I have OCD?

Pollen concludes with a heartfelt shout-out for all those potential Shofar-goers who have OCD, depression, serious self-esteem issues, etc, (what are they going to do now that they cannot go to Shofar?) and instructs them to go for therapy rather than the Shofar. This is probably the only thing he writes that has any logical foundation.  However, Shmuel implies somehow that the Shofar attempts to substitute for this advice, when in fact the opposite is true — all applicants are reviewed for mental illness, and are filtered out from attending. The Shofar was never meant for mental nut-cases, but rather average men, who want to live life to the fullest — like 8th Day is wont to say — “you gotta give it all you got!”

Pollen’s Damage is Just the Beginning

It is painfully obvious that while Shmuel Pollen has brought to light some behaviors which one may witness at the Shofar that Lubavs may not appreciate,  he has misunderstood some of the basic messages of the Shofar.  It is a shame that with this lack of knowledge, he then misguided an entire community about the purpose & benefits of the Shofar. 

What’s worse, however, is that his article has appeared on Rebecca Ross’s blog,  StopKiruvNow, all about the perils of Jewish outreach, Chabad, and Kiruv. Taking Pollen at face value, she then wipes the floor with him by turning the entire article around and focusing it on brainwashing within Chabad. Her article was then picked-up by the Cult News Network (search for January 1st, 2014) alongside articles about Islamists, Fundamentalists, and Scientology. What a Chilul Hashem – first for slandering the Shofar, then for giving fodder to those who mock the Rebbe’s work.

All quoted material from: Pollen, Shmuel. Confessions of a ‘Shofar’ Staffer. ColLive. December 31, 2013.

Disclaimer: Truth about Shofar blog is not
in anyway affiliated with Call of the Shofar.
All opinions are of the authors.

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