Our religious background is Conservative and Reform Judaism. My son attended religious school, was Bar Mitzvah and then confirmed at the end of the tenth grade. I was enthusiastic about his trip to Israel--where it seemed things he had learned about his heritage would come alive.
While he was in Israel he was approached at the Western Wall by a man named Jeff Seidel--who asked him if he would like to have a "Shabbat (Sabbath) experience" with a Jewish family? My son trustingly said yes and was pulled into an experience that I believe included psychological techniques akin to "brainwashing"--designed to ultimately encourage him to leave his family and choose an isolated lifestyle within a closed community in Israel as an ultra-Orthodox Jew.
Jeff Seidel introduced my son to an organization named "Aish HaTorah", whose mission seems to include influencing Reform and Conservative Jewish young people to become ultra-Orthodox. This organization often targets Jewish youth traveling without their parents in Israel. They slowly lure them step-by-step into a radically different lifestyle--they (e.g. Mr. Seidel) never really fully disclosed the actual intent of their ultimate mission.
"Aish" [Ha Torah] begins by having lessons, which are attended by both young men and women to discuss general topics about Judaism. These initial topics discuss the happiness of being one of "God's Chosen People" and are not controversial. The young person is often paired with another who has already been indoctrinated and that person may be instructed to become friends with the newcomer. The discussions gradually separate the men from the women--after these friendships have been developed the more serious indoctrination into the concept of "The True Torah" begins. Young people are often encouraged to change their way of dress to conform to their new "friends"--although they are told they do not have to change their dress "until they are ready". The clear implication is that--they will eventually be "ready".
At the end of the summer, my son called and said he did not want to return to law school--a goal he had set for himself and discussed for many years, but instead he now wanted to stay a while in Israel to "study Judaism". I did everything I could to get him to return home, but he was being told by Aish's rabbis--"God" was more important to his future than his parents. By the time I could get to Israel, during December of 1995, I found my son dressed in a long black coat and hat, with a long beard--who could only talk about one topic--"THE TORAH". I could not convince him to return home.
It gets worse. In 1996 the people at Aish influenced my son to move to an ultra-Orthodox community called B'nai Brach--to study with another rabbi. He was submerged in a group entirely focused on liturgy and study of ultra-Orthodox without any other feedback. My previously gregarious son stopped listening to any kind of music and would not talk about anything except religion. At one point he became ill and the people in B'nai Brach did not even bother to take him to a physician--he eventually had to go to an emergency room where they refused to care for him. Luckily his illness was not serious. He stayed in B'nai Brach until April of 1997. And except for the fact that I managed to have him call me once a week--he was entirely under the influence of this community. I cannot tell you what it was like to see my son, who once explored and questioned, parroting the words he had obviously memorized without critically thought or evaluation.
In April of 1996 I convinced my son to come home for a one-month visit--promising that I would send him back. When our family saw him we all became extremely concerned. He had a vacant look in his eyes; he was unkempt, extremely thin and had a skin condition that covered his entire body. Again--he spoke of nothing but religion and was intent about convincing us--that what he had learned was the absolute truth and that there was no other way to see anything. We decided we must do something so his father contacted Rick Ross.
After a five-day intervention my son agreed to stay in the U.S.--after a brief visit back in Israel to collect his things. I was frightened and tried to convince him not to return to Israel--thinking he might not come back. But he did return to the United States. He did not abandon the beliefs of rather ultra-Orthodox Judaism. But he now studies at an accredited yeshiva (school) in the U.S. He has improved. His health is better and after much psychological counseling--he has toned-down his fanaticism.
He admits he was brainwashed in Israel, but still believes that just because he was brainwashed doesn't make what they told him untrue. The rabbi here is much more moderate and has gotten him to trim his beard and look more normal. He seems to be happy, but I worry that some day he will wake up and realize that he has abandoned his dreams and aspirations--for the desires and direction of others who have influenced him (i.e. ultra-Orthodox groups). And that by then it may be too late for him to change.
I had given my children training to avoid cults, but never thought to warn them that they needed to be aware of Jewish cults in Israel. Although I am resigned to my son choosing a very different lifestyle than mine, I feel it is a loss. My child can never travel with me, eat in my home--or really be a part of the rest of our family and friends. The hardest part is now I know that this is not what my son actually planned for himself, but rather the direct result of how he was influenced through what began as a vacation trip to Israel.
My earnest hope is that by sharing my personal story--other Jewish parents and families might be more prepared and advise their children accordingly. They need to know about ultra-Orthodox proselytizing in Israel. Specifically--what may be waiting for them at the Western Wall--or to beware of invitations by seemingly friendly Jews who ask them to attend "Shabbat" dinners. Such dinners may include a hidden agenda.