Jewish Parents Once Panicked About Teens Joining Cults — But No Longer

How Did Communal Freak-Out Fade Away So Completely?

Enlightenment: George Harrison of the Beatles poses with fellow Hare Krishnas.
Getty Images
Enlightenment: George Harrison of the Beatles poses with fellow Hare Krishnas.

By Lenore Skenazy

Published May 27, 2014, issue of May 30, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

In 1981, the New York Times wrote about a source of parental anguish that had been growing for about a decade. “From across the United States… American Jews face a special problem: a disproportionate number of their young are defecting to a proliferation of cults.”

The Moonies, Hare Krishnas, gurus, yogis — all of these loomed large and menacing back then.

I was in college in ’81, and while I didn’t have any friends who started shaking tambourines on street corners (well, the son of a family friend was, but that was it), cults were simply a part of the landscape. Walk through any airport and you were likely to be offered a flower by a blissed out Hare Krishna who just might’ve been your Camp Ramah counselor a few years earlier — or so it seemed.

A rabbi in the Times article said that while Jews represented 2.7% of the population, in some cults they made up 25-30% of the members. B’nai B’rith opened a cult awareness program in 1979. No wonder nice, middle-class parents were so scared!

And now — poof! — we’re not. I’ve got a son about to go off to college and it recently occurred to me that one worry I really don’t have is: What if he becomes a Moonie? (That’s the rather pejorative term for the followers of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who created the South Korean Unification Church in 1954.)

So, how did this happen? How did the fear of cults grow so colossal only to go the way of macramé? Turns out, there is no simple answer.

“Denominational religion was caught flatfooted in the ’60s,” says Clark Strand, a Buddhist teacher, former Zen monk, and author of 2014’s “Waking the Buddha: How the Most Dynamic and Empowering Buddhist Movement in History is Changing our Concept of Religion.” As young people became disillusioned with almost all traditional power structures — government, education, and the military, of course — religion was not spared. Students went searching for alternatives, just as the gurus were springing up and ready to “enlighten” them. Hey, it worked for the Beatles.

“It’s like when you’re recently divorced, or recently come of age,” says Strand. “There was a kind of honeymoon phase with Asian religions. It was a time of infatuation with all things exotic and eastern. And when you’re infatuated you have a great deal of enthusiasm but not much reserve, so you get in over your head.”

Strand himself joined a Zen group at age 19 in 1977. He left 14 years later, at age 33.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.