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.