By COLlive reporter
First published in 1985, Confessions of a Jewish Cultbuster by Rabbi Shea Hecht revealed actual case histories of Jewish youngsters rescued from cults, who had been deprogrammed and returned to their families.
Rabbi Shea, a well-known Jewish community activist in New York, was born to a distinguished family of fourth generation Americans and is one of 12 children of the eminent Rabbi JJ Hecht, OBM, and Rebbetzin Chave Hecht.
The original book and its newly published revised and updated edition discusses his work with deprogramming and intermarriage, under the guidance of his father and the Rebbe.
After several decades as a deprogrammer, and for several years as a talk show host, Rabbi Shea broadened his focus to directing the multi-faceted Jewish educational organization, NCFJE, and has become a sought-after figure in the field of marriage and family counseling, abuse and addiction.
The new 252-page book, published by Mosaica Press, includes many new stories, as Rabbi Hecht tells in an interview with COLlive.com. Excerpts below:
What inspired you to redo the book?
Over the years, people have often approached me to tell me how the book positively impacted them in one way or another. I began toying with the idea of publishing a new, up-to-date version of Cultbuster. Last year, I met a young man who told me that he had read my book 25 years ago, and it had changed the direction of his life. I decided then and there that the book should be updated and reprinted. Many new stories that occurred since the original printing have been added and the original stories have been revised.
In the 70s and 80s, cults were a real problem facing Jewish youth. How do you feel your book is relevant to readers today?
The book has two main sections: cults and intermarriage. As we all know, intermarriage is a tremendous problem facing the Jewish community today. Even within our community, this has r”l become a real threat. In our office alone (NCFJE), we are seeing record-high numbers of kids from Orthodox and even Chassidishe families that marrying out. I hope and believe that the intermarriage stories in my book will help people view this serious issue with greater clarity and help parents in dealing with their children.
What exactly does deprogramming mean?
When we were called upon to rescue a brainwashed young man or woman from a cult, the method we used and was proven as most likely to be successful, was called “deprogramming”. We would basically “grab” the kid against his will and keep him in a safe house for several days, or at times even weeks. We had a team taking shifts spending all day and night influencing the person’s psyche until we finally pierced the brainwashed “bubble” and reawakened the person. Our goal was to enable him to use his free will to make decisions about his life, and to no longer be a mindless slave to the cult leaders.
How did you become a cult-deprogrammer?
My father, Rabbi Yaakov Yehudah (J.J.) Hecht, OBM, a true student and chossid of the Rebbe, would often brag with a smile, “The Rebbe himself trained me!” My father worked directly under the Rebbe’s guidance beginning in 1942, eight years before the Rebbe became Rebbe, and received detailed instructions and guidance on how to deal with specific issues that came up in the anti-Shmad work and in his work against intermarriage.
When I began working for my father in 1975, he already had over 30 years of experience in these areas and had dealt with hundreds of cases. In my early years, my father acted as my mentor and case manager. I would discuss all of my cases in detail with him. I depended on him so much, that often, when a meeting was not going the way I had planned, I would excuse myself and run into his office for some quick inspiration on how to proceed.
While acknowledging that so many years of life experience is certainly a strong background, have you had any formal training?
I agree that my 35 years of experience is my strongest qualification. As it says, “Ein chacham k’baal hanisayon”- “There is no one as wise as one who is experienced”. Having said that, I do like to continue learning and growing, and I have read and continue to read dozens of books and articles that deal with my field. I have also attended NYU’s School of Continuing Education for some courses, the Rutgers School on Alcoholism and I am a student of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a method often used by therapists).
Is there one case that you consider your greatest success story? Have you had any upsetting failures?
How can I possibly differentiate one success story from another? What can be greater than seeing a mother and son tearfully reunite after years of estrangement due to the vicious brainwashing of the cult? What stronger success can there be than a daughter almost lost to the Jewish nation returning back to her faith and to her home? Each story strengthened my resolve to continue what I was working on, regardless of the difficulties and the dangers involved. As far as failures? Sure, I’ve had plenty of those too… unfortunately. Each failure gave me new urgency to work even harder.
What was your scariest experience?
Well, seeing police helicopters circling above my head as I relate in one of my new stories was a definite moment of panic! Another close call was when two FBI agents visited my office in Crown Heights, which was connected to one of my intermarriage cases.
Who is your intended audience?
I would say that the book is most relevant for college-age kids from all backgrounds and their parents as well. The truth is that we all encounter, in one way or another, people who are being seduced by other religions or ways of life. Many groups hide behind a banner of social issues, but often have greater, more pervasive agendas. It is all of our responsibility to educate and arm ourselves with a greater understanding and knowledge of what we are facing, and to take action when a Jewish soul is crying out for help! If you don’t feel capable, call on someone who deals with such issues, but don’t stand by quietly and wait for disaster to strike.
In recent years, you have become very active in the field of shalom bayis – marriage counseling. Do you feel that your past experiences contribute to your abilities in this area?
My past experiences have helped me truly recognize and understand the differences between desire and addiction, pleasure and abuse and love and victimization.
You are a veteran advocate for abuse victims in the Jewish community and helped troubled youth for over 35 years. What word of advice can you offer parents today?
First and foremost, exposure to the internet to young people in our community is too great. The impact on our children is far deeper than we imagine. Parents should recognize that intermarriage and embracing of foreign ideologies often begins with information and connections initiated through the seductive lure of the internet.
And finally, as I illustrate in my book with a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the most important thing we can all do for our children is to show them more love on a daily basis. We can never hug our children enough!
The all new edition of Confessions of a Jewish Cultbuster is now on sale at your local Jewish bookstore and online at amazon.com