Panel warns teens about cults and charismatic leaders

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It was like a scene from a TV after-school special.

Almost 15 years ago Michael Lisman was walking toward his home in Texas when a van stopped in front of him, four men jumped out and pulled him in.

Inside the vehicle his mother sat crouched, crying. "Please don't hurt my baby," she sobbed.

Seized by his parents, Lisman finally left the Unification Church, more commonly known as the cult of the Moonies, at age 27.

Today Lisman is 41, lives in Berkeley and attends religious services at Kehilla Community Synagogue and Aquarian Minyan. He is the director of social services for Gladman Psychiatric Treatment Center in Oakland. And he's a cult educator.

On Tuesday, Jan. 30, Lisman joins a panel aimed at teaching young Jews about cults at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. Titled "Cults: An Ever-Present Danger," the dinner and discussion program is sponsored by the Teen Leadership Connection of the ALSJCC, Peninsula Sinai Congregation, Congregation Kol Emeth, Temple Beth Jacob and Congregation Beth Am.

"There's a significant number of Jewish youths getting hooked in cults. They feel alienation, lack of relevance and spirituality in Judaism," Lisman said.

"On the other hand, it's the Jewish values of healing ourselves and the world and an open-mindedness [that] lead Jews into cults," Lisman said.

However, many people feel immune to the influence of cults. They view such sensational institutions as the Waco, Texas, Branch Davidian Church as an anomaly and hold tight to the belief that it couldn't happen to them.

That's what Janet White thought.

White, who will join the panel, is a 25-year-old student living in Concord. Her best friend died in Waco at the age of 20.

She and this friend used to laugh, White recalled, "about everyone thinking she was in a cult. I told her that if this was what she wanted, [then she should] `go for it.' It was the last thing I ever said to her."

Stories like White's and Lisman's, and an educational seminar called "Smashing the Idols," alerted Peninsula educators that cults had not died along with puka-shell necklaces, polyester leisure suits and other distasteful remnants of the 1970s.

The situation was quite the contrary.

Some 5,000 to 7,000 cults persist in the United States today and 150 messianic cults specifically target Jews around the world, according to several sources on cults.

Susan Protter, director of the ALSJCC's Teen Leadership Connection, is especially concerned about Jews for Jesus. "They know there are so many Jews who are Jewishly illiterate and [they] prey upon this," she said.

However, the message Protter hopes to give Peninsula Jewish teens is that "no matter how much training, education and Torah you know, everyone is vulnerable. Don't get cocky or feel protected because you're committed.

"Jews are highly represented in many cults in America," Protter said, though no exact figures about Jewish involvement in cults are available.

Protter said Jews can defend against the threat of cults through education, and by making friends with other Jews and thus feeling part of a community.

For four weeks before the forum on cults, each sponsoring organization and synagogue will teach cult language, the method of their manipulation and mind control, and criteria with which to differentiate cults from religions.

Those questions include: Is the group extremist? Do members separate you from family and friends? Do you suspect a hidden agenda? Are finances open to scrutiny? Do members answer your questions or are they vague? Is there a charismatic leader who deifies him- or herself?

The panel will also provide compelling first-person accounts by former cult members. A dinner hour allows Jewish teens to socialize and build their own personal networks.

"Many teens say they don't believe in God. That's developmentally appropriate," Protter said. "However, that doesn't mean they can't be a part of the Jewish community. Teens are looking for acceptance and community, which cults appear to offer."

But "Judaism invites you to question and be introspective," she added.

Lisman wishes his childhood religious-school teachers had imparted the same message. It might have saved him from the Moonies.

"I was raised in a Conservative home. My mom taught Hebrew school. I went to religious school six hours a week. We kept kosher. But I had a lot of questions about contradictions in the Torah," Lisman said.

"No one was willing to engage me in conversations about why, if `thou shalt not kill,' was Joshua sent to Jericho to kill every man, woman and child?

"I had relevant questions. I wanted to heal myself and heal the world. Nobody ever said `that's very Jewish. That's tikkun olam.'"