Brothers Geoff Levin (left) and Robbie Levin once played music together in the band People!
Brothers Geoff Levin (left) and Robbie Levin once played music together in the band People!

How Scientology tore apart two Jewish brothers from San Jose

When Geoff Levin and Robbie Levin discovered the Church of Scientology in the 1960s, the brothers felt immediately comfortable, in part, because so many Jews were already involved.

“I noticed it right away,” Robbie said in an interview. Geoff added, “There was a camaraderie and sense of humor and immediate bond. The Jews who went into Scientology never discarded their Judaism. Only if you chose not to come to an event on Saturday would it become a conflict.”

A new documentary, “Brothers Broken,” tells the story of how they got into — and out of — the church. The documentary will premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival on Sunday, Aug. 20, in San Jose. It will also screen on Saturday, Aug. 26, in Mountain View.

The brothers, who are now in their mid-70s, had a typical Jewish upbringing in San Jose. Their family, which leaned toward Conservative practice, attended the city’s Reform Temple Emanu-El in the 1950s. The family observed the holidays, and both brothers celebrated their bar mitzvahs.

Geoff picked up a guitar as a teenager and became a multi-instrumentalist. He went on to play bass with the Black Mountain Boys, one of Jerry Garcia’s bands before the Grateful Dead.

Younger brother Robbie played bass. Together, they formed the psychedelic rock group People!, which had one big hit, “I Love You,” in 1968.

They could have led the freewheeling lives of rock stars, except they dismissed most psychedelic drugs and transcendental meditation as too trendy. They sought something different — and found it in Scientology. Their decision to join the church would affect the rest of their lives.

Both brothers went on to have very successful careers. Geoff remained a musician, creating scores for television shows and commercials. His music accompanied the launch of Apple’s first Macintosh computer.

Robbie became the bass player for teen heartthrob Rick Springfield. He later ran a major clothing company called EZ Sportswear, which later became Melrose Clothing.

While both brothers became immersed in Scientology in their late teens, Robbie stayed in it for only a few years. By the time he left, his older brother was such an integral part of the organization that for him leaving was unthinkable. Geoff needed to “disconnect” from his brother, in Scientology parlance, to stay in the church. The brothers didn’t speak for 28 years.

Founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the early 1950s, Scientology and its Dianetics belief system are variously considered a self-help movement, a new religion or a cult. In the documentary, the brothers describe it as both a “cult” and “brainwashing.”

Many celebrities have been drawn into Scientology — most famously, Tom Cruise — and keep it going by handing over significant portions of their income to ascend the ranks. Many former members, including actress Leah Remini, are fiercely critical of Scientology. Earlier this month, she filed a lawsuit against the church, alleging longtime harassment and defamation.

The brothers don’t talk about their Jewish background in the film or how it might have created an opening for Scientology to take hold. But in an interview with J., they spoke openly about it.

Robbie’s first wife, who was known as “Snooky” in the church and became a high-level official, came from an Orthodox Jewish background. Although they were both deeply immersed in the church at the time, they saw no conflict in holding their wedding in a Conservative shul. And their son became a bar mitzvah in the synagogue where she grew up.

I believe I was instrumental in affecting thousands of people coming into Scientology through my music.

Robbie described theirs as “wonderful parents,” who encouraged the brothers to follow their creative passions and never pressured them to become doctors, lawyers or Ph.D.s like their cousins. But even so, their parents didn’t know how to deal with their sons’ new belief system.

“It was traumatic for them,” Geoff said, especially since it would lead to him severing his relationship with them as well.

Eventually, Geoff’s second marriage fell apart, and he entered into a deep depression. He said that once he was able to see Scientology for what it was, he left the church in 2011 and then publicly severed his relationship with it in 2017. Altogether, he spent 46 years as a Scientologist.

He has two children from his second marriage who were raised in the church. They haven’t spoken to him since he left. He holds out hope that they’ll change their minds someday.

Still, Geoff said, he’s grateful to have his brother back in his life.

“The story of two brothers at odds is a universal story in that it goes all the way back to the Old Testament,” he said.

As for their motivation in making the film, Robbie, who is executive producer, saw it as a good story and a way “to document our history together and our life in a film that could be seen by our kids and grandkids.”

But Geoff, who co-directed it, had a stronger motivation. He felt it was his obligation. It could even be seen as his personal form of teshuvah, or repentance, for leading others into something so destructive.

Geoff created the music that was in a popular ad for Dianetics in the 1980s. (If you hear it in your head as you read this, that’s indeed the one.)

“I believe I was instrumental in affecting thousands of people coming into Scientology through my music,” he said. He composed the tune on his Yamaha keyboard on the spot.

“At the time I was so proud of the success of the commercial,” he said. “How we get a different perspective over time.”

He has another message he wants to impart too.

“I’m 77,” he said. “The importance of family is at the core of it. I want people to know that it’s never too late, and do-overs are possible.”

“Brothers Broken”

4:35 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20, at Hammer Theatre Center, N. 3rd St., San Jose, and 11:45 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at ShowPlace Icon Theatre & Kitchen, 2575 California St., Mountain View. $14,

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."