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September 9, 2000   VNN6229  Comment on this story

Let My People Go


USA, Sep 9 (VNN) — by David Lipschultz

Chaim Levin was greeted at Miami International Airport by a raucous group of Krishna Consciousness followers.

"Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare," they chanted in deafening synchronicity.

Although he is not a follower of the group, Levin has close ties to prominent members of the Krishna organization and was welcomed as an important "friend of the movement." He was given unlimited access to the group, or ashram, and the choice of his own personal servant.

“He said that despite his many successful deprogrammings, they have not discovered the true purpose of his visits.”

His choice: a 22-year-old man who had been deeply involved with the group for over four years. What the Krishnas didn't know was that he was there to take the man out.

Levin is a cultbuster. A 39-year-old Orthodox Jew and former Notre Dame linebacker whom friends call "Rabbi," Levin travels the world infiltrating cults. His aim is to return members to both their families and their Jewish heritage.

Levin first became drawn to the vocation while studying in a yeshiva, or Jewish seminary. Because of his exposure to Christianity at Notre Dame, yeshiva rabbis asked him to speak with a former student who had joined "Jews for Jesus." When he succeeded in getting the person out of the group and back into the seminary, Levin realized he had a talent for Jewish outreach. Years later, he would help bring back followers of Rev. Sun Young Moon, Bagwan Shree Rashneesh, of Krishna Consciousness and other lesser-known groups.

An imposing, heavy-set man, Levin walks with the careful swagger of an ex-football player. In his apartment, a rabbi's collection of religious books fills an entire wall, while Bob Dylan and The Band hum throughout the house. It is perhaps this synthesis of traditional and contemporary cultures that helps him empathize with clients who suffer from spiritual emptiness in the modern world.

Smoking incessantly, he explained how he removes people from cults. Rather than subscribing to a specific routine, he handles each case individually, while holding to some fundamental principles.

"It's not like making a hamburger," Levin said, "these are people." Levin said he typically gets involved with cult members only at the initiative of their parents. And his first move is to lay strict ground rules. As a firm believer in Jewish observance, he insists that parents bring some form of Jewish foundation into the home.

"It could be as simple as a candle on shabbos [a ritual to bring in the Sabbath], but it's something to bring unity and purpose into the house." Without that foundation, "the kid will come back to a vacuum," Levin said. "And how long will it take for him to go somewhere else?"

If the parents don't agree to at least this modicum of Judaism, he refuses to proceed.

Once the agreement is made, he extensively researches the cult's philosophy and major tenets.

"I need to be able to talk to not only my assignment in his terms, but to the leaders of the cult as well," he said. "It immediately gains everybody's respect ... I also become less conspicuous."

Then, he enters the group. Levin said he finds it easy to enter cults, as they are eager for new recruits. Once inside, he proceeds with caution, never revealing his intentions to anyone, including the assignment.

He has also developed an intricate web of connections within the Krishna Consciousness movement, and is one of the few non-initiates with considerable prominence. He said that despite his many successful deprogrammings, they have not discovered the true purpose of his visits.

"Many people at the top of the movement are Jewish," said Levin. And since he was known as a rabbi, "they immediately became attached to me." They asked him to explain to devotees the compatibility between Judaism and Krishna--however far-fetched.

Whereas Judaism stresses worship of one ethereal God, Krishna emphasizes devotion to earthly representations of a deity.

Krishna is "the antithesis, it's pure idolatry," Levin said. "But it was a good way to get on the inside with high level access.

"I'm very tight with Howard Resnick, one of the leading Krishna gurus in the world. Just by getting his backing I am immediately in with the top people in any ashram around the world. I am protected and have the respect to start talking to the person I need to."

Last summer in Israel, members of a satanic cult were accused of murdering a child and animals. Some cults, like

On one occasion, Levin entered a split-off Krishna cult -- Kirtananda's infamous ashram in West Virginia -- a few weeks after two murdered bodies were found on the ashram's grounds.

"I had to sneak my very scared assignment out hidden under a blanket directly to the bus station," he said. "I returned, thinking it was completely discreet, when I saw the cult's enforcer [convicted murderer Frank Dresher] about to enter my apartment." He quickly hid under the bed.

"I could see an automatic weapon in his hand, with him yelling 'Where is the son-of-a-bitch?'," Levin said. "I knew he came to kill me. Immediately after, I left."

Once Levin safely infiltrates a group, he begins the delicate process of talking his subject out. Though members have different reasons for being in cults, they usually have one thing in common.

"They all sever contact with their past and usually have something very destructive and unresolved in it," he said.

"I was going to be a monk," said Levin's former servant from the Florida ashram, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I was on an individual spiritual pursuit, disconnected entirely from my family and past. I wanted to be [Star Trek's Dr.] Spock, totally emotionless and ideologically driven."

Bernie Stein, chief psychologist for Israel's Department of Education, said, "Most kids in cults come from unhealthy family backgrounds. They don't feel loved, have a lot of family problems and look for alternatives."

While in Florida, Levin spent the month sleeping on floors and bowing to rocks, slowly digging through the mental carnage of the former traditional Jew turned Krishna monk.

Finally, the servant revealed his personal sorrows, opening the wound Levin knew how to close: a divisive family life. Through Judaism, Levin showed him the way back home.

"I told him that whatever your ideology is, you have to resolve things with your family to become whole," Levin said. He was trying to plant the seed in the man's head, so that he would go home and explore it. The emphasis on family, according to Levin, is essential to Judaism; he knew that if he tried to resolve things with his family, it would be the first step in returning to Judaism.

Eventually, Levin's urgings took root. The man decided it was time to return to Israel, never knowing the purpose of Levin's visit.

"I had absolutely no idea he was trying to take me out of something," the servant said. "If it weren't for Chaim, I would still be in the Krishnas. I owe a great debt... to God that he has, through Rabbi Chaim, given me the tools to return to my roots and become the man my God and my parents have always desired me to be."

Some people question the practice of deprogramming cult members only to encourage them to adhere to another ideology.

Moshe Dan, a former secular Jew and cultbuster, gave up on secular life after dealing with so many lost souls.

"I found that they all were looking and needed some direction," he said of his former clients. "I learned from them that I wanted to get closer to Judaism."

Stein said he recognizes the merits of encouraging people to find a mainstream spiritual direction.

"I'm not religious but it is certainly more positive, it's healthier," he said.

And after years of battling with faith, Levin had a simple retort.

"Every Jew has a Jewish soul; I try in my work to bring them back into themselves," says Levin. "Why should I, or anyone else, be ashamed to be Jewish? I'm a Jew and I'm proud."

David Lipschultz, MIA '96, spent last year in Israel working for the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development and Jerusalem Report magazine. ------------------------------------------------------------------------

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