Challenging Cults, Cultivating Family


The Greater Phoenix Jewish News/February, 1989
By Elaine DeRosa

Some young people get jobs and move out of the house to establish their own identities. Others seek independence at college; new friends, new ideas.

Still others join cults.

Rick Ross, who grew up in Phoenix and has strong ties to the local Jewish community, has become known nationally for his work as a deprogrammer - for drawing people away from cults and back to the families they left behind.

Although the majority of his clients are not Jewish, as one of few Jewish deprogrammers - he estimates three out of about 30 people in the United States who work at the job full-time - Ross, who lives part-time in Guadalajara, Mexico, and part-time in Phoenix, says he fills a special need in the local and national Jewish communities.

"American society is very complex. People long for a simple, less complex life," Ross says. "They want to belong to a group with all the answers because they don't want to have to make decisions."

"And some Jews want to identify with the majority and not always carry the baggage and label of being Jewish. They also want to establish an identity separate from their family."

Hence, many Jews are lured in by cults. But in the process of leaving their families, "they break away from what they consider to be one controlling environment into another controlling environment. They want unconditional love and acceptance, but they find that with a cult, it becomes very conditional.

"They leave what they perceive as a cold environment of mainline religions, but they fail to recognize that the hugging and loving in the cults - what we call 'love bombing' - is not the real or sincere kind of affection they might achieve through their own synagogue or church.

"There are so many lonely people in a highly transient society who are susceptible to cults," Ross notes.

The majority of cults are Bible-based, Ross says, and many are Fundamentalist Christian groups. "It's not just Jews for Jesus that targets the Jewish community."

In the Valley, the groups number in the hundreds, Ross estimates, and "every major cult has a building here and is in full operation." Among them he includes EST, Life Spring, 3HO (Happy, Holy, Healthy), the Unification Church, Eckankar, Scientology and Jehovah's Witness.

But "instead of focusing on who's who and listing names", Ross explains, "it's more meaningful to talk about the characteristics of certain groups."

Cult group characteristics include; representing themselves as the "exclusive purveyors of salvation", having authoritarian structures that govern every aspect of members' lives, including dating practices, medical attention and contact with families; presenting the world in terms of "they" and "we," and portraying outsiders as evil; using thought reform or mind control; and having an authoritarian leader who claims to be a prophet or divine.

Ross estimates that 30 percent of his clients are Jewish and observes that "the Jewish community traditionally has been an early warning system for the mainstream community."

Mainline Christians also are threatened, as are Mormons, Ross finds.

Thus, a brochure he ghostwrote in 1983 for Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, "What in God's name is going On in Arizona?", was endorsed by groups including the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and Catholic Diocese of Phoenix and the Presbyterian bishop.

Ross' own recognition of the problem in 1982, when his grandmother, who was living in a Valley Jewish nursing home, was approached by "missionaries trying to convert the residents. They were talking about burning in hell."

These conversion attempts frightened her, stirring up memories of pogroms in her native Poland, he says.

"I felt there was no reason for this lady to be upset by these people in a Jewish nursing home. I approached the director, who was shocked to find out what was going on."

It turned out that some of the employed had links to "radical Pentecostal missionary groups," including one group that targets Jews for conversion, he says. Some of the employees were fired as a result of Kivel's investigation into the matter, Ross says.

Ross also became involved with a Community Relations Council sub-committee on missionaries and cults and later joined two national committees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Cults and Missionaries and Inter-religious Affairs.

In addition, Ross encountered cults through his job with Jewish Family and Children's Service from 1983-86. He was coordinator for the Jewish Prisoners Program, which he founded, and which provides religious and social services for Jews in prison. He became chairman of B'nai B'rith International Coalition of Jewish Prisoner Systems and of the Religious Advisory Committee for the Arizona Department of Corrections.

With the Religious Advisory Committee, he helped institute guidelines regarding proselytizing in the prisons. "The system is flooded with cult activity," he found. "How terrible to be a Jewish prisoner and have preachers coming to your cell, and you can't do anything! Prisoners should have the right to their privacy and the right to their own religion."

Working with Lois Tuchler, then the director of JFCS, Ross became in-house specialist on "any and all religious groups or cults," he says. "I often worked with the staff psychologist, and I went to seminars. I also wrote 'Cults and missionaries: Guidelines for Parents, Communities and Congregations' for UAHC.'"

Under UAHC auspices, he has lectured all over the country. Los Angeles resident harry Helft, lay chairman of the UAHC Committee on Cults and Missionaries, says Ross has served well on his committee, remembering in particular a seminar Ross conducted in Florida. Ross also has taught courses on cults for the local Bureau of Jewish Education.

Ross' mother, Etty, recently retired after 30 years' employment with the Jewish Community Center. He and his parents belong to Temple Beth Israel, and Ross says his affiliations with the Jewish community have "added impact and given me the ability to work with Jewish families."

In 1986, he left JFCS to work as a deprogrammer, - or exit counselor - on a private basis. He attracts clients through a referral network of many different agencies, he says.

Now, 36, Ross lives in "restful, inexpensive" Guadalajara much of the year, where he writes books related to his field.

But his business is based in Phoenix, and since 1986, he has handled more than 75 cases, traveling nationwide to work with his clients.

Usually, families hire him to deprogram loved ones. Most of those who join cults are university students between the ages of 18 and 26 and are "interested in examining spiritual values and goals."

But "frequently, I'm working with senior citizens, or even kids from 10 to 14," Ross says.

Ross says his procedure in deprogramming is first to consult with family members, who then, if they can, help convince the cult member to talk to Ross. He works with his subjects only on a voluntary basis, rather than kidnapping them as some deprogrammers do. "A lot of times, I'm a surprise to the cult member. For instance, I'm at their house when they come home on spring break. The family and I may have to use strategy - not give (the client) advance notice."

If the initial process succeeds, Ross then sits with the client and the family and discusses the reasons the cult member has joined that group. "We discuss how it has affected the individual's life and his relationship with his parents, and I present information on the group that usually the person is unaware of."

Ross spends two to five days with the client, during which he sometimes finds it helpful to have a former member of the cult talk to the client, as well.

Despite their defensiveness at the outset, Ross finds that clients ultimately agree to talk to him "because they recognize the value of truth. They do want to know the facts."

Those who respond to his efforts "begin to use their critical thinking capacities again. They come to realize the cult group is destructive and controlling."

Often, those who leave the cults avoid any kind of religious affiliation for awhile, Ross adds.

He claims a success rate of eight out of 10. "I have my share of failures. Sometimes, the cult is not the only problem. Sometimes, I'm dealing with a dysfunctional family with a history of problems."

His job can be dangerous. Ross says he has received death threats and twice has been physically attacked. "Messianic Jews attacked me at a Church when I was talking to the Pastor." Another time, "at Civic Plaza, I was surrounded by almost 100 members of a group whose preacher threatened me." And once, "a group sent a member to threaten my mother at her place of employment."

Ross has been interviewed by numerous newspapers and appeared on national television shows including Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jesse Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, and Phil Donahue, and on dozens of radio talk shows.

His greatest satisfaction, he says, is seeing the results of his efforts. "When I first begin the deprogramming process, the subjects are depressed and unhappy. They have been beaten down and have low self-esteem. It's a joy to see them smile and be happy and be rejoined with their families."

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