Cult vs. Non-Cult Jewish Families: Factors Influencing Conversion

Cultic Studies Journal Vol.4. No.2/Vol.5 No.1 Double Issue (1987/1988) pages 2-22

Cult vs. Non-Cult Jewish Families: Factors Influencing Conversion

Mark I. Sirkin, Ph. D.

Department of Psychiatry, University of Rochester Medical Center

Bruce A. Grellong, Ph. D.

Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, New York


This study investigated factors predisposing individuals to conversion by cult groups. Forty-two Jewish families with at least one child in a cult group were compared with 45 Jewish families of similar SES with no cult involvement. The Family Environment Scale (Moos & Moos, 1981), a questionnaire, and a semi-structured interview were used to collect data from parents about their child and family. Results indicated that, although similar in many respects, the two groups differed in three important ways. Discriminant analysis demonstrated that, in the cult-involved group, the child was more likely to have had a history of psychological difficulties and problems in living; the family tended to be less emotionally expressive and implicitly more critical; and, for these young adults, religious solutions for life's difficulties seemed to be a viable option. The transition to adulthood seemed particularly difficult for the cult-involved person.

The news media continue to report about cultic proselytizing and recruitment, as well as the emotional and sometimes financial distress experienced by the cult recruit and his or her family (e.g., Brooks, 1986; Conason & McGarrahan, 1986; Hoffman, 1986). In response, programs have appeared which serve as information centers, referral agencies, and counseling centers for former group members and/or families. The Cult Hot-line and Clinic, jointly sponsored by the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services and the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York City, is one such program. It provides information about nontraditional religious groups and counseling services to former group members as well as to families whose lives have been disrupted by the loss of a son or daughter to such a group.

This paper reports on a study at the Cult Hot-line and Clinic. The study contrasted parental perceptions of family patterns and children's developmental history of a group of parents whose children were involved in cults with a group whose children were comparable in many respects, but who were not involved. The parents of young people who were cult-involved had applied to the clinic in response to their own distress or belief that they and/or their child had a problem The noncult-involved parents were volunteers recruited as a contrast group for the cult-involved parents.

Viewed as a mental health problem, cult involvement poses unique difficulties for researchers and clinicians. The groups themselves can be viewed from various perspectives depending on one's classification schema (Sirkin, Markowitz, & Grellong, 1983). Groups vary according to doctrine as well as to practices of isolation, coercion, deception, and alteration of personal cognitive and emotional development. While membership in such groups is readily acknowledged as deviant by society (Marciano, 198 1), the presence of individual psychopathology, among members or as a factor accounting for entry into a group, has been hotly debated (Robbins & Anthony, 1982). Although cult involvement may be fully ego-syntonic for the involved individual, it may be dystonic for the rest of the family system. That is, family members, especially parents, may experience great distress when relationships are strained or ties broken due to involvement in extremist groups. Because cult-involved individuals are often unresponsive to those not overtly sympathetic to their strongly held beliefs, they are usually unavailable for research purposes. Therefore, parents have been used in the present study as a source of information about the cult-involved individual and the family system in general. While acknowledging that data directly from the child might differ from parental reports, previous research has indicated that parents, as knowledgeable informants, are reliable and valid sources of information about their children (Moskowitz & Schwarz, 1982; Schwarz, Barton-Henry, & Pruzinsky, 1985). The parents who participated in the present study are representative of a group that views cult involvement as a problem requiring professional intervention and is willing to participate in the research project. The cult-involved sample, then, represents a self-selected subsample of the total number of parents affected by cults. Table I provides a list of the many and varied groups with which the clinical sample was involved.

This study explored three general areas of clinical interest: (1) developmental history of the young person; (2) family relations and patterns of interaction; and (3) changes in the young person's life just prior to cult involvement.

Table I

Groups Studied

Individual Developmental History

Data about individual developmental history allowed us to look for evidence of psychopathology and to assess, using a variety of criteria, psychosocial functioning over several development periods. Psychosocial functioning refers here to the individual's mastery or adaptation to the changing demands of family, school, and peer relations as he or she grows. The study examined the nature and quality of the child’s efforts to meet expectations for school performance, maintain friendships, or make career choices.

Investigators have found that a relatively high percentage (25-60%) of cult members had previously sought psychotherapeutic treatment (Clark, 1979; Galanter & Buckley, 1978; Galanter, Rabkin, Rabkin, & Deutsch, 1979; Levine & Salter, 1976). Our first hypothesis, therefore, was that the cult-involved group, compared to the contrast group, would more likely have sought psychotherapy during childhood or adolescence, and would have evidenced more impaired psychosocial functioning.

Family Relations and Patterns of Interaction

Differences between the family relations and structure of the cult-involved and noncult-involved families were also explored. Data from families are scarce in the cult literature, but Schwartz and Kaslow (1979, 198 1) have observed that the family environment does contribute to cult vulnerability. They note:

in some cases, seemingly exemplary parents hold out a model of perfection that their children are unable to fulfill; in other situations the [family] closeness much admired by friends is a pseudo-mutual one (Wynne, Ryckoff, Day, & Hirsch, 1958) or an expression of an overly enmeshed family (Minuchin, Montalvo, Guerney, Rosman, & Schumer 1967). (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1979, p. 17)

The family's ethnic identity may also contribute to vulnerability. Some investigators have observed that a disproportionate number of cult-involved individuals are Jewish (Schwartz, 1978; Marciano, 1981). Are there familial patterns similar to those above or patterns unique to Jewish families that account for this disproportion? Herz and Rosen (1982) observe that Jewish families, in general, place an emphasis on the centrality of the family, intellectual and financial success, verbal expression of feelings, and suffering as a shared value. In particular, the emphasis on success, especially when the demand is implicit and non-specific, may be a source of vulnerability in Jewish families. As Herz and Rosen (1982) have noted, “ matter how successful Jewish children are, they never quite feel successful enough when compared to the parental and cultural expectations they have internalized." (p. 385).

In the present study, all of the participating families were Jewish, precluding a comparison with non-Jewish families, whether cult-involved or not. An additional factor which should be kept in mind when interpreting the data is that the contrast families were recruited from Jewish organizations, and may have been more actively involved in the community than the average Jewish family. Nevertheless, Jewish families share many common values which may similar conflicts and contribute to increased vulnerability. Furthermore, the average Jewish family (Herz & Rosen, 1982) and the average cult-involved family (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1979) appear similar on the surface. therefore, it was difficult to predict a priori, exactly how these differences would manifest. It is only against this common backdrop of shared cultural norms that any differences between cult- and noncult-involved Jewish families can be interpreted.

The second hypothesis of this study, then, predicted that the cult- and noncult- involved families would differ significantly on some family measures, the expectation being that the cult-involved families would tend to place higher expectations on their children and be less tolerant of expressed differences.

Pre-Cult Stress

In their review of the literature, Clark, Langone, Schecter, and Daly (1981) report that “the majority of cultists were dissatisfied with one or more important areas of their precult lives” (p. 46). This dissatisfaction may stem from purely practical problems in living (i.e., quantitatively more stress), or may reflect a lack of resilience to the ups and downs of everyday life, i.e., difficulty negotiating the developmental tasks of late adolescence (Erikson, 1966). Such difficulties may stimulate intrapsychic conflicts, which, when combined with normal stress, leave the individual especially susceptible to cult recruitment.

The latter hypothesis, which has been explored in the present research, explains cult vulnerability in the context of late adolescent or young adult development Gitelson and Reed (198 1) have found support for a similar hypothesis, although with a relatively small number of subjects (N = 7). Levine (1984) reports that cultists “are not brainwashed or weird, but neither are they quite whole” (P. 26), while Singer (1979) states, “many participants joined these religious cults during periods of depression and confusion, when they had a sense that life was meaningless” (p. 72).

Presuming that an interaction of intrapsychic dynamics and stressful life events, rather than the life events themselves, leaves one susceptible to cult recruitment, the third hypothesis of this study was that parental reports would demonstrate significantly more stressful life events among cult-involved individuals in contrast to individuals not involved in cults.



The cult-involved group consisted of 42 families who had at one time consulted the Cult Hot-line and Clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services about their child's cult involvement and who agreed to participate in the research.” Only Jewish families were included in the present study. One-parent and divorced or remarried families were not excluded and constituted 29% of the sample.

For the purposes of comparison, a group, which we called “contrast” families, was recruited through organizations such as Hadassah and the Organization for Rehabilitation and Training (ORT), through synagogues, and through newspaper advertisements. Contrast families were recruited on the basis of the following characteristics: a) Jewish families with two to four children one of whom was between the ages of 19-27, b) the children have had some college, and c) both parents were at least high school graduates. Forty-five families who met these qualifications agreed to participate in this study. Again, no effort was made to control for one-parent, divorced or remarried families, who constituted 18% of the contrast sample.

A target child was chosen as a point of focus for interviews with the contrast families to create a closer parallel to the cult-involved families. This child was required to be between 19-27 and to be in or have completed college. If more than one child in the family met these conditions, one of the eligible children was chosen randomly using a random numbers table. This target child was the point of reference for parents in the contrast group when discussing developmental history and stressful life events.


The cult-involved and contrast (noncult-involved) parents first completed a set of questionnaires sent to their homes. Next, a personal interview was scheduled with the parents (or parent) and one of the trained research staff team. The research instruments included.-

Family Environment Scale (FES). The FES (Moos & Moos, 1981) is a measure of the perceived family environment It assesses the interpersonal relationships among family members (Relationship Dimension), the directions of personal growth stressed by the family (Personal Dimension), and the organizational structure of the family (System Maintenance Dimension). The scale consists of 90 true-false statements divided equally among 10 subscales which constitute these three major dimensions.

1. Due to the large number of questions asked and the interview format itself, some questions were not answered by some participants. Rather than lose all information from these subjects, the decision was made to proceed with data analyses despite instances of missing data. (See Table 2 and Table 6 for a more precise breakdown.)

Family Questionnaire. This measure, developed by the investigators, comprised straightforward questions concerning the child's background (childhood, school, work, social and health history), the family's health history, religious affiliation, and demographics (marital status, education, income). An adaptation of the questionnaire prepared for the contrast families removed all the items pertaining specifically to cult involvement.

Parent Interview. The interview explored the parents' knowledge of the cult, their reaction to their child's involvement, details concerning the child's background, and the parents' concerns about their child's school, work, peer relations, changes in lifestyle, and stressful events preceding cult involvement. For contrast families the interview format removed those items pertaining specifically to cult involvement.

Statistical Analysis

The data were analyzed in two steps. The first step involved descriptive and simple statistics, including percentages and, for the Family Environment Scale, the calculation of multivariate and univariate F-tests (see p. 8). Although I tests were calculated for differences between cult and contrast groups, these data were not reported. This was decided because two basic assumptions of the t test were frequently violated, i.e., independence from test to test and homogeneity of variance, and thus these data were unreliable. Percentage data reported were for purposes of description rather than hypothesis testing.

The second step involved multivariate statistical analyses including Discriminant analysis. The latter was used both to collapse the data into composite variables and to subject these composite variables to more rigorous analysis.


Descriptive Data Analysis

Demographics. The two groups were found to be generally rather similar on such demographic variables as parent education and socioeconomic status. The contrast group was somewhat more affluent than the cult-involved group. Fifty- four percent (n = 22) of cult-involved young people were male and 46% (n = 19) were female. The contrast sample consisted of 58% males (n = 26) and 42% females (n = 19). The cult-involved person was, on the average, six years older than the contrast focus child at the time of the interview. However, the average age at the time of cult entry was 22, which compares favorably to the average age of the contrast focus child, which was 23. For the cult-involved sample, the ages ranged from 15-32, whereas the age range for the contrast group was 19-28.

Many of the data discussed in the following sections are summarized in Table 2 and Table 3.

Table 2

Descriptive Statistics of Individual Variables Used in Linear Analyses

* Letter indicates the composite variable, or factor, to which each individual variable was assigned (see p. 9): V = vulnerability, F = family, and S = search.

Table 3

Individual Variable Means and Standard Deviations by Group

Variable Group

Individual Psychosocial Functioning. Variables relevant to individual psychosocial functioning indicated some similarities between the two groups, but also important differences with regard to previous psychotherapy and teenage problems. Specifically, 62% of cult-involved people had had psychotherapy prior to joining the cult, while only 33% of the contrast group had had psychotherapy. The parents' perception of difficulty with their children, rated on a scale from very easy to very difficulty varied during development stages. No differences between groups were found when rating difficulty with children as babies, up to five years, or during latency, six to twelve years. During teenage years, however, differences between groups did emerge with cult parents perceiving their teenage children as more difficult than did the contrast parents. These data support the first hypothesis predicting more psychosocial difficulties for the cult-involved group prior to cult involvement.

Academically, both groups performed quite well with a combined grade point average of 3.24 (high B's) and no significant differences between groups. All young people had finished high school and all had some college, with some having finished college, some continuing, and a minority having dropped out.

There were no differences in the reported number or quality of friendships between cult and contrast groups. Both sets of parents reported an average number of two to three after-school activities per child during high school. There were no differences in number of jobs or amount of time worked at each job.

Parents exhibited some inconsistency in their knowledge of their children's romantic involvements. Specifically, 24% of the cult parents failed to report any romantic involvements at all for their children prior to cult involvement, while only 11% of the contrast parents reported nothing. This may mean that cult parents simply knew less of this information than the contrast parents. However, it may represent a real difference in dating behavior between the two groups-

Family relations and patterns of interaction. The Family Environment Scale indicated that there was a significant difference between cult and contrast families (multivariate F = 2.81, p. <.006). The scales which contributed significantly to this effect were Expressiveness (univariate F = 7.66, p <.007) and Intellectual-Cultural Orientation (univariate F = 7.66, p <.0.45). The means for these two scales indicate that cult families were lower on Expressiveness but higher on Intellectual-Cultural Orientation.

The two groups of families differed in other ways also. The parents in the contrast group indicated more satisfaction with their child in general and also around more specific issues, e.g., satisfaction with the child's past job performance. These data support the second hypothesis predicting differences between the two sets of families in our sample.

On a number of indices such as synagogue attendance, religious school attendance, and degree of orthodoxy, contrast families indicated greater religiosity than cult families. This is not surprising considering that the contrast families were drawn from a sample of people actively working in the Jewish community. More surprising, however, was the finding that the cult-involved families had more orthodox relatives and more relatives in cults.

Pre-cult stress. Changes in the young person's life just prior to cult involvement were investigated by examining explicit life dissatisfactions and stressors 12 months prior to cult involvement for the cult-involved group and 12 months prior to the interview for the contrast group. Cult parents reported that their cult-involved child was explicitly dissatisfied with some aspect of his or her life (74%) as opposed to only 38% of the contrast parents. The parents of those in cults noted that the children had experienced a significant loss (e.g., death of a friend or close relative, the end of a romantic relationship, etc.) in the year prior to joining the cult. Those who joined cults also changed colleges more frequently than the contrast group. Finally, 23% of the cult-involved young people had had previous experiences with other cult groups. The third hypothesis, predicting no differences in proximal precult stress, was not supported. Nevertheless, the interactional hypothesis, that experienced stress is a function of life events and interpersonal dynamics, cannot be ruled out from the available evidence.

Multivariate Data Analysis

An alternative to simply reporting the hypotheses tested was to use statistical techniques to make sense of the entire data matrix. Hundreds of variables were obtained from each family, making data reduction a necessity. Guided by our initial hypotheses and our descriptive data analysis, we sought to further reduce the data into manageable and comprehensible components. Correlation matrices were analyzed. As the most robust variables were isolated, they were grouped into three discrete constructs: 1) the Vulnerability factor, which related to the psychological vulnerability of the individual and comprised measures of recent loss, general life dissatisfaction, problems in the teen years, and frequency of changes in academic institutions; 2) the Family factor, which related to parental attitudes toward the target individual and comprised measures of parental satisfaction with school performance, the child in general, parental agreement about vocational choices, and familial style of emotional expressiveness; 3) the Search factor, which was a post hoc category accounting for a unique proportion of the variance and comprising measures of extended familial religiosity and nuclear familial orientation toward intellectual and cultural activities.

Discriminant analysis tested the predictive power of the three constructs: Vulnerability, Family, and Search. Measurement theory (Nunnally, 1978) demonstrates the efficacy of multiple indicators on the reliability of measuring research constructs. As a resul4 composite scores consisting of means were used as discriminating variables, where each variable in the analysis represented one of the three constructs. The Average Squared Canonical Correlation was 0.40 (Wilks' Lambda = 0.60, F (3, 82) = 17.9, p <.001). In other words, Discriminant analysis demonstrated that the three composite variables are significantly powerful predictors of cult involvement. (See Table 4, page 13, for the summary information.) Table 5, page 14, represents a breakdown of those who would be correctly and incorrectly classified using this procedure. Approximately 82% of the noncult group would be correctly classified versus 71 % of the cult group; that is to say, this procedure correctly classified 66 of the 86 subjects.2 Descriptive statistics for the three variables can be found in Table 6, page 15. The full correlation matrix, summarizing the relationships among variables, is found in Table 7, page 16. (Text continues on page 16.)

Table 4

Discriminant Analysis and Canonical Correlations of Three Composite Variables to Predict Cult Involvement

Variable # in Wilks’ Prob < Avg. Squared

Lambda Lambda Cannonican Prob>

Correlation ASCC

2. For some of these analyses, N = 86 due to missing data (see note 1).

Table 5

Discriminant Analysis Classification Summary: Posterior Probabilities

of Group Membership

From Group: Classified Into:

Table 6

Descriptive Statistics of Composite Variables Used in Discriminant Analysis

Table 7

Correlation Matrix of All Variables' Contributions to Cult Involvement


Formal science proceeds, ideally, from observations to the formulation of hypotheses, to the testing of these hypotheses. The descriptive analyses, in the first part of the results section, indicate that two of our three initial hypotheses were supported and that both individual psychosocial and family factors play a significant role in cult involvement. However, although we began our research with formal hypotheses in mind, we found that in this relatively uncharted region these hypotheses were somewhat premature. In order to illuminate better the topic under study, we have presented a somewhat unorthodox multivariate analysis of the data in the second part of the results section. The three composite variables in this section, Family, Vulnerability, and Search, seem to represent our findings in a more concise and intelligible synthesis that in some respects goes beyond our initial hypotheses. For example, because stress and vulnerability were impossible for us to tease apart we combined indices of both into the Vulnerability composite variable. Although this operation precluded an unambiguous test of the interaction hypothesis (that felt stress is an interaction of life events and intrapsychic dynamics), the added power of the Vulnerability variable, which included developmental stressors as well as proximal life stressors, seemed to contribute more to our understanding of the phenomena at hand. In another example, the Search variable addressed the important but neglected question of why cults per se, rather than other avenues of nonconformity, were selected by some young people.

In the present study of families, all drawn from the Jewish community, we found the usual incidence of young men and women from upper-middle income, intact families becoming involved in cult groups (Levine & Salter, 1976; Ungerleider & Wellisch, 1979). However, through an examination of the individual histories and family patterns of interaction, significant differences between the cult-involved and noncult-involved families did emerge and the first two hypotheses were supported.

The cult-involved families were found to be more concerned with political, social, intellectual and cultural activities (i.e., Intellectual-Cultural Orientation). They were also less likely to allow and encourage individual family members to act openly and express feelings directly (i.e., Expressiveness). Moreover, these parents indicated less satisfaction with their children than did the noncult- involved parents even though, for example, both groups valued high achievement and both groups of young people did, in fact, perform very well academically.

The data pertaining to family religious involvement is difficult to interpret because the two groups differed on some key variables by their very nature. That is, it was not surprising to find that those families involved in Jewish communal activities (i.e., the pool from which the contrast families were drawn) put a greater emphasis on religious practice and training than the cult-involved families.

Surprisingly, however, cult-involved families reported having more orthodox relatives and more relatives in cults than the contrast families. The cult-involved Jewish child, then, is more likely to come from a family in which the immediate family members are not involved in a spiritual life but, in contrast, extended family members are involved. Even though religious life is not central to the parents, they also are searchers inasmuch as they pursue esthetic and cultural values. Perhaps this leads to a tension within the child that cannot easily be expressed within the family, given the tendency among these families to diminish expressiveness. Young persons from such families explore spiritual alternatives. If they are sufficiently vulnerable, they will be easily manipulated by the slick recruitment techniques of the more dubious cults. The Search factor may be operative at this point, at least in the Jewish families of the present study.

A subtle contradiction in the cult-involved families apparently has significant ramifications. On the one hand, family members are encouraged to broaden their political and cultural activity, while on the other hand, they are simultaneously discouraged from expressing their own feelings and reactions to their experience. Herz and Rosen (1982) observe that “the focus on self-expression, high achievement, and verbal skiffs interacts with the willingness to express pain and anger to form a pattern typical of Jewish families” (p. 372). Data from the present study offer empirical support for these observations. However, when key elements of the typical pattern are missing, e.g., diminished emphasis on expressiveness, an unbalanced, atypical family pattern may emerge and may leave children vulnerable to cult recruitment The significance of the Family factor may lie in just these inconsistencies.

Although there were no differences between cult and contrast groups in academic performance and friendships, there was some evidence that the cult-involved group may have dated less. Parents of cult-involved children found their children more difficult during the teenage years and their children had more experience with psychotherapy. In addition, it was found that those young persons who became involved in cults tended to be more dissatisfied with their lives, to change colleges more often, and to have experienced a major loss prior to joining the cult. These data are consistent with previous findings (Galanter, Rabkin, Rabkin, & Deutsch, 1979; Levine & Salter, 1976), and support the hypothesis of moderate pre-cult psychosocial difficulties, as expressed by the Vulnerability factor in the rnultivariate analysis.

The interaction between stressful life events and individual psychosocial difficulties did emerge as a feature in the lives of the cult-involved young people. The context of the family is important, however, and the present study indicates that a predisposing family environment, i.e., the Family factor, may be very common, perhaps even necessary, but not sufficient to explain vulnerability to cult recruitment The data indicate that a vulnerable child within a vulnerable family system completes the picture. It is particularly striking how these families resemble the psychosomatic families described by Minuchin and his colleagues (Minuchin, Rosman, & Baker, 1978). In the families they describe, the psychosomatic child was especially sensitive to family stress. We may speculate that a similar sensitivity existing in cult-involved family members is not expressed somatically, but in the act of cult affiliation.

The period of greatest difficulty for the young people in this study was adolescence, and here the Vulnerability factor was evident. The major developmental task of this period is to struggle with problems of identity formation (Erikson, 1966) and the transition to adulthood (Levinson, 1978). The normal ups and downs of this period are stressful for most young people. The evidence from the present study indicates, however, that the cult-involved youth had more than their share of psychosocial difficulties, and, as a result, had more difficulty negotiating this period. As they entered young adulthood they experienced more dissatisfactions with their own lives and continued to experience the pressure to achieve and meet parental expectations. This, then, was the kind of enduring stress within the young person who encountered the cult recruiter. The cults offered simple solutions to difficult problems in late adolescence and, for those who were vulnerable, the lure was irresistible. For those who were particularly susceptible, powerful technologies of psychological manipulation interacted with psychological vulnerability to attract them along developmental detours from which some, only with great difficulty, found their way back.


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Authors' Notes

Many people assisted in the preparation and presentation of this research. Arnold Markowitz and David Halperin from the Cult Hot-line and Clinic, Morris Black, Director of Community Services JBFCS, and Philip Abramowitz from the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults of the Jewish Community Relations Council assisted us in the planning stages. Donna Perlow, Meri Weider, Lu Steinberg, Shayna Levy, Suzanne Black, and Elizabeth Epstein assisted in data collection and coding. Sterling Green provided statistical expertise, and secretarial assistance from Ramah Solomon and Karen Nelson was also greatly appreciated.

The research was supported by generous grants to JBFCS from the Margate Foundation, Jay Ungerleider-Mayerson, the Majorie Dammann Research Fund, and the New Land Foundation.

All requests for reprints should be addressed to Dr. Bruce Grellong at the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, 120 West 57th St, New York, NY 10019.

Mark Sirkin, Ph. D. is a clinical psychologist who was project director of the Cult Research Project of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in New York City. He is the Psychology Chair of the Professional Education Committee of the American Family Foundation and on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Bruce A. Grellong, Ph. D. is the Chief Psychologist of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in New York City. He continues to be closely involved in the development and coordination of the research program at the JBFCS Cult Clinic.