December 29, 1975 12:00 PM

I wanted to get as far away from Jack Rosenberg as I could get,” explains Werner Erhard. His reason is clear: Jack Rosenberg was a loser. Born in Lower Merion, Pa., Rosenberg married at 18, fathered four children and worked as a construction company supervisor—until he dropped out in 1960. Leaving his family, he took off for St. Louis with a girlfriend (now his second wife and mother of three). To start fresh, Rosenberg adopted space scientist Wernher von Braun’s first name (misspelling it) and former West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard’s last name. “Freudians,” Werner Erhard concedes, “would say this was a rejection of Jewishness and a seizure of strength.”

The rest of Erhard’s spiritual hegira has become legend among his cult. For eight years he worked as a crackerjack instructor of encyclopedia salesmen. Then one morning while driving down the freeway south of San Francisco, to which he moved in 1964, he was suddenly struck by the realization that “I was never going to make it. No matter how much money or recognition I achieved, it would never be enough.”

To overcome this hopelessness, Erhard experimented with just about every method guaranteed to bring peace of mind. “I tried yoga, Dale Carnegie, Zen, Scientology, encounter groups, t-groups, psychoanalysis, reality therapy, Gestalt, love, nudity, you name it,” he recalls. “But when it was over, that was not it.”

Once again, Erhard was behind the wheel when he finally “got it”—a religious happening that the faithful call “The Experience.” And what is “it”? Replies the Master: “What is it, is it. When you drop the effort to make your life work, you begin to discover that it’s perfect the way it is. You can relax. It’s all going to unfold.”

Not much of a message, perhaps, but as packaged, promoted and proselytized by Erhard in a two-weekend, 60-hour course (price $250), his movement, known as est (Latin for “it is,” as well as Erhard Seminars Training), has turned out more than 63,000 converts in 12 U.S. cities. Another 12,000 hopefuls are on the waiting list. Among the alumni of est’s psychic boot camps are Emmy winner Valerie Harper (who thanked Erhard on TV for changing her life), Cloris Leachman, John Denver, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and activist Jerry Rubin.

Much of the success—and notoriety—of est seminars results from their rigors. Sessions are grueling—except during rare breaks no one is allowed to wear a watch, smoke, chat or go to the bathroom. They also include voluntary confessions and verbal insults aimed to wear the trainees down until they “get it”—that what is, is.

The selling of est also got San Francisco-based Erhard some $6 million in 1975, although he emphasizes that he collects a relatively modest $48,000 salary. In addition, he has a $100,000 house, a Mercedes, a yacht and a company plane. “You know, if est really accomplishes what it seems to,” muses Erhard, as if surprised by est’s success, “it could really be something in the world.”

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