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Kabbalah Centre : Secrets of a celebrity sect
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Kabbalah Centre, Philip Berg, Rabbi, the rav

Kabbalah Centre

Kabbalah Centre : Secrets of a celebrity sect

David Rowan, Evening Standard (England), Oct. 3, 2002


An article by David Rowan, Evening Standard (England), Oct. 3, 2002:

He is the spiritual guru whose claims to supernatural powers have enticed Madonna, Jeff Goldblum and Naomi Campbell to discover their "inner light". For Elizabeth Taylor, his teachings offer "a light to lead me through the darkness"; to Roseanne Barr they are the basis of "everything I believe".

When Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger organised a fundraising dinner in his honour, at the Harrington Club in South Kensington, the warmth of the occasion prompted speeches about love and fulfilment before Dave Stewart joined Jagger, Bill Wyman and Ronnie Wood for an impromptu jam session.

There are not many rabbis in their seventies who can draw a celebrity crowd like Philip Berg.

Rabbi Berg - "the Rav" to his devoted followers - runs the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre, whose unorthodox interpretation of Jewish law gained prominence four years ago when Madonna credited it with "creative guidance" on her Ray Of Light album.

Since then, as she and husband Guy Ritchie have boosted attendance at the centre's thriving London branch, Berg's form of mystical Judaism has attracted fashionable supporters including Normandie Keith and Sabrina Guinness.

But there is another, more worrying side to the Kabbalah Centre that its celebrity followers seem unaware of.

For despite its claim to be "motivated by no other desire than the spiritual growth of humankind", an Evening Standard investigation can reveal growing international concern about its fundraising methods, extraordinary mystical claims and what former members say is its cult-like ability to split up families and undermine marriages.

Both Jews and non-Jews are welcomed at the centre's Mayfair office, one of around 50 throughout the world.

In a suite of rooms above a Vidal Sassoon hairdressing school, the curious are invited to buy Kabbalah merchandise or sign up for lifeimproving courses. So far, 2,500 have done so.

Typically the first lecture is free; you are then invited to spend 151 to learn how the centre's teachings can help make you rich, cure serious illness and find your "perfect mate".

Rabbi Eliyahu Yardeni, 40, the charismatic Israeli who runs the London office, is certainly a persuasive speaker, interpreting ancient Jewish teachings to explain everything from reincarnation to youthful skin.

Much in demand for his lectures and private classes, Yardeni tells believers how the Kabbalah - an oral tradition handed down over generations - can satisfy all their worldly needs, if only they will "see the light".

More established London rabbis believe that Berg's teachings oversimplify the Kabbalah and use it to make unwarranted spiritual claims. But what concerns them more is the centre's impact on the lives of ordinary families.

In a series of interviews with former insiders and relatives of those still involved, the Standard heard claims that: the centre sold " specially blessed" mineral water as a means of treating cancer; supporters were warned their children might fall ill unless they donated money; and volunteer workers were warned that the "dark forces" would bring them personal tragedy if they ever left.

They also told of Rabbi Berg's supposed powers to forecast the future and turn back hurricanes.

In his flowing robes and unkempt beard, Berg resembles a typical suburban rabbi. Yet the vast international empire he runs with his wife Karen takes millions of pounds each year in donations, lecture fees and merchandise sales, from 50 "energising" necklaces to 1,200 prayer accessories.

When Berg blesses ordinary spring water, it apparently becomes "infused with kabbalistic meditation . . . for healing, well-being and rejuvenation" - qualities that are neatly marketed in his exclusive make-up range, which includes a "restoring night cream" at 80 and a 91 eye-cream.

Rabbi Berg will also sell you 350 copies of the Zohar, the 13th-century mystical texts on which he bases his teachings.

Rabbi Berg was not always " the worl d ' s foremost authority on the Kabbalah".

Born Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn, he was in fact an insurance salesman before leaving his first wife and children to reinvent himself as a modern spiritual guru.

It remains unclear where Dr Berg, as he is credited in his books, obtained his doctorate. What is equally uncertain is the origin of the Kabbalah Centre itself. Its own literature claims that it was founded in Jerusalem in 1922, and that Berg "assumed the directorship" in 1969 on the death of his teacher, the eminent kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein.

Berg certainly studied under Brandwein at the Kol Yehuda seminary, founded in Jerusalem in 1922. But Brandwein's son Avraham, who took over as Kol Yehuda's dean, disputes Berg's claim of succession. Indeed, the seminary insists that it "has no connection, in any way, shape or form" with Berg's Kabbalah Centre.

Yet it was in the United States that Berg - with his new wife Karen - set about popularising Kabbalah's mystical teachings. They have attracted millions of followers by promising that Kabbalah can offer " fulfilment in every aspect of your life: relationships, business, health, and more".

But their methods have won them the scorn of more traditional kabbalists, particularly their claim that anyone can read these ancient Aramaic texts simply by scanning their fingers across the pages.

The centre has also caused outrage by claiming that Jews died in the Holocaust because they had failed to read the Zohar.

Rabbis unconnected with Berg denounce his teachings as "a mockery of Jewish law", and the centre's methods as "deeply worrying".

But they dare not speak out too loudly: they cite the worrying experience of Abraham Union, a Los Angeles rabbi who planned to distribute criticisms of the centre until a severed sheep's head was left at his doorstep.

No evidence was found of the centre's involvement, and Rav Berg's son Michael confirms it had no connection with the incident.

"That's totally against who we are and what we teach, which is compassion and caring," he told a reporter.

Still, Rabbi Union tempered his criticisms.

More worrying are stories that past followers have told the Standard alleging relentless pressure to donate money, threats that "bad things" would happen if they left, and an expectation that they would change their names and abandon partners or families at the centre's behest.

One London woman - who, like many we spoke to, was afraid of being identified - attended centre meetings regularly between 1998 and 2000, spending almost 4,000 on classes and merchandise before her scepticism got the better of her.

"If you say you can't afford something, they keep asking you for postdated cheques," she claims.

"They promise that donating money will get you closer to your goal, or that you are guaranteed to find your soulmate. The people they know to be wealthy, and the celebrities, get very special treatment."

In another case, a successful businessman who regularly visits the London office was recently urged to leave his longterm girlfriend and introduced to the group's choice of "soulmate", according to his former partner.

She says she is concerned for him. "I am trying to get him out but he sees them as his friends," she says. "They break up relationships to get what they want."

Yael Yardeni, who teaches at the London office run by her husband Eliyahu, insists there is "no foundation" to such "rumours".

"We are about bringing people together, not splitting families," she insists. "I've been here since 1987 - Rabbi Berg was personally my teacher - and I've never seen such a thing."

Mrs Yardeni stresses that the "scanning" of text is entirely justified by kabbalistic tradition.

"It is written in the Talmud [Jewish books of the law] that it's very important to hold in your hand the holy books, even if you don't read them. There is power in the letters."

She denies that undue pressure is used to solicit money, saying: "Pressure? I don't believe this. People are definitely encouraged to get the basic books, that's all. As for donations, we're a charity. Isn't it normal for a charity to ask for donations? But we leave it up to the person."

For those without money, Berg's organisation has other uses.

Karen, now 26, spent three years with the Kabbalah Centre, abandoning her medical studies on what she says was its advice and leaving her family home in Florida to live in the Los Angeles office as a "chevra", one of around 40 full-time volunteer workers.

"I'd regularly be working from 9am until 1am, and sometimes I'd work all night, with just an hour for dinner," Karen claims.

She says she was told that her work would bring more "light" into her life, and that she was privileged to serve "the Rav". "I was paid $35 (22) a month and was given space in a filthy one-bedroom apartment, sharing with four other young women. It was as if I was a slave."

Karen's involvement grew gradually: after taking courses and buying a 170 astrological chart, she was selected for the " honour" of working for the Bergs. "They were very lovable towards me at first," she recalls. "I was having a bad relationship with my parents, and they comforted me. They said these weren't my spiritual parents, and that I needed to correct a lot of things in my life."

It was also made clear to her that a "spiritually compatible" soulmate would be found.

Karen's mother travelled from Florida to Los Angeles to urge her to leave.

"They told me my mother was a destructive environment and was standing in my way," Karen says.

It was only months later, when her father suffered a heart attack, that she questioned the rabbis' wisdom. They suggested he could be cured by drinking Kabbalah water, she says. In fact, he needed major heart surgery.

The centre says its water is a "spiritual tool" but would never be offered as an alternative to medical treatment.

"The Kabbalah water is undergoing scientific research at the moment, so I can't yet talk about the results," Yael Yardeni says.

"It can help, definitely, but under no circumstances would we ever say it would cure something."

Depressed and exhausted, Karen told the rabbis she was leaving. "They got really angry," she recalls.

"I was told that, if I left, my father could get worse. I had a lot of fear. Then they simply stopped talking to me." Today, a year after counselling, Karen has resumed her studies. "They change your behaviour, control your emotions and thoughts, cut you off from friends and family," she says. "It's been a terrible experience."

Other families are still hoping that their children will follow Karen's example.

Madeleine's son, an American in his early twenties, has been a "chevra" for two years in the Los Angeles office, sharing meditation classes with Madonna when she is in town.

"I thought, 'If Jeff Goldblum and Liz Taylor are involved, then it can't be so bad'," Madeleine tells the Standard. " But these celebrities are just the lamplight. They're treated completely differently.

They should inquire about what's going on."

When her academically gifted son announced he was quitting college, Madeleine started to worry. Then he fell ill but refused to seek medical treatment, again relying on Kabbalahblessed water.

"Before his illness I hadn't seen it as a cult," his mother says. "But when I saw his reaction it terrified me. He's now stopped answering my phone calls or emails. It breaks my heart."

When she expressed her concerns forcefully to a Kabbalah Centre rabbi, Madeleine says, she was told that a mysterious illness might befall her younger child if she made trouble. The centre denies that such threats are made.

Past supporters also speak of alleged financial pressures. Some followers claim to have been urged to donate money to avoid Satanic influences such as a child's death.

Certainly, Rabbi Yardeni's London office has proved proficient at soliciting wealthy supporters: according to its last published accounts, it received 222,000 in gifts in 2000, plus a further 100,000 in course fees.

One trustee, Lady Homa Alliance, gave almost 50,000 in 1999-2000; another trustee, Gladys Obadiah, and her husband gave 44,000. By August 2000, the business was healthy enough for the centre to rent expensive premises in Grosvenor Street.

Then there are the 250 products sold by the centre "to support and enrich the study of Kabbalah", from 18 lengths of red cotton (to ward off the "Evil Eye") to expensive astrology readings.

Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, minister of Mill Hill Synagogue, has twice been visited at home by Kabbalah Centre recruits selling the 350 Zohar books door-to-door. "These books are meaningless from a Jewish point of view, and vastly overpriced," Rabbi Schochet says.

As the Kabbalah Centre's presence in London grows, rabbis such as Yitzchak Schochet are hearing more frequently from local families concerned at a relative's involvement. For now, few dare to speak out openly - but Rabbi Berg has an answer prepared for when they do. The forces of Satan, he wrote in his book, Immortality, "are adopting the tactic of discrediting us, of spreading rumours that the people involved in the centre are brainwashed".

True believers, of course, will simply shut their ears.
Source: Secrets of a celebrity sect, David Rowan, Evening Standard (England), Oct. 3, 2002

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• First posted: Sep. 12, 2003
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