The Thin Red Line

Kabbalah began thousands of years ago as a mystical form of Judaism. Now, revamped, rich, popularised, it attracts millions of devotees with a mix of new age paraphernalia and ancient texts. Is it a cult? What is its lure? In a major investigation around the world, Elena Lappin finds out

The Guardian/December 11, 2004
By Elena Lappin

The city of Safed in northern Israel, high in the mountains above the Sea of Galilee, is a quiet, cobble-stoned town where ultra-orthodox synagogues coexist with offbeat artists' studios and galleries. Five centuries ago, when eminent Jewish mystics and scholars found refuge here after the Spanish Inquisition, Safed was considered the spiritual centre of the Jewish world. Jewish mysticism, also known as Kabbalah, flourished here in the 16th century, and the Kabbalistic writings of Safed rabbis on the meaning of Torah (Jewish law) remain influential to this day. One of the great Kabbalists of that period was Rabbi Isaac Luria, whose tomb is a revered landmark - visited by Madonna during her recent pilgrimage to holy Kabbalah sites in Israel.

Last July, thousands of devoted Jews travelled to Safed to visit and pray at Rabbi Luria's grave on the 429th anniversary of his death. But the followers of a contemporary Kabbalist, Rabbi Philip Berg, whose teaching is also based on Lurianic Kabbalah, have chosen to take their celebrations elsewhere: their 10 buses, arriving from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Haifa, bypass Luria's grave and park near a vast semi-ruin of a 13th-century Mameluke building called the Red Mosque. What looks like a large wedding or bar mitzvah seems to be in progress inside, with 500 mostly secular Israeli men, women and children milling around, eating and drinking; they look ecstatically happy. Around midnight, the excited crowd spills over into a large roofless hall, settling into rows of folding chairs. A hush falls, the moment they have all been waiting for has arrived: under the starlit sky, on a wide video screen above their heads, the darkly bearded face of Rabbi Berg appears, speaking live from Los Angeles, or possibly New York. He is the reason they are here, and also the reason they are not at the grave with the ultra-orthodox believers: "They don't like us. There could be trouble," I had been told, a little apologetically, by the woman who signed me up for this "spiritual journey" a few days earlier in the fancy Tel Aviv branch of Berg's Kabbalah Research Centre, where I had posed as a prospective student.

Rabbi Berg, or the Rav, as he is respectfully called by members of his organisation, is wearing a white robe. His imposing video presence is greeted with awestruck applause, to which he responds, transatlantically, with a magnanimous wave of the hand. Then he begins to speak, in halting Hebrew. He says a few admiring words about the illustrious Rabbi Luria, but then he begins to rant, sometimes shouting, sometimes almost shouting, as he describes a medical miracle. The story goes like this: an anonymous neurosurgeon had removed a man's brain tumour and returned home after the successful operation, leaving the patient to convalesce. Later that night, he received a phone call from the hospital with the news that the man was about to die, having eaten something that was now making him choke. The doctor, being far away, could not do anything to help - except "scan" (ie, move his fingers along) a passage in the Zohar (Book of Splendour), a sacred book he had just begun to study in his Kabbalah classes. The patient recovered. For emphasis, Berg punctuates his speech by wielding the doctor's report like a weapon.

I can hear several enraptured couples quietly explaining, or maybe translating, the story to each other. Clearly, the Rav has reaffirmed their faith in Kabbalah, and given them yet another miracle to talk about. Then he raises his hand again in majestic salute and the screen goes blank. We return to the food and drink, and are encouraged to enrich our knowledge of Kabbalah by purchasing a few items from the nicely laid-out stalls.

My eye falls on the famous red string, as worn by Madonna and friends, here attractively presented with an instructional CD. I ask the friendly young volunteer for an explanation of the red string's protective powers against the so-called "evil eye". Those powers were guaranteed, he says, by virtue of the fact that the red string is wrapped seven times around Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem, and meditated upon, and tied around your wrist with a special prayer. I pick one up and see the price: 180 shekels, or around £20. I also see a sticker on the sealed package saying "Made in China".

On the long bus ride back to Tel Aviv, a teacher from the Kabbalah centre talks about how, many years ago, "only a small group of people went on these pilgrimages, and then slowly more and more, and now we have 10 buses, and all over the world there are thousands and thousands, in fact millions of people brought together by the Rav and his wife Karen, to whom we owe our connection to the Light. The Rav and Karen will be in Israel in September, for the new year. We will all connect with them here. We'll have amazing energy!" Those who are not asleep smile and nod in agreement. They feel safe and protected - from illness, from danger and, in this country, from war and terrorism - by the power of their red strings, their Zohars, and especially by "being one soul with the Rav and Karen". In fact, the rabbi, his wife and their two sons, Rabbis Michael and Yehuda Berg, are far away, and haven't visited Israel in a long time. A few years ago, the Rav said to a friend: "No point in visiting those graves. The tzaddikim [holy men] are no longer there."

Thirty years ago, however, when Philip Berg first settled in Israel, arriving from New York under his original name Feivel Shraga Gruberger, regular outings to such holy graves were a part of his initiation into the world of Kabbalah. He had come to it relatively late in life, having worked as an insurance agent in New York in his late 20s and 30s.

Versions of his biography, as presented on dustjackets of his books and on his organisation's website (, have varied over the years. In a book he wrote and self-published in 1983, entitled The Kabbalah Connection, Berg is described as "an ordained rabbi who holds a doctorate in comparative religion". When travelling to Israel in 1962, he met his Kabbalistic master, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein, then dean of the Research Centre of Kabbalah. Berg undertook research at the centre, wrote books and, following the death of his master in 1969, "assumed the position of dean of the centre". Berg then moved to Israel with his wife Karen in 1971, "where they began to feel deep stirrings for the majority of Jews alienated from their roots. They then opened the doors of the centre to all seekers of self-identity, establishing centres in all major cities throughout Israel."

On the dustjacket of a book published in 2000, Immortality: The Inevitability Of Eternal Life, there is no reference to "Jews alienated from their roots". Instead it says, "Along with his wife, Karen, Rav Berg opened the doors of the KC [as their organisation is now known] in 1971 to all persons interested in achieving self-improvement through spiritual realisation", and details his early life, his education and his "dedicated study of the doctrines of Rav Yehuda Ashlag, the first contemporary Kabbalist and founder of the KC". Under Berg's leadership, it says, the KC has provided instruction to more than 3.4 million students in 39 centres across the world, including sites in 17 US states.

The change in tone and terminology reveals the transformation the Bergs' enterprise had undergone in that 17-year period. In 1983, he was "Dr Philip Berg with a doctorate in comparative religion. In 2000, he is "Kabbalist Rav Berg": he has dropped the title of doctor in favour of the honorific "The Rav", which, even in personal discourse, is a way of referring to himself in the third person. In 2000, he no longer even speaks about Jewish religion. An entire chapter in Immortality is dedicated to the story of how Karen proposed, to the initially sceptical Rav, the idea of opening the doors of Kabbalah to "every man, woman and child". In breach of the rules of his traditionally orthodox upbringing, he is ultimately convinced of the wisdom of her inspiration, and decides: "My mission is to spread and disseminate this knowledge to every human being, in whatever language, in whatever country." Another difference between the two books is that the copyright of the latter is owned by Kabbalah Centre International, which has now become a wealthy, international non-profit organisation, its biggest centre being in Los Angeles. As its tax returns indicate, Berg sold a 10-year copyright to his books to his own organisation for more than $2.5m - thus, as head of the KC, literally writing himself a cheque.

A fuller version of his life would reveal that Feivel Shraga Gruberger was born on August 20 1929 in Brooklyn, New York (or 1927 as some documents have it). He was the son of Max Gruberger, a presser, and Ester (née Reis). The Gruberger family had come from Nadvorna in Galizia, which was then a part of Austria and is now Ukraine. Feivel lived and studied in Williamsburg, and graduated in 1951 from Yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary) Torah VaDaat, and was ordained a rabbi. He is remembered by a fellow student, Rabbi Yitzhak Kerzner of Toronto, as "dedicated to his studies" and very outgoing. An old teacher has a clear memory of him as a "fantasist, with an ambitious ego", who was also a bright scholar. During all his years as a religious student, Berg never studied Kabbalah, which was not a part of a mainstream orthodox curriculum. On the other hand, his high school was unusual for including secular scientific subjects. This may be the source of Berg's infatuation with science; he has filled his version of Kabbalah with scientific terminology (quantum physics, nanotechnology, electrons, atoms, cosmology), to the embarrassment of those around him. "He never knew what he was talking about, and I cringed and begged him to stop," says an old acquaintance.

He hasn't: he now uses "science" to explain the potency of the Kabbalah water sold by the KC (£3.95 for a 1.5 litre bottle). This water (two bottles of which have been tested by the Guardian and have been found by a lab to be completely ordinary when reasonably fresh, and to contain some bacteria and fungi when a year old) was declared by Berg to have miraculous antiradiation properties; large quantities, he said, had been emptied into a lake in Chernobyl to clear the area of contamination. At shabbat services, participants were told to chant the word "Chernobyl" to show their faith in this mission. It is now sold as a "cure" for cancer, ageing and other conditions. The water is said to come from a spring in Canada, and its miraculous properties are supposed to be due to a special meditation performed by the Rav.

The centre takes these claims extremely seriously. On its website, a Kabbalah member named Billy opens a discussion entitled, "The science of Kabbalistic healing: The cure for cancer and the end of disease". When asked for advice about "a grandfather in end-stage cancer", Billy replies: "Kabbalah water and Zohar volume 20 and 21 are the most effective ways to begin a healing treatment. I would suggest 2-3 bottles a day. I have seen cancer go into remission, and I have seen it disappear in many people who have used this initial approach." He also claims: "Researchers at Jefferson University in Philadelphia in rheumatology reported that patients after consumption of Kabbalah water had increased range in motion as well as reduced pain." But when I asked Dr Sergio A Jimenez of the university's rheumatology department to confirm this claim, he replied: "The physician who apparently was working with this left several years ago. I do not believe there is any publication that shows that anyone at JU participated in or performed these studies."

The water is a major source of income for the KC. For example, in one US city, many members have told me that they were pressed to buy large quantities, some of which was out of date, at $1,000 a pallet. I asked the KC to comment on these claims but they declined to respond.

In 1953, Berg, 24, decided to leave the religious world and turn to business (although he remained an orthodox Jew). He became a life insurance agent for New York Life. He married Rivkah Brandwein in 1953 and they had eight children. One died in early infancy, and a daughter died of leukaemia in the 1970s. A close friend at the time, Morrie Yochai, remembers Berg coming to his office to read a part from a religious book to help his daughter get better, and indeed she did go into remission for a while. Berg met Karen when she worked as a secretary in his business. By his own account, they have known each other since 1959, though they became involved only years later, and married in July 1971. She had two daughters from a previous marriage. Their sons Yehuda and Michael were born in Israel, in 1972 and 1973.

Berg's first wife was descended from a great rabbinic dynasty, with famous roots in eastern Europe. His wedding to Karen caused a scandal; he had left his ex-wife to raise a large family on her own, which she managed by doing babysitting and other jobs.

Berg's interest in Kabbalah was awakened in Israel in 1962 when he met his first wife's uncle, Rabbi Brandwein, who had been a student of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (at whose graveside Madonna was much photographed during her recent trip). Their original connection had to do with the dissemination of religious books, but Berg soon became interested in studying Kabbalah. He made several trips to Israel and, at one point, lived with Brandwein on and off for up to six months. The rabbi was dean of Yeshiva Kol Yehuda, and Berg claims to have been appointed his successor after his death in 1969, under the terms of a letter he received in 1967.

Thus began Berg's new life as publisher and distributor of Kabbalah books, and as the head of a Kabbalah Research Centre, which he combined with the name of Yeshiva Kol Yehuda. Under Berg's deanship, this yeshiva had no premises of its own but a PO box in the old city in Jerusalem. Berg published books to which he did not always own the copyright, among them several titles by Rabbi Ashlag, including his famous translation of the 22 volumes of the Zohar from Aramaic into Hebrew. (Ashlag's descendants are very upset about Berg's unauthorised printing of this translation, but have not taken any legal action.) The letter from Brandwein, I found, was simply a form letter confirming Berg's ordination from his US yeshiva, without mention of Berg becoming a legal successor.

Nevertheless, he quickly began to attract followers, as his open, undogmatic approach drew a circle of dedicated students, some of whom quickly became teachers. He and Karen lived in near-poverty in Jerusalem, in a flat supplied by the Israeli absorption ministry (they had officially immigrated in September 1971). In 1973, they abruptly left the country, returning a few years later, at which point they changed their name from Gruberger to Berg. They moved to Tel Aviv, and as their following grew, so did their ambition. During another stay in the US, Berg's students in Israel began to study with Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, the son of the great Kabbalist. "This made us realise how little real Kabbalah Berg knew, and how commercial he had become," says one of the students, Jordan Lightman (not his real name). Ten of his teachers left in 1984, disillusioned with the "less than spiritual" direction the Bergs were now taking. Israel was becoming too small for their plans; they made their final move back to the US in 1984.

Nadine and her husband Sebastian (not their real names) attended one of the Bergs' first organised Jewish new year weekends in the early 1980s, at a hotel in the Catskills, near New York. "It had cost us a lot of money, but it was a decrepit, rundown place. There were many derelicts among the guests, lost souls, people who didn't seem to belong anywhere. The food was horrible, it was complete chaos, the room numbers got all mixed up ... Karen and the Rav were an odd couple: he had a straggly beard, didn't seem to care about his appearance. She, on the other hand, was attractive, thin, blond hair, very well kept, in a classic business suit. People were frantically buying all their merchandise - T-shirts, baseball caps."

Today, such mass events take place in luxury hotels, attract thousands of Kabbalah devotees and cost thousands of dollars. Lucie (not her real name), a former Kabbalah student from Miami, paid $2,000 to attend Passover with the Rav and Karen in LA, but it became the trigger for her final disillusionment: "There were masses of people, you can't hear a thing, and your spiritual leader is having a conversation with Demi Moore for hours. For me, that was the beginning of the end."

The KC is a highly successful enterprise. As I could see at every centre I visited - in New York, LA, Miami, Tel Aviv, London - their services and classes are packed. A month before the event in Safed, I saw Berg at the KC in New York, at his Shabbat services. As he spoke, he sounded less tentative in his native Brooklyn English, but no less angry. He liked to end most sentences with an aggressive/defensive question mark: "The angel of death I should be afraid of?" His sermon lasted a long time. A little boy eventually fell asleep under his pulpit. Otherwise, Berg was by far the most subdued member of his congregation. While others chanted, screamed, jumped, swayed, howled and punched the air, shouting various catchwords (one was "Immortality!"), the Rav seemed almost out of place in the tumult. Yet his presence infused the service with a special energy. When they weren't chanting, the men, all dressed in white, hugged each other. The women were more subdued but no less ecstatic. The mood seemed to alternate between a drug-like high and affectionate warmth. I could see how one could become hooked on the experience. Madonna, along with her children and Guy Ritchie, was also at this service, and while no one stood up for her, there was an undeniable buzz in the room because of her presence. She chatted to one of the Bergs' daughters-in-law, but also scanned the prayers in her book with someone's help.

I was given transcripts of several of Berg's sermons. In January 2004, he said: "I refuse to recognise this as a synagogue, but refer to it as a War Room ... within this War Room, we are going to defeat the enemy, and that is Satan." He then talks about sharing, which, in KC parlance, is a way of asking for donations: "Why would we not want to share? I've heard people say, 'I've worked so hard all my life and now I have to give it away?' You want to be God? To become God you've got to act like God, and then you are in total control. And what is the character of the Lightforce of God? The idea of sharing." Former member Joanna (not her real name) said: "We were always told that giving charity outside doesn't count, you only 'connect to the Light' when you give to KC. We were never to talk about God, only about the Light and being one soul with the Rav and Karen."

The personality cult around the Bergs evolved gradually. Everyone credits Karen with being the creative business brain behind the original success of the KC. As profits from the massive sales and donations increased and the organisation expanded, it relied more and more on volunteers, so-called "chevre" (friends in Hebrew). This trend began in the 1980s with the use of young people going door to door selling Zohars and other books. They lived in shared lodgings in Tel Aviv, were paid almost nothing and spent entire days on their feet. Later, the pattern was reproduced in New York, Paris and other centres.

Young former KC members claim that they became separated from their families, in thrall to "the Light". They undertook jobs like cleaning and cooking for the Rav and Karen, though they were discouraged from spending any money on food for themselves. Vera (not her real name), a middle-aged woman who left her husband and sons in Israel to cook for the Rav in New York, enjoyed the experience at first. "My family were suffering without me, but I was in a trance. To be allowed to cook for the Rav - what an honour!" Today, every KC has a sophisticated volunteer force. They are paid $35 a month in cash, as expenses, and, as a non-profit organisation, the KC is not required to pay taxes on their labour. The centre has in the past argued that the devotional work done by KC followers is not so different from other religions where young people devote a year to missionary work and lead very ascetic lives.

A new development is so-called "student support" - people paid a commission (20%-25%) to phone every person on a list of automatically dialled numbers and sell Zohars. Shlomo (not his real name), who tried this for a few weeks, left in disgust: "The manager verbally abused anyone who didn't sell enough Zohars that day," he says. "We were supposed to follow a script, a sales pitch, which went something like this: 'You don't want to buy a set of Zohars? OK, so you don't want to be healed? And your family? You don't care about them? Don't come to me when something awful happens to you, just because you weren't smart enough to protect yourself.' It was awful. And as a sales technique, it didn't really work!"

David Alexander (not his real name), a long-time member in London, describes the KC as "life stealers". I spoke to a whole group of former KC members in a large US city, all of whom told similar stories. Their charismatic and initially much admired teacher would focus on each student's personal situation - illness, drug problem, seriously ill child, dying partner or dead parent - and then raise the question of donations. The amounts range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands, and in some cases (especially among wealthy celebrities and business people), millions.

Dreams are one point of entry: Donna (not her real name), a struggling single mother who was in great distress, says she confided to her teacher a dream about her grandfather, who had just passed away. "He said: 'I have to meditate on this.' The next day, he called me and said it meant I had to give $20,000 to the centre. I did. I trusted him." Often, those who later come to feel they were exploited blame themselves. "No one told us to do it. No one forced us. We gave them the power they had over us," says Lucie. According to David Alexander, the KC "controls people by exploiting their fears and their loneliness. They look for our most vulnerable points." A large group of former KC members have formed a support group, and hope to help others across the world (their website is

One of Karen's new projects is the Spirituality For Kids programme. Madonna is on the board of SFK, and donates the proceeds of her children's books to it. Karen told me that in this free programme, "We talk about the opponent, which is the dark side, and then we call the angel the other side, and we explain to them how we know when the opponent is there." As every KC member knows, the "opponent" is the Bergs' name for Satan. And the programme is not free, as Karen claims: a glossy leaflet I have publicises both the activities and the prices ($180 for four weeks).

Many couples claim they have been urged by Karen either to marry or to divorce. Sandy (not her real name), who fell deeply in love with a boy when they were both volunteers in New York, was very hurt when Karen discouraged them from marrying each other. Ultimately, they married other partners (Sandy left the KC, while Jon, her former boyfriend, stayed), and later both divorced and remarried. "Karen loves to play matchmaker," says Sandy, "and she has uncanny powers over people. I am still scared of her." When I spoke to Karen, she scoffed at the idea that she should have such influence, but it is a persistent theme among former KC members.

Ziva Chaski was Karen's assistant and close friend for 15 years. She joined the group around Berg in Israel, and she and her husband also spent much time with them in New York. She now feels that she lost many years serving their needs, rather than focusing on her own family. One of her daughters became equally committed. Her son does not understand what he saw as an enslavement that his parents agreed to over many years, and is still hurt by it. Almost everyone I interviewed does not recognise himself or herself in the person who gave up everything of personal importance, just to be close to and to please the Bergs. Today, Ziva has a grievance: "I don't wish her anything bad. Only that one of her children abandons her, the way she separated so many children from their parents, and parents from children."

There are claims that KC is a dangerous cult. Two KC members, both young women in their 20s, have had formal professional intervention by Steve Alan Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], a Boston therapist specialising in cults. His own experience as a member of the Moonies in the 1970s, he says, has taught him to identify and understand the patterns of cults, which "are distinguished by their use of deception and mind control techniques to undermine a person's free will and make him dependent on the group's leader". Among these techniques, he counts authoritarian behaviour, deception in recruitment and controlling information. I spoke to both women he helped, and their personalities seemed rather similar: they were very bright, attractive, energetic, outgoing, and interested in exploring a new set of spiritual and religious values. Neither was Jewish.

Lindsey Roberts, a born-again Christian, says she was encouraged by her teacher, Rabbi Chaim Solomon (who now teaches at the London KC), to have a Jewish wedding with a Muslim KC member in LA. (They are now divorced.) She says she was made to work in the centre's bookstore from early morning until 1am, and became isolated from her parents. Now that she has left the centre, she admits, "I was certainly excited to see Madonna there, but she does get special treatment - she sits at the table with the Rav and Karen, which is only for the privileged few." Lindsey was drawn to Kabbalah because of her earlier work with Professor David Patterson at the University of Memphis, with whom she took a course in Holocaust studies. "My own religion taught me that every single Jewish person who died in the Holocaust is in hell - I could not believe that. I was struggling with my own faith." Although most people at the centre were not Jewish, she did feel like an outsider, especially at shabbat services. Ultimately, her parents became alarmed and asked Hassan to help. The carefully planned intervention took three days, and involved not only Lindsey's family but also Patterson and Emma, another former Kabbalah member.

"It took some time to decide that Kabbalah was a cult," says Lindsey. "Finally, my decision came down to not believing the people who run it. I am absolutely convinced it is a cult. I am a rational person, but while I was there I did things I would now consider ridiculous." Patterson found that "everything we were telling Lindsey was news to her: that real Kabbalah is not about 'me', about making money, about sex or power. The term used by KC, 'the Power of Kabbalah', is counterfeit already. Kabbalah is basically about the Torah - how do we understand the 10 commandments, how do we understand the story of creation. Not about getting lucky, looking out for one's own interests. There was a tremendous change in Lindsey: she had become much less self-assertive, much more docile. She found it reasonable to scan the Zohar as a way of dealing with an argument with her husband." Today, Lindsey is divorced and successfully pursuing an acting career in Memphis.

Emma (not her real name) is from Florida, where she grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood, though she is not Jewish herself. Her dream was to study medicine, but an early encounter with Kabbalah caused her to diverge from her plan: "I became involved, through a friend, and started volunteering more and more. My schoolwork went down the drain and my fights with my mother became worse and worse. After two years, I joined as chevre and moved to LA, basically to get away from home." She lived, she says, with five other girls in a one-bedroom apartment. "I was depressed. The KC discouraged me from going to medical school. They said, 'You can be a spiritual doctor.'" According to Emma, when her mother came to take her home a week after her arrival in LA, she was sent away by a KC rabbi, and when her father became ill, she was told that, rather than visit him, she should "work harder and send him blessings through her hard work". Emma was very interested in converting to Judaism, and encouraged by Yehuda Berg to do so: "We were getting very close through email. He said we were brother and sister from a past life." Finally, Emma was told that in order to convert, she would have to first go through a purifying immersion in the mikve (ritual bath) - one on one, just the young rabbi and her.

With the intervention of Steve Hassan, Emma had to work on "believing that I could survive in the outside world". She has succeeded: today, she has finished medical school and is in a happy relationship.

The KC, rejecting the notion that it is a cult, has questioned whether former followers seek counselling because of experiences with the KC, or because of prior conditions. Perhaps, the KC says, they were already alienated from their families.

I meet 32-year-old Yehuda, the elder of the two Berg brothers, in a small office at the Manhattan KC. Outside is an attractive, hotel-lobby-like area, with soft, jazzy music playing and merchandise on display. It seems relaxed. Yehuda, at over six feet, looks like an overgrown teenager. He is personable, approachable and, by his own admission, a bit hyperactive. He interests me as the man who is running much of the Kabbalah empire. A few months later, when the KC lets me know it is no longer willing to cooperate with me in my research, I will be told that it was Yehuda's decision. But today, we are chatting amicably.

Yehuda and Michael, his brother, were born in Jerusalem and lived in Israel until their early teens; they moved to America in 1984. "Me and my brother wanted to leave, because there was a lot of intolerance towards us. We both thought that we were a bit strange because my parents were involved in Kabbalah. A lot of people would not be my friend at school. Teachers always had a negative slant towards us." The isolation was harder on Yehuda than on Michael, who had at least one friend.

Financially, Yehuda thinks the family's life in Israel was extremely hard: "We always bought our clothes in secondhand shops. I didn't sense it was a hardship at the time. Till I started realising - OK, every kid in my class has a new pair of Jordans. When I asked my mom, she said, 'Just get something else.'" The boys had a very close relationship with Karen's mother, who died in 1992: "She was great. We were at her house in Queens a couple of times a week. She was funny. A Gemini, like me - we had this really cool relationship. She always wanted to take care of us. She wasn't religious at all. We never judge that."

Yehuda has lived in the US since he was 12. His experience of school was better than in Israel - "I started playing basketball!" - but there were some problems: "After the first year of what was meant to be several years of intense studying at Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, they asked us not to come back. The head of the yeshiva said, 'We don't really like you, and you don't really like us.' So we moved to another one, called Shaar HaTorah, which was a bit more open." He and Michael are very different, he says: "He's deeper into one thing at a time, I'm into five things at once. I wrote a book on the red string, I'm writing a book on dreams, and then another two."

Yehuda says he never really considered doing anything else except become involved in Kabbalah: "In high school, I realised that all my friends were miserable - taking drugs, being depressed, not knowing what to do with their lives. I had this path, and I felt fulfilled." He graduated in 1994, and about a year later he and Michael travelled to Jerusalem to be ordained by a rabbi. "He calls up the places where you studied before, and then examines your knowledge, for about five hours. With this orthodox ordination, I can be a rabbi anywhere, do conversions, anything." An orthodox rabbi told me this procedure was "most definitely not regular. No yeshiva I ever heard of would do such a thing. Proper testing would take more than a day."

Things changed in a big way in 1989: "We opened our second branch in LA; the first one was in our house in Queens. It really took off, because California is a very laid-back environment. People always have time to do things, even when they're busy." A period of growth followed, which has continued to this day. How do they manage to run it all? "Overseeing all this is a big job. My parents did it initially, but now it's done long-distance. All the teachers come here once a year - they have a four-day intensive retreat to make sure we keep moving everyone in the same direction. We have about 60,000 physical students, another 110,000 by long-distance learning, and 3.4 million altogether." Meanwhile,Michael focuses on writing books,most recently,Becoming Like God.

Yehuda exudes both self-confidence and insecurity, and it is hard to guess what he is really thinking. His books and email missives are small masterpieces of commercial minimalism: they are quick,satisfying fixes that have the depth of Kabbalistically couched Hallmark cards - mostly about feeling good and attaining success. Yet his attractive-looking The 72 Names Of God:Technology For The Soul (TM) contradicts thousands of years of Jewish wisdom. The sages, if Yehuda and his father, who wrote the preface, are to be believed, were wrong to guard the spiritual power of divine names against misuse by people with impure intentions. The Bergs' method is as follows: if the Jewish religion forbids something, circumvent it by declaring that what you are practising is spirituality, not religion, of benefit to all, not to one group. Their "Names Of God" adorn all their centres, Madonna wears them on T-shirts and dances against their projections on the stage, Sandra Bernhard declares: "Stop spinning your wheels. Tap into The 72 Names Of God immediately!" You can buy cards with the Names and aromatic candles, all of which promise a direct connection to the Light.

According to Kabbalist Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, "using the Names to acquire fame or money is an extremely serious violation. The early Sages, who knew how and when to use the Names, deliberately broke the chain of oral tradition by not teaching this wisdom to their disciples."

For Yehuda, Jewishness has become secondary: "When I grew up I thought I was Jewish. Now I don't consider myself Jewish. I consider myself a Kabbalist," he says. I want to know why he thinks the KC has had so much criticism, and how he feels about it. "I never get affected by it. You should have certainty in what you do. Anyone who has done anything in this world was hated. If you're not hated, you've done nothing."

Just before he leaves the office to make way for his mother, I ask about the red string. Why is it so expensive? Why not just hand it out to people? Yehuda gets a little testy: "There are things we do for free. We have free membership. But there is a Kabbalistic concept of bread of shame: you don't get something for nothing. For us to get the red string, we have to get an armoured car to Rachel's Tomb; they get shot at every time they go, it's a dangerous situation. We have to pay a private security firm. So there's a lot of money that's laid out by the centre. Other people who wear it from elsewhere don't necessarily get the benefit. We give them the whole technology of special wrapping and prayers. The minimum people should do is appreciate that and pay for it."

Later, when I ask the rabbis who have a permanent presence at Rachel's Tomb and have been there for the past 10 years whether they have ever seen this going on, the answer is a definite no: no armoured vehicles under the protection of a private security firm, no shootings of this description, no one observed arriving with large quantities of red string and wrapping it around the tomb. The area is under heavy military protection. A spokeswoman for the ministry of tourism and also for religious affairs stated that no special permits had been given to the Kabbalah Centre to enter Rachel's Tomb with large quantities of red string.

Not long ago, Karen Berg tried to patent the red string in the US as a trademark. While the final decision is still pending, the application has been provisionally rejected: the KC could not persuade the US patent office that its red string is distinguishable from other red strings worn for "protection". And while the KC sells its own for $26 (without CD), you can buy similar ones on eBay for 99 cents. The red string was introduced by the KC quite a while after the Bergs moved to the US; in their early years, it was worn occasionally, but wasn 't considered important.

When Karen enters the little office, there is a lively, friendly commotion and Yehuda quickly disappears. She is wearing a smart blond wig, in orthodox Jewish woman fashion, but it doesn't really suit her. Nor does she look comfortable in her expensive-looking clothes. I later hear that she used to wear leather jackets and ride motorcycles in her youth (when her name was Kathy Mulnick).

She talks, in a wonderful Brooklyn voice, about her nomadic beginnings. She didn't know her real father, who died during the war. She grew up in a secular family, she says, moving around quite a few times. Didn't learn to read until seventh grade but learned to hide that fact. She had been "pretty wild", and interested in anything spiritual or esoteric. With her first husband, a carpenter and "a very nice man ", she had two daughters. She met Philip Berg when she worked as a secretary in the same insurance office. He was much older, and "I didn't like him. He was very cold." Years later they were put in touch again, quite by chance. Berg told her he was now studying Kabbalah and spending some time in Israel. Karen found that interesting because he didn't seem to be "the type to leave all material things behind". "So I offered him a deal: if he would agree to teach me Kabbalah, I would work for him for free. And then from that day to this day we weren't separated."

"Wait," I said to Karen, "as an orthodox Jew, didn't he have a problem teaching a woman?"

"That's another story," she laughs. Of course he wouldn't teach her. Until, that is, his beloved Kabbalah teacher appeared to Karen in her dream and blessed her, which Philip took as a convincing - and convenient - sign that he was allowed to do so.

How does she feel about accusations that Kabbalah is a cult? She replies sharply: "How can it possibly be a cult if we all live in a fish bowl? It's open. What you see is what you get. What's a cult? Is it a place where the doors are closed and journalists can't walk in and is there an inner sanctum that you can't get to? That's a cult. The answer is no. What is a cult? By definition, if you ask the question, don't listen to what I'm telling you. Usually the connotation is negative. Sort of like, 'I'm gonna take your mind kind of thing.'"

They call it mind control, I say.

"Mind control. OK. Is it mind control? Well, in order to do mind control with you, I would have to sit and we would have to discuss. There are thousands and thousands of people learning Kabbalah, so I really haven't got the time to do mind control." At the end of the hour-long interview, I asked who had benefited the most from the KC's teachings. "Me," she says.

At a free introductory lecture in Miami, a classroom of young, middle-aged and elderly people are delighted to be told that what they want is total fulfilment, and that this is what Kabbalah will give them. But in another part of town,another group assemble. About 20 deeply hurt and disillusioned former KC members sit around a table and go over a list they downloaded from a Cult Watch website, Mind-Manipulating Groups: Are You A Victim? There are 14 identifying characteristics, and they all agree that the KC has them all.They giggle, but it's an uneasy, embarrassed giggle.

One of the KC's weirdest techniques is the idea of "scanning the Zohar [book of Splendour ]".Using the notion that it is not necessary to read even a translation of the holy words "to receive their energy", but simply to move one's eyes over the Hebrew letters, the KC has created an enormous non-Jewish market, selling this text to millions who can "scan" or simply possess it. There is also the "Zohar Project", whereby donations are collected to pay for the distribution of Zohars to trouble spots in the world, "to bring peace". The latest of these is supposedly in Gaza.

In the US, and in the UK, too, the organisation has two facets: one non-profit (here, a charity) and one for-profit. Different sections have different names -, Kabbalah Enterprises, Kabbalah Research Centre, Kabbalah Property Foundation, Kabbalah Learning Centre. According to KC accounts, the Bergs and their sons pay themselves no salaries, yet they have lavish lifestyles, travelling in luxury, staying in the best hotels and living in properties registered to the KC. Their real estate assets are vast. Karen Berg's name appears on numerous private addresses in the US.

The Bergs like to be partners with successful KC members. The deal is that the Rav offers his blessings in return for a 20%-25% cut of the profits. David Alexander, about to buy shares that he believed might net him millions in profit, was approached by Berg, offering a partnership. Alexander's reply was: "If you bless my shares to go up from $6 to $40, I will give you 5%." Berg agreed. The shares promptly fell to $1, and then to nothing.

According to one reliable insider who has had access to its accounting, the KC generates an average income of $1m a month: from sales of books, the water, scented candles, red string, jewellery, baby blankets, and even cosmetics, course fees and donations. Events celebrating major Jewish holidays are big money-spinners.

In some countries, such as Mexico and France, KC's non-profit status has been challenged. According to tax records, the New York branch alone had net assets last year of more than $24m. The most recent records (2000) for the Los Angeles branch list assets of $11m. There is no rule against a charitable organisation being profitable, but,according to IRS guidelines, "the assets of an organisation cannot inure to the benefit of private shareholders or individuals. If an organisation pays or distributes assets to insiders in excess of the fair market values of the services rendered, the organisation can lose its tax exempt status." The Berg family don't seem to feel they fall foul of this stipulation.

According to KC believers, Berg can not only influence market shares and business deals, but change the course of hurricanes, too. I was in Miami during a recent hurricane, and was present at a shabbat service when Rabbi Shimon Sarfati calmly informed the congregation that there was nothing to worry about, because the Rav had made sure the hurricane would miss them. It did, though it did not miss other areas, including Boca Raton, which has a large Kabbalah centre.

Faith in Berg 's supernatural powers is a key characteristic of KC members. This is another deviation from the basic tenets of Judaism, which prohibits sorcery, consulting astrology, necromancy, palm readings, and any other ways and forms of trying to circumvent the "divine system" by supernatural means. Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, an orthodox rabbi and Kabbalist I consulted about Berg's claims regarding hurricanes and other forces of nature, described them as "preposterous" and said, "If you claim that ability,why don't you use it to save human lives instead of making empty boasts? At no time throughout Jewish history has any Kabbalist or saint ever claimed such things - even those who are empowered - and those that did were always proven to be charlatans who came to bad ends."

Visit a KC anywhere and you will be greeted warmly and will feel at home. You'll be invited to sign up for classes offering spirituality and insights into the workings of the universe. You will be promised tools to improve your life: "Money is nothing more than energy," teaches Rabbi Solomon. You will be told to search for Satan everywhere and in everyone, to trust no one but your Kabbalah teachers. After your fifth class, you may be asked to donate some time. After another five classes, you will be asked to donate money. To solve all your problems, you will be told to scan the Zohar (the entire 22-volume set of which you will be asked to buy as soon as possible)."You don't need to read it," explains Karen on a video. "It's like scanning the price in the supermarket - same principle. All you need is the energy from the letters."

Many are happy. Alex Bizet, a successful, very charming businessman, based in New York but originally from Odessa, who works with Damon Dash, owner of rap fashion label Rockawear, met me in his office overlooking Manhattan and spoke, ecstatically, for two hours about how Kabbalah has changed his life: "I used to be a womaniser, now I know how to live in harmony with the one woman I love. Have you ever had a multiple orgasm?" he asks with the seriousness of a true missionary. "No," I confess. "See," he beams, "Kabbalah would teach you how." Then he talks about how his involvement with Kabbalah has also drawn him closer to orthodox Judaism.

Alison Cohen, a glamorous volunteer at the LA centre, says she feels very fulfilled and does not regret giving up her career in music. Jamie Greene, a British expat in LA who has had a successful career as a therapist, turned to Kabbalah after a breakdown and is now a teacher at the centre.

On last Rosh Hashana (Jewish new year) in New York, Madonna announced in front of the entire congregation that she would now like to be called by the biblical name of Esther. All applauded, the Rav gave her a hug and then announced, "I've had a revelation. The Torah was not given to the Jews. It's for everybody!" In other words, Madonna - and the non-Jewish majority filling Berg's services almost everywhere - was welcome at the KC. But that day, the KC lost hundreds of Jewish members across the world, who were shocked by this statement. In the UK, this distinction is of some consequence. According to the Charity Commission, when KC applied for registration as a charity in 1988, "We rejected their application on the grounds that they were promoting a specific way of life involving self-improvement rather than advancing the Jewish faith. The former isn't charitable, while the latter is." The KC was registered in 2000 as a Jewish charity.

It is impossible to ignore Madonna's role in the KC. When I interviewed Karen, she was preoccupied with thoughts about what to get Madonna for her birthday: "What do you buy someone who has it all? A diamond E, for Esther? What do you think?" It was clear that this was a gift intended to demonstrate the importance of Madonna's presence. Madonna is widely rumoured to have purchased a great deal of real estate for the KC, but this is not the case. When asked about the extent and nature of her support, Madonna's spokeswoman, Liz Rosenberg, replied, "Madonna has confirmed that she has donated approximately $5m to the Spirituality For Kids Foundation. This would include her portion of the proceeds from her children's books. She did not donate money to the Kaballah buildings in London or New York or to anyone's residence. The money was donated to the foundation with no strings on how it is being spent." Madonna has often said, rather defensively, that she is very serious about her study of Kabbalah and does not want to be perceived as following a "fad ". She attracts large numbers of celebrities (and non-celebrities) to the KC, and one wonders: what will happen if or when she changes her mind? Or will she, on the contrary, assume a more prominent role?

In a video interview, the Rav and Karen come across as an ordinary couple. Yet they are far from ordinary. On another video, Karen delivers a speech on her own, about "the woman behind the man" and the clear gist of it is that the woman controls the man, and should - without appearing to do so. In her own life,she has certainly followed this method; by Berg's own admission, he would never have undertaken the major transformation of his limited Kabbalah circle into a vast enterprise without her. Karen's manner hides a brilliance; she is the driving force behind the move away from Judaism and towards a more relaxed, "spiritual" version that perhaps draws on other sources, too. I looked at a website about white magic and found a great number of exact replicas of products sold on, described in the same way and promising the same results.

Berg's original approach had been rather simple: to bring lost Jews back to Judaism, via the back door of Kabbalah, as he liked to put it. Many are still grateful to him for this: Jordan Lightman, who lives in Tel Aviv, and Saul Kaminski, who lives in Jerusalem (neither their real names), were both secular Jews when they met Berg about 30 years ago, and were drawn to religion via his enthusiasm and charisma. Today, both are orthodox and serious Kabbalah scholars and now take a dim view of Berg's approach to Kabbalah. Says Lightman: "There is a letter from Rabbi Ashlag from about 70 years ago warning one of his students not to stray even a hair's breadth from the correct path of Kabbalah as taught by him. He drew an arrow in the letter showing that even if he would move the tiniest bit at the beginning, it would cause a greater and greater distance from the original path and goal over periods of time. The Bergs did it very fast! At the beginning there was just a slight straying. The goal was to learn and deal with Kabbalah and develop spiritually. It is now just a new-age cult using Kabbalistic terminology and some perversion of its rites and rituals." And Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the greatest contemporary authorities on the Talmud and Kabbalah, has said that Berg's Kabbalah is to the real thing what pornography is to love.

In carrying out this investigation, I have spoken to about a hundred present and past Kabbalah members in various countries. As well as talking to Karen and Yehuda Berg, I have been in touch with their press people over a period of months. Finally, I summarised all the allegations that have been made about the KC for their comments. They chose not to respond. Their press spokesman emailed me: "I don't want to hold you up any longer. I'd go ahead with what you have." Not long ago, Philip Berg suffered a stroke, and he is said to be recovering. This illness has been shrouded in secrecy. The KC believes in immortality, and explains illness as being caused by some unresolved guilt from a past life. I had asked Karen and Yehuda what would happen if the Rav were no longer able to carry on. Yehuda was confident: "We're not dependent on anyone personally. I can disappear, my brother can disappear, I can decide to be a Buddhist on a mountain, and they can decide to play golf all day, and the centre will still continue." But does he see himself as his father's follower? "Yes,I do, but ... Part of the whole system is you try to avoid that day will happen."

Those former followers who have been relieved of money are, surprisingly, not bitter but disappointed: "It was so exciting to be a part of something we believed in. It feels like losing your family." But they do wonder about the Bergs' apparent greed. "It all ballooned five years ago," says Janine (not her real name). "That's when it started to really grow."

Why, I ask her. "I think they know it won't last."

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