Truth about Madonna cult

Evening Standard/January 13, 2005
By John Sweeney and Alexa Baracaia

New details about life inside the sect favoured by Madonna and Guy Ritchie are revealed today. An undercover investigation into the controversial Kabbalah Centre movement found a series of questionable claims by its leaders.

A documentary, to be screened on BBC2 tonight said:

  • "Healing" spring water sold to followers for nearly £4 a bottle comes from a Canadian bottling plant.
  • One cancer sufferer was told Kabbalah water would help to cure his disease and was advised to buy a batch worth ?550.
  • Cash raised by donors for the Asian tsunami victims is being spent on distributing Kabbalah Centre products in the devastated region.
  • A leading figure at the centre believes Jews killed in the Holocaust brought their downfall on themselves.
  • The Kabbalah Centre claims to be a not-for-profit organisation but its leaders are said to live millionaire lifestyles. There have been claims of a visit to a gambling venue and expensive plastic surgery.

Three people from BBC2's Sweeney Investigates infiltrated the Kabbalah Centre, which has 40 sites around the world. The programme team interviewed senior figures in the Jewish community who denounced the Centre as a "nefarious bunch of charlatans". The centre promotes a mixture of ancient Jewish mysticism and pseudoscience and is led by former New York rabbi and insurance salesman Philip Berg.

Pictures seen here for the first time show film director Guy Ritchie at a recent Kabbalah New Year event - known as Rosh Hashanah.

Ritchie and his wife Madonna are the most high-profile followers of the Kabbalah Centre. Other celebrity followers include Demi Moore, Roseanne Barr and Melinda Messenger.

Ritchie is pictured at the five-day event in Tel Aviv being given the "birthday bumps" by dozens of fellow Kabbalists, all identically clothed in white. While the majority are seen wearing the traditional Jewish " kippot" - or skullcap - Ritchie is pictured instead in a white cloth cap. The 2,600 followers present at the celebration also took part in a bizarre ceremony during which they chanted the name "Chernobyl" repeatedly at a TV image of a giant rotating atom in a bid to "reduce radioactivity" at the site of the Soviet nuclear disaster.

Ritchie and Madonna both regularly attend London's Kabbalah Centre at Stratford Place, near Bond Street. There, one senior figure said Madonna had joined because "she wants to understand how she works with her kids better. She wants to understand how to control her mood better, how to be more happy. How to be more tolerant with her husband and to maintain the relationship".

But the ?3.65 million centre is under investigation by Westminster council after the BBC documentary found evidence of devotees sleeping in windowless "cells" in a basement.

The documentary also reveals the centre is launching a million-dollar appeal for victims of the Asia tsunami. But it is spending the money on its own products - such as "healing" water at up to ?2.80 a litre, and copies of the sect's own "holy text", the Zohar, costing ?289 for a 23-volume set. Pictures on the Kabbalah Centre website show "grateful" victims of the south-east Asian floods holding copies of the books in hospital.

The alleged "healing" water is also found by the documentary to be bottled at a Canadian plant that has in the past been rapped for failing to carry out proper health and safety tests.

The Kabbalah Centre insists that its water is sourced from springs and treated by an exclusive Kabbalistic process, using blessings and meditations.

However, the water actually comes from Ontario bottling plant CJC Bottling. In 2002 the authorities issued an order against CJC because it had not tested its water properly.

Despite this, Kabbalah leaders make lofty claims about the powers of the water - including that it is a useful aid in the treatment of cancer.

Essex businessman Tony Donnelly, who has been treated by London's Royal Marsden Hospital for cancer, was sent undercover to the Kabbalah Centre in London.

He was prescribed three bottles of water per day and offered a total Kabbalah water package worth ?550, for which he paid in cash.

One member of the centre said there were no miracle cures. But asked whether the water would help his cancer, a Kabbalah Centre worker said: "It's a very good possibility. We have one girl here, who works here, her mother used to have cancer and she doesn't have it any more. The water is very, very good because it affects the cells, it cleanses the cells."

Rabbi Barry Marcus, of London's Central Synagogue, said: "This is absolutely disgusting and yet another cheap shot by a sect hell-bent on making money. We in the Jewish community dissociate ourselves from this appeal in the strongest possible way."

The rabbi called on famous devotees to reconsider their attachment to the sect.

"These celebrities appear to be oblivious to the true nature of the Kabbalah Centre," he said.

"There are many organisations that people can send their money to to help the victims of the tsunami but not the Kabbalah Centre. The celebrities must reconsider their involvement with this nefarious bunch of charlatans."

Many ex-members of the Kabbalah Centre now claim the organisation is little more than a brainwashing "cult".

Debbie Chaski-Leventhal, who spent 13 years at the heart of the Kabbalah Centre movement, said: "It's a cult, absolutely it's a cult, especially for the few hundred people who are very close to the Bergs. Most of these people will do almost absolutely anything he will tell them to do, and if he will tell them tomorrow to all commit suicide together they will."

Other claims include the assertion by a senior figure in the London Kabbalah Centre, Eliyahu Yardeni, that the Holocaust was the fault of the six million Jewish victims.

"The Light was blocked. They didn't use Kabbalah," he claimed.

Red string bracelets that mark out Kabbalists - and have been seen on the wrists of celebrities including David Beckham - cost £18.50 from the Kabbalah Centre. However, they can be obtained free when followers visit Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem.

A red-string gift package has reportedly been seen bearing the sticker "Made in China".

Meanwhile, despite assertions that the Kabbalah Centre is a not-for-profit organisation, former associates of Berg claim that he and his family live in luxury.

One ex-Kabbalist said Berg and his second wife, Karen, had taken a Cadillac to visit a casino in Atlantic City, and that Mrs Berg had undergone a facelift.

A statement issued by the Kabbalah Centre to the BBC said: "For millennia, Kabbalah has been misrepresented by some members of the community trying to discourage others from studying its wisdom. The Kabbalah Centre welcomes people of all spiritual, religious and national backgrounds.

"As a registered charity, the centre has to fund-raise to cover its administrative costs and outreach work, the effects of which are felt across the world on a daily basis, not least in Asia currently."

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