Stars of David

The celebrity devotees like Madonna, the Kabbalah Learning Center is a ray of light. To critics, its teachings are a cultish New Age travesty of one of Judaism's most sacred texts.

Los Angeles Magazine/December 1998
By Stacie Stukin

One balmy June evening, Sandra Bernhard joined the nearly 300 people at the Kabbalah Learning Centre who had paid 10 bucks to learn how to connect with the positive-energy life force of this Cancerian month. Very pregnant and just a couple of weeks away from delivering her baby girl, Bernhard, who learned about the center from her personal trainer, sat in the back of the room taking notes.

Located on Robertson Boulevard just south of Beverly Hills, where shopping at Robert Clergerie and Agnes B precedes lunch at the Ivy, the center hawks an admixture of the ancient Jewish practice of Kabbalah, or mysticism, with a thick schmeer of New Age, self-help and a shot of astrology all designed to "correct" the negativity in our lives. Sandy Gallin, a former talent manager (Dolly Parton, Mariah Carey) who was introduced to the teachings of the center one evening at Roseanne's house, says, "Whether it's Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, est. Lifespring, Kabbalah or Buddhism, it's all essentially about either God or the light within. They all teach us to do our best, to follow the higher being."

The center is one place where Madonna says she can follow her higher being without feeling like a celebrity. She consulted it about what day to give birth to her daughter (a full moon) and how many tracks to put on her latest release, Ray of Light (13). On the album credits, she thanked the center for "creative guidance."

But despite the Hollywood-heavy turnout at a cocktail party for the center the Material Girl hosted last year and accolades from students like Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Diane Ladd and Courtney Love, critics claim that the center separates families, pressures students for exorbitant donations and preys on the weak. National cult expert Rick Ross says the center appears to be a mind-control cult more interested in money than spirituality. And rabbis object that its teachings are a quick-fix bastardization of a sacred Jewish tradition.

Madonna and pals Bernhard and Roseanne have given the once esoteric Kabbalistic group a public relations boost that's making the Los Angeles-based center one of the most controversial Jewish organizations in the city. And its reach doesn't stop at the Robertson building, purchased seven years ago for $2 million. There's the $4.5 million Kabbalah Centre headquarters in Tel Aviv and the $4 million investment in a midtown Manhattan building. In addition, the center has branches in six other U.S. cities and in South America, Canada, France and Mexico. Says Eva Kroh, a student who began studying nine years ago when LA Kabbalah students met in a small Westwood apartment, "I always thought that if people only knew they could alleviate the chaos in their lives, they would have been here years ago. I don't know what took them so long." But for many who have had direct contact with the centers, it has not been all about sweetness and light.

Los Angeles rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, executive director of Jews for Judaism, questions the religious integrity of the center's teachings and fears for those who connect with it during hard times. Kravitz counseled a young Russian woman active at the LA center, who had recently miscarried and was severely depressed. Her teachers at the center, she told the rabbi, said her problem was demonic possession. If she bought the Zohar, a 13th-century book that contains the tenets of Kabbalah, and scanned the letters with her fingers (it didn't matter that she couldn't read Hebrew), only then, she was told, could she unleash the power of the text and be relieved of her suffering. "She came to me feeling manipulated and taken advantage of," Kravitz recalls. "She had spent thousands of dollars on books, and the pain had not gone away. I told her to return the books and put it out of her life because, really, they were making her crazy."

Soon after, on a Friday afternoon before Shabbat, Kravitz and his son were using the Beverly Hills mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, when, he says, they were surrounded by several people who identified themselves as members of the Kabbalah Learning Centre. They screamed at Kravitz, saying that he was evil for advising the woman to sever her ties with them. "At that point, one of them spit on me-literally and physically spit on me," Kravitz marvels. "I was really scared. I feared for my life." Debbie Pine, director of LA's now closed Maynard Bernstein Resource Center on Cults, says that since 1997 she has received more than 20 complaints about the center. But is the Kabbalah Learning Centre a cult? "Look, no one wants to keep files on groups, particularly Jewish groups," Pine says. "But it's wrong not to recognize that something hurtful is going on, that people are being manipulated, families are breaking up and money is being spent."

Money is also being made. The center maintains a religious organization's tax-exempt status. In addition to fees for classes, the center also collects revenues from books, video- and audiotapes and copies of the Zohar, which can cost up to $345. The center also solicits donations from students, and former members say even those in the most precarious financial situations are asked to "give until it hurts." That was the case of a Los Angeles-area man who says a rabbi at the center told him if he made a $26,000 donation "there would be so much light in my life I wouldn't believe it." It didn't matter that his marriage was on the rocks and he and his wife were struggling to rebuild the business they lost in the Northridge earthquake.

At the helm of this burgeoning organization is an elusive figure with imposing girth. Rabbi Philip Berg is a man whose followers believe has special powers and can channel God's word; one center teacher says Berg cured his Crohn's disease, and another longtime student claims Berg's teachings gave her the protection to confront an armed mugger. Berg believes so strongly in the power of the Zohar that he teaches that Sephardic Jews escaped the ravages of the Holocaust because, unlike their European brethren, they studied Kabbalah. He rarely grants interviews-he declined to speak for this story-and his reputation within the Jewish rabbinical community is as controversial as his center. In tight-knit Los Angeles religious circles, where most of the rabbis know each other, it's hard to find any who have actually met Berg.

The running of the center has become a family affair for Berg, a New Yorker born in 1929 and ordained in the 1950s. At his side are his second wife Karen and their two sons, rabbis Michael and Yehuda Berg. A former insurance salesman, Berg was introduced to Kabbalah in 1962 when he went to Israel and attended the original Kabbalah Learning Centre, founded in 1922. When the center's leader, Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, died in 1969, Berg claims the elder passed the directorship on to him. He and his wife started teaching Kabbalah in Israel and in 1981 brought their unique brand of Jewish mysticism to the United States.

Even though the center has published a collection of correspondence between Berg and Brandwein that purports to illustrate their close relationship, Brandwein's family vehemently denies any connection to Berg, and Rabbi Itzhak Kaduri, considered Israel's top Kabbalistic expert, has said, "Whomever is supporting Mr. Berg financially or otherwise, or any of his affiliated organizations, is endangering his soul."

"People will say whatever they want," says Chaim Solomon, a center teacher since 1987. "The Orthodox community disagrees that we're teaching Kabbalah not only to Jews who know nothing but also to some non-Jews. Right away, that flies in the face of everything they believe in and everything they've been taught. If nothing else, we're bringing people closer to their souls and awakening their spirituality. How can that be wrong?"

The center attempts to bring this awakening through the allure of free introductory courses. On a recent Tuesday evening, nearly 40 cram into a small classroom at the LA center to see what Kabbalah can do for them. Their instructor Raffi Feig, a portly man with 13 years of study at the center, begins the hard sell. "Trust me," he says with the thick accent that betrays his Israeli heritage. "I'm a busy guy. I have better things to do. I'm here tonight because I know what this can do." He explains that the secrets of Jewish mysticism can be unleashed by simply scanning the text of the Zohar. If you can't read Hebrew, no matter; just touching the letters with your finger can unleash the power. Then he points to the tome on a nearby shelf and assuredly says, "All the answers are here. We want control over our health, we want financial security and better relationships. Kabbalah isn't magic, but it gives us the tools we need to get control over our lives."

For hundreds of years, the secrets of Kabbalah have been reserved for an elite coterie of Judaic scholars. It is written that only men over 40 whose lives are dedicated to the Talmud are allowed to study the sacred text of the Zohar, and those who dare to dabble may go insane. While Sephardic and Hasidic Jews have incorporated some Kabbalistic teachings into their religious practices, in recent years many Los Angeles-area synagogues and Jewish educational institutions have added Kabbalah to their curricula to feed Jews hungry for a deeper religious experience. "People want to be involved in mystical Judaism right now-they're looking for direct experience, and they want to know God is real and not something that happens to someone else in a book somewhere," says Roger Kamenetz, author of Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today's Jewish Mystical Masters.

"That's the good news," Kamenetz continues. "But the fact they may be finding this out in a context that may be manipulative is very unfortunate because there are many other places to find that same good news."

Another place Angelenos go in search of Jewish spiritual awakening is Metivta: A Center for Jewish Wisdom, founded by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, who has been studying and teaching Kabbalah for 25 years. Omer-Man takes issue with Berg's approach to Kabbalah. "The center may be filling a yearning for simplicity, but they're going about it without doing the hard work, and I think that's irresponsible," he says. "While I don't believe there is any such thing as a cult, this is an organization I wouldn't want someone I love to get involved with."

Still, the center's Hollywood connection has been a public relations bonanza, even if some of the celebrities are no longer willing to testify in print. Sandra Bernhard, a devoted follower, has said, "My DNA has changed-my whole way of being has changed. My energy, my understanding, my compassion, my level of tolerance and patience is something I never dreamed I was capable of." But her publicist Teresa Redburn said Bernhard didn't want to talk about Kabbalah or the center for this story because "it's just getting too trendy."

In Hollywood, the pursuit of unorthodox spirituality has long bee a staple in a town where sudden thunderous fame and wealth-and their equally sudden departure-encourage soul-searching. And ever since Aimee Semple McPherson took her Echo Park ministry to theatrical heights, enlisting Charlie Chaplin to advise her and Anthony Quinn to play the sax, the metaphysical movements of the moment are often headed by charismatics who share an uncanny facility for making money. In the early '60s, stars such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Jayne Mansfield became followers of Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, who played the devil in Roman Polanski's 1968 film Rosemary's Baby. The Beatles, most devotedly George Harrison, briefly fell under the influence of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; Demi Moore is a Deepak Chopra booster; the President and Mrs. Clinton have consulted self-help avatars Tony Robbins and Marianne Williamson. Steven Seagal was recently elevated to the title of "tulku"-a reincarnated lama-by the Supreme Head of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism. And Scientology counts among its members top celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Kevin Fisher, a UCLA graduate writing his Ph.D. dissertation on altered states of consciousness in Hollywood films, points out that the attraction of celebrities to alternative religions has more to do with weak egos and the mass psychology of the Industry than a true spiritual quest. "Whether you become a star or not is so arbitrary, it's basically like gambling. When you finally get it, it's like the finger of God came down upon you," Fisher says. "Now that you've essentially won the lottery, just as capriciously as it's been given, it can be taken away. So there's a real urge to find the reason you're a star and to figure out how you've been touched by a spiritual power."

The search takes some from the Kabbalah Learning Centre straight into the most conservative ranks of the city's top Jewish educators. Rabbi Yitzchok Alderstein, a faculty member at Yeshiva of Los Angeles and Loyola Law School, received a request from Madonna to attend his Passover Kabbalah lecture. He said no. "My suspicion was Madonna was into that hokum stuff they teach at the center," he says. "I didn't suppose what I was saying would be of interest to her, and I didn't need the spectacle of her in class.

"Teaching Kabbalah the way they do," Alderstein adds, "is the Jewish equivalent of gathering the entire collection of Rembrandt masterpieces and displaying them on a world tour of mosh pits."

Rabbi Stephen Robbins of Congregation N'vay Shalom was first exposed to the Kabbalah Learning Centre in the early '80s when he was rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills and the group was using the temple's facilities. "They weren't even teaching the basic tenets of Kabbalah," says Robbins, who is also a Kabbalah instructor at the University of Judaism. "I asked them to leave the synagogue after I saw their incomplete teaching approach and witnessed pressure to give money." Robbins, who is also a licensed therapist, has counseled more than a dozen individuals who say the center put intense emotional pressure on them to leave their spouses and donate money beyond their means.

But many in the Jewish community are reluctant to openly criticize the center, citing a $4.5 million lawsuit it filed against renowned Toronto Kabbalistic scholar Rabbi Immanuel Schochet after he called Berg and his followers "fakers and charlatans." During Passover of 1992, LA rabbi Avrohom Union, the administrator of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of California, faxed some colleagues a letter circulated by a Canadian Jewish organization that stated the Toronto rabbis did not endorse or approve of their city's Kabbalah center. Later in the day, Union, who was considering issuing a similar letter from California, was visited by a man who told him in Hebrew that he could get hurt for sending such a document. The next morning, when he arrived at his office, he found a grocery bag hanging on the doorknob. Inside was a skinned sheep's head. "I was more shocked than frightened," he says. Later that evening, two men came to his home and, again in Hebrew, asked if he had received their message. "I have no proof they were from the Kabbalah Centre," Union says of his ominous offering and insists, "But needless to say, I never sent out that letter."

The center denies any involvement with the incident, and from the looks of an average Saturday Shabbat service, it's a stretch to imagine that the men who fill the sanctuary could be capable of such acts. With prayer shawls over their shoulders and yarmulkes covering their heads, the observation of the Sabbath at the center is an energetic, impressive sight. It's hard not to be moved by the sheer luminosity of men dressed all in white, chanting and reading Hebrew.

At the helm of this worship service sits Rabbi Berg himself. Wearing a floor length white robe, he is undeniably a commanding presence. Berg believes that man can prevent earthquakes-a handy miracle in Southern California. You'd expect him to deliver a Shabbat sermon titled "Prevent Earthquakes: Take Control of the Acts of God." Instead, he sounds more like Luke Skywalker. "By dialing into the light force," he urges the service; "We don't have to suffer the trauma of an earthquake in Southern California or anywhere."

But the room begins to thunder when he rants to the faithful, "The other rabbis may call me a charlatan, but no doctor, no psychiatrist, no banker, no accountant, no one but us can provide the positive attitude we need to rid our lives from the manipulation of religion and the chaos."

In the meantime, the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre continues to grow. Its star teacher is a 35-year-old named Eitan Yardeni. Yardeni, a cocky Israeli who favors three-button suits, is wise to the fact that this is a town where many sacrifice spiritual fulfillment for the trappings of ego and material gain, and he privately teaches Madonna, Liz Taylor and Roseanne. Yardeni dismisses criticism of the center and its teachings as petty jealousy.

"It doesn't bother us," he says. "It's good advertising."

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