Hollywood and divine

Sometimes it seems it is almost impossible to open a newpaper without seeing a celebrity sporting the telltale red string of Kabbalah. But the founders of the global money-minting spiritual phenomenon remain shrouded in secrecy. Now, for the first time, Karen Berg has agreed to talk. Jocasta Shakespeare travels to its Beverly Hills HQ to meet Tinseltown's high priestess

The Observer, UK/August 27, 2006
By Jocasta Shakespeare

The face of a bearded mystic stares down from the wall of the inner sanctum. An ancient text written in Aramaic, called the Zohar, sits on a shelf below, and the sacred 72 names of God are emblazoned in arcane formulae on its pages. The mysterious guardians of this esoteric tradition are themselves shrouded in secrecy and speculation.

In spite of the dusty tome and white-robed guru, the temple of this religion is in Beverly Hills and its followers include such celebrities as David Beckham, Naomi Campbell, Demi Moore, Roseanne Barr, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and, most vociferously, Madonna - an A-list that rivals even that of Scientology, whose offices are nearby.

Kabbalah followers wear bracelets of red string around their wrists, supposedly to ward off the evil eye. Although influenced in the past by Freemasonry and the magical 'dark arts', Kabbalah has emerged anew into the glare of Hollywood. But no one knows whether Kabbalah is a benign institution or - as anti-cult activists and orthodox Rabbis claim - a dangerous cult run by charlatans. And no one knows who is really in control of this phenomenal 'spiritual' enterprise, with its 51 Kabbalah Centres worldwide from Rio to Bogota, and 3.5m converts.

The Kabbalah leaders are separated from their followers by their exalted and messianic position. It is impossible even to get into the Kabbalah Centre unless you are a signed-up student and have paid the £150 to join a Power of Kabbalah workshop. Even then, you will not glimpse the septuagenarian guru known as 'the Rav', or his wife Karen Berg in person unless you are lucky enough to be invited to join them at the dinner-dance they preside over on Friday nights in the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre.

The leaders of this ultra-exclusive club do not appear in public - it is only here, for the first time, that we are able to see inside Kabbalah and meet the woman who is its inspiration and controller.

Karen Berg controls this phenomenal organisation from her world headquarters in Hollywood. While her mate is assumed to be the messianic master, she oversees the day-to-day workings of the Kabbalah Centres and commands business expansion. 'The Enforcer' does not give interviews and, although journalists have tried to infiltrate and investigate her organisation, she has not directly answered questions or offered insight into the workings of the Kabbalah Centres.

In fact, she has hired a posse of publicists, media watchdogs and crisis management firms, as well as life coach Shore Slocum, to keep the inquisitive world at bay. While the list of celebrity followers grows and the glitterati claim Kabbalah as a spiritual tool to bring prosperity and fulfilment, Karen Berg and the Rav remain the mysterious and powerful instigators of this secret organisation.

It took The Observer a year to get this interview. Finally, Karen Berg agreed to talk about 'the spiritual role of women in the universe' and how she has made Kabbalah, once allowed only to Jewish men over the age of 40, accessible to men and women of all religious beliefs. But, even after months of final negotiation and checking of itineraries, when I finally arrive at the world headquarters in LA I find that a human shield of worried personal assistants and nervous media 'hosts' still separates me from Karen Berg. It is like visiting Cold War Russia, with my movements watched and checked by employees communicating within the Centre on closed-system mobile phones.

Waiting to meet Karen Berg, a phone is suddenly thrust into my hand. My media 'host' from the Visioneering Group is on the line. 'They are nervous,' he says. 'Your photographer is unsupervised, please keep the photographer with you at all times.' Our snapper has been waiting for two hours and is taking a turn around the inner courtyard. I wonder what they could be so nervous about - is David Beckham hiding behind a potted plant? Is Madonna canoodling in a corner? Are satanic rites being celebrated in the kitchen? Is Karen Berg really so in need of protection?

Next, I am ushered into a quiet courtyard. Then, at last, upstairs into the inner sanctum of Karen Berg's private office, where a tapestry of hunting dogs fawning upon their master hangs above a brown velvet sofa. Behind it, a fig tree spreads glossy leaves, and a faux-medieval painting of a Tree of Life completes the setting as I wait for the High Priestess of a 4,000-year-old mystery cult to reveal herself at last.

Instead a blonde, designer-clad woman with swaying hips emerges from behind a teak desk, a mug of coffee in her hand. She slumps on to the sofa facing me, lounging back against the velvet pile with one thigh resting on the cushions, the other leg stretched out in an obviously easy manner. As she grabs a gold-braided cushion to place it in her lap, her embroidered black skirt lifts over shapely shins and knees, revealing black patent leather pumps on dainty feet.

Karen Berg is ready to begin, but this is not what I was expecting. I was expecting a regal, icy approach and perhaps some modest ethnic garb - covered legs and arms, perhaps. This apparition of sexy-secretary-meets-Rodeo-Drive is disarming. She looks 10 years younger than her 64 years, with a Shelley Winters style of womanly lassitude that makes me think she must have given the old Rav a good time in his day.

She fixes me now with green eyes and says, 'I couldn't have done it without him: he has the knowledge.'

Her clothes may be designer LA, but her voice still has its New Yorker's twang. She winks at me, conspiratorially: 'The fact that I'm talking to you now means we probably had an encounter in the last lifetime.' This is Karen Berg, 64, Kabbalah Queen, head of a global 'spiritual' enterprise and Madonna's soul solution. Should I be flattered?

Platitudes fall from her lips - her favourite subjects are reincarnation, star signs, clothes and boys - or 'talking about relationships'. She has inspired a new 'technology for the soul' that shifts shedloads of DVDs and books called Divine Sex and Becoming Like God, as well as red-string wristbands costing £17 each and 'blessed' Kabbalah water costing nearly £4 a bottle. But her perfectly manicured nails and blow-dried hairdo, her assumption of casual intimacy and tea-lady's laugh suggest a happy housewife rather than a mystic muse.

It is as if the Wizard of Oz had suddenly revealed himself to be nothing but a little bald man with some good props. But her props are better and there is something fascinating about this Kabbalah powerhouse in the flesh. In her book God Wears Lipstick she says that what most women want is 'to eat chocolate, party, have sex, dance ... We want those diamond earrings and Jimmy Choo shoes', and the mundane nature of her desire is her charm. She is warm and friendly and I can't help liking her.

These days she lives a millionaire lifestyle, surrounded by servants and adored by beautiful and powerful celebrity icons. Her manicures are no doubt better than they used to be, but her values have not changed. Unlike her female followers, Berg herself wears a beautiful diamond bracelet as well the cheapo red string thing. Housewifely common sense has its compensations.

But it only goes so far. Berg says she met the Rav in a past life. 'In my last life, I was in the Spanish revolution. I was with the Rav and he refused to change his religion. I scooted off and left him [she winks again, to punctuate this girltalk moment]. I didn't have what it took to stay because the Spanish would have killed me and he said, "I'd sooner die than change what I am," and I said, "No, I'm leaving."' I ask how she knows this to be true and she shakes her head and laughs: 'Because you couldn't have the kind of chalk-and-cheese relationship we do and have so much love between us unless there was some kind of karma connection that happened before, you know?'

In this life, Karen met the future Rav when she was 16 years old and worked as his secretary in an insurance firm in Queens, New York. 'At first I didn't like him,' she says now. 'He was a different person.'

In fact, he was an orthodox Hasidic Jew and insurance salesman, born in Brooklyn in 1930, called Shraga Feivel Gruberger. He was also married with eight children.

Karen left the insurance firm to marry a builder at the age of 17 and had two daughters, Leah and Suri. Eight years later, when she was divorced, Karen met Gruberger again and felt 'strangely flustered' when asking him 'a little breathlessly' about his Kabbalah studies.

They met for dinner and, she says, 'I have to tell you, at that meeting it was all over. We knew instantly that we were meant for each other.' Gruberger abandoned his wife and children soon after this meeting with Karen and reinvented himself as 'Dr Philip Berg'.

Karen does not refer to her husband's first marriage or children in her books and, until now, her Mills & Boon-style account of the romance has been offered as its own justification. Now she says for the first time that their affair was the working of a higher power. Her fate was proven by a dream she had in which Gruberger's Kabbalah teacher appeared and spoke to her in Hebrew: 'I said, "I told'ya, Oh my God, how can I be with this guy, it's ridiculous?" When his teacher came to me in a dream it was sort of like, "Like it or not you're stuck: this is your path."' The study of dreams is offered as a Kabbalah Centre workshop and it is as if Karen's own psychological struggles are reflected in the course studies of her followers. It is tempting to say that Kabbalah is the manifestation of Karen Berg herself - plus a little Aramaic intoning from her bearded beloved.

Kabbalah is Karen's invention: a vast money-minting, non-profit, tax-exempt 'charity'. She has claimed copyright to the name 'Kabbalah Centre', retails the Zohar at £420 a set, and has successfully repackaged a 4,000-year-old Judaic tradition. Berg says now, 'I insisted that this wisdom be made available to the peoples: to everyone, of any age, gender or religious belief. I like to give myself a stripe for that.' She polishes an invisible badge on her left shoulder. 'I said, "If I can understand it, then anyone can." He said, "Do you realise this has never been done before?" I said, "So What!"' And so the Kabbalah Centre - and the Rav himself - was created.

After marrying Karen in 1971, Philip Berg began calling himself the Rav ('the Receiver'). He had set up a learning centre in Tel Aviv, and this was followed by another in New York. Now, 35 years later, Karen looks wistful when she remembers those early years: 'I had more then, than I do now: I had him, we had the girls, then we had our boys [Michael and Yehuda] and we had time to take them to the park, read stories, spend family time together.'

Here in Hollywood, the Rav has been welcomed as a messianic purveyor of the 'Light' - the Kabbalists' source of grace. Elizabeth Taylor endorsed his teachings as 'a light to lead me through the darkness', Winona Ryder wore a Kabbalah red-string bracelet during her shoplifting trial and, on her last tour, Madonna used Kabbalah's '72 names of God' as part of her set design; her teacher Yitzhak Sinwani performed a rap for the song 'Isaac'. The rumour that Madonna is splitting from Kabbalah is firmly refuted and advertising by celebrities has boosted income.

Although no one knows exactly how much Karen Berg is now worth, tax documents filed between 2000 and 2003 show assets of approximately $60m for five of the non-profit entities controlled by the Bergs and, last year, the Kabbalah Centre in LA alone grossed $27m. Philip Berg also sold the intellectual property rights to many of his writings and audio-tapes to his own Kabbalah Centre for $2.5m.

His wife is certainly able to live in swanky style, with an exclusive second home in Manhattan, suites in Hilton hotels when she travels overseas, real estate in nine American cities and, of course, the designer clothes. She is waited on, cooked for and cleaned for by 40 full-time volunteers called chevra. 'They look after my lifestyle,' she says. 'Which is great for me!'

Now she wants to defend her enormous wealth: 'How much money does the Church have? How much money does Harvard University have? Of course the Centre has money, but do you know of an organisation that functions without it?' We are a thriving organisation with many people all over the world doing a lot of great things. We've got volunteers all over Israel handing out Zohars - we handed out 250 sets for free in Israel last week.'

But what about the three mini-mansions built in Beverly Hills last year, using money donated to the Centre? One is now Karen's, and her sons, Yehuda, 34, and Michael, 33, were also given one each. If Kabbalah is a charity, Karen and her family are receiving more than just spiritual grace and favour.

She is irritated by those who would like to inhibit her enjoyment of the good things in life, which for her includes living in a flash villa built on prime Hollywood real estate. 'Well, the Centre is in Beverly Hills, so where should we live? How do we get there - fly? - because we don't know how to do that yet. I don't know. I do know our house is 2,400 square feet - it isn't exactly the biggest mansion on the block. The houses in Beverly Hills are small - so there's no way to build bigger than that.'

The implication is perhaps that if she could, she would build bigger. But 'after 35 years for us to live in a house, for people to take offence at that, I think it's a problem. Did they write about the seven years we lived in a back room at the Centre? We don't have a yacht that we travel the Mediterranean, we don't fly in our own airplanes, what do you mean, lavish?' Her voice has lost its warm tone. Suddenly, it seems this discussion is irritating her. Karen jumps up from the sofa and scoots towards the door. 'Got to go to the john!' she says, and breaks off the interview.

Later, Karen reappears: 'You want to see this place?' she asks, 'C'mon, I'll show ya.' She leads me through her carpeted office with its teak desk and framed photograph of the beardy Rav on the wall. 'Is this lavish?' She asks in an outraged tone.

Well, it is, quite ... yes. The multi-level lighting, the flurry of secretaries, the regal promenade through offices where workers stand as she enters, scattering chairs and breaking off phone calls. 'Is this lavish?' The word has permeated life-coach Shore Slocum's expensive teaching on media communications and my past-life connection has broken.

'Lavish ...' she mutters under her breath as we race through the warren of open-plan offices: 'This is graphic design ... here's legal ... IT ... customer service ... What's this? I don't know ... broom cupboard ... Spanish translation ... this year we opened in Chile, next year Argentina ... SFK [Spirituality for Kids] ...' On the wall in gold lettering is the phrase 'Catch a Miracle' and this outreach programme for at-risk children and teenagers is Karen's latest claim to charitable status. She walks fast, bored, perhaps, by the inner workings of her own vast hive. Outside, we walk a block in the noon-day heat to see the building of the Children's Academy - 'It's being rebuilt to school 300 children next year' - and the next block of workers' apartments. The chevra live here, four to one apartment, allegedly paid just $35 per month to cook, clean and skivvie for Karen and her family. 'Nice apartments!' she says looking up into the blue Californian sky. But lavish they are not.

Entering back into the Centre, we pass an aviary full of budgies and parakeets: 'They are my pretty things,' she says. 'I'm adopting a bear in Alaska, an orphan.' I am led on through an ornate conference room, with an inlaid marble table seating 14 and a massive chandelier, and upstairs to Karen's private apartment where she orders lunch. Two places are laid on a dining-room table under a Victoriana oil painting of cavorting kittens. A cook works in the kitchen to make a fish salad while Karen has her portrait taken by our photographer.

Next to the sitting room is a bedroom with a brocade bed and matching cushions placed on top of the pillows. A white nightdress is folded on the cover and white slippers placed at the foot of the bed. There is no sign of the Rav in here. On a table in the sitting room is a pot of orchids from the chevra, wishing her a 'happy Shabbat.' In the end, I eat alone.

The next time I see Karen, she is presiding over the local Kabbalah community of about 400 people, which shows itself off at its most exuberant during Shabbat on Friday nights. This is the moment when the Rav is required to perform as a messianic focus for this extravagant weekly event. Kabbalists add wild singing and dancing to this usually solemn Jewish ceremony, as well as an intention to receive what they call 'energy', which is a mix of personal good fortune and unexplained cosmic powers.

Families are already spilling out on to the street in joyful abandon when I arrive for this extraordinary Kabbalists' hoolie at eight o'clock in the evening. The entrance of the Centre is lit like a beacon in the Californian twilight as fathers carrying children on their shoulders come prancing out of the temple, where a huge stained-glass window depicts the 10 dimensions of the 'Upper' and 'Endless worlds'.

Inside the temple, the Rav is projected on to a giant screen for all to see. He is 76 years old and wears his kippah, spectacles and a long beard. A little doddery after his recent stroke, he intones the start of ceremonies in a melodic voice.

'Tonight is about being happy,' says Esther 41, who has been asked to 'host' me. 'Everything we do here is to draw down the energy for the week ahead. We try to be like the Creator: without fear, happy, overcoming the negative.' A rotund middle-aged man with a young wife and toddler waves at us. 'That's my husband,' she says 'and that's his new wife and you will meet my new husband. I met my husband and my new husband through Kabbalah and my old husband met his new wife here, too.' As a dating shop, the Centre does good business and the extended families and their many children here tonight testify to the success of Kabbalah classes on sharing and donating.

The dining room seats 200 people, each table laid with fan-folded purple napkins and a vase of sweet peas. Dinner costs $30 per head and we sit down to a feast of fish followed by beef and chicken with chocolate tiramisu for dessert. When the Rav enters, flanked by his sons and male associates, everyone in the room stands and applauds. He sits down with his family: Karen on his right hand side in a newly scrunched hairdo. Queen of this lavish occasion, her courtiers look longingly towards her table where she sits smiling happily.

I sit next to an ex-triathlete called Lisa Kessler. The networking is high octane: 'You coming on Tuesday?' a tall, greying man calls over to Lisa. 'Sure!' she shouts back and then whispers: 'He has an opening at De Beers, he's a high-end jeweller to the stars.' She pours me a glass of Bordeaux from a bottle produced tonight by the friend of the owner of a funky new LA wine outlet.

Then Joey Dedio, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words 'got questions' approaches Esther to talk about his film Downtown, featuring Petula Clark, to be shown in the UK this winter. 'What would I do without these people?' he jokes when he hears that I'm an English journalist. 'They make my life! They do it for me!' and he takes my email address before Esther can stop him. (I am not supposed to communicate with anyone who has not been vetted and prepared by Karen's media shield.) All around the room, people are mingling, chatting, flirting, doing business, and Lisa, who comes here every week, says, 'Shabbat is not about the food.'

Once the food has been cleared by the chevra, we begin what Esther calls 'getting an elevated consciousness', which means singing, jumping up and down, clapping and staring at the projection of an ancient Kabbalist's tomb. The men form a circle around Karen and the Rav, while the women stand behind them clapping. ' Lailai, la la la lailai ...' The mood is raucous. Now people are yelling and banging on the tabletops, men raise their fists into the air, grinning fiercely. 'Happiness is control,' says Esther.

During a lull, talk around my table turns to the Kabbalists' favourite subject: star signs. 'You're a rising Sag?' Esther asks Lisa. 'You're a loner.' And Lisa replies, 'But I have corrected myself.' Esther says, 'I have Capricorn rising, I like to cook and nest.' Lisa says she nests more, now that she has six kids.

Suddenly there is silence and everyone opens palms to the ceiling, as if testing for rain. There is a noticeable decrease in sparkle as women's hands, bearing an array of diamonds, are turned downwards. It is approaching midnight and babies have fallen asleep on their mothers' chests. Finally, the Rav and the family leave the room and the chevra begin re-laying for lunch the next day.

The speed with which the room now empties reminds me of one of Karen Berg's more bizarre beliefs: 'The best time for sex is Friday evening after midnight.' This is when 'the purest souls waiting to incarnate sit around God. They are watching the couples as they copulate.' If they like what they see, the new souls 'come down'. It may not sound arousing, but she says, 'it's perfectly natural to enjoy it.'

It is true that the Kabbalah Centres make many people feel very happy and fulfilled. In the spiritual supermarket, Kabbalah is one of the less toxic products: a psychotherapeutic study on the individual level, with courses that teach self-awareness, responsibility and the need to contribute to society.

But perhaps the happiest and most fulfilled Kabbalah convert is Karen Berg herself. She has built up an enviable family business and, while her husband is faltering, she has reached the apex of her own powers. Now in her prime, she is not about to abdicate her position.

'I think that where I am at the moment is where I'm going to be for the rest of my life. Kabbalah is not a job. I don't play golf, not tennis. Because in the evening after five o'clock, we have meetings with the teachers, I will invite the girls over and we watch a movie together - with the chevra - we have time to become friends. My kids are next to me today. Nobody has left.' And yet, I am left with a feeling of Karen Berg's loneliness now that she has reached the zenith of her ambition - watching her favourite movie Groundhog Day again, at night in her private apartment with a handful of volunteer workers for company. So might any Roman Empress have felt, before the fall.

Last year, the Rav suffered a massive bilateral stroke and what most people must want to know now is - who is going to inherit his title and his power? Karen's sons Michael and Yehuda have dedicated a lifetime of work to help build up the family business.

When asked who will inherit the Rav title she smiles and answers vaguely. 'Not Michael ... and not Yehuda,' she decides. Not the girls - they are very sweet, but they come from a different place.' She mentions a teacher, Eitan Yerdeni, as a possibility. But could there ever be a female Rav? 'Sure!' she says, almost too quickly. 'Since the Rav has been sick I have taken on many more roles, wearing more hats, I'm stronger now than I ever was.' If nobody has realised who is really sitting on the Kabbalah throne, they should wake up and smell the incense.

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