West Boca · Six people sat around two tables watching an introduction video on the teachings of Kabbalah one Monday evening. An instructor explained how Kabbalah helps students uproot sources of negativity in their minds and hearts and opens them to the spiritual energy that will connect with the world of the Light, or God.
At the end of the 45-minute session, the instructor encouraged attendees to register for a six-week course to learn about the power of Kabbalah. The course costs $270.
For seven years, the Kabbalah Centre west of Boca Raton has been growing through these weekly, free meetings in a modular building with stained carpets and sparse furnishings. The work is about to pay off.
The center, the only one in Palm Beach and Broward counties, plans to move soon into a $7.5 million, two-story building accented with golden domes and arched colonnades.
The center's philosophy, based on an ancient teaching rooted in Jewish mysticism, has attracted celebrity adherents like such as Madonna and Demi Moore, along with hundreds of people in the county looking to find happiness and success.
The new home will accommodate 700 people, up from the 250 allowed in the temporary mobile home in the gravel parking lot of the new building on West Palmetto Park Road west of Florida's Turnpike, said David Langer, the spokesman for the learning center, which is based in Los Angeles.
The new center has 35,000 square feet and includes a 13-room dormitory, classrooms, an auditorium and offices.
Getting to this point hasn't been easy. Construction of the house of worship took three years, twice the time a building of this size often takes, said Rebecca Caldwell, the county's building official.
The center changed its architectural plans a dozen times, which caused delays, she said.
Failed final inspections also set the project back, Caldwell added. In late December, the center hoped to hold a grand-opening ceremony by mid-February, but the event has been postponed until further notice.
In late January, the center got a temporary occupancy permit.
The palatial building, in a way, speaks to the popularization of a belief born 4,000 years ago and restricted to a privileged few male rabbis and Torah scholars, said Nathan Katz, director of Florida International University's Center for the Study of Spirituality and a professor of religious studies.
The Kabbalah Centre is a contemporary movement that claims to base itself on Kabbalah, he said; it made Kabbalah user-friendly and opened it to women and people from all religions.
Founded in Jerusalem in 1922, the center was brought to the United States in 1984 by Kabbalists Philip Berg and his wife, Karen. Their sons Yehuda and Michael are directors and spiritual leaders of the organization.
The Kabbalah Centre raises money and recruits and educates followers through courses, Web classes, books, DVDs and blogs by the Bergs.
A red string, which is worn on the left wrist, is for sale on the center's Web site and is said to protect people from jealousy and envy. Followers read the Zohar, a 2,000-year-old commentary in Aramaic on the Bible.
Most Kabbalah students don't understand Aramaic, but by merely looking at the text they benefit from the power of the Zohar, the instructor told the crowd during the Monday session.
Not everybody embraces the modern teaching of Kabbalah.
Traditional religious leaders criticize the Kabbalah Centre for commercializing and distorting Kabbalah, Katz said. He summarized their views by paraphrasing a comment by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an authority in Jewish education: "Popular Kabbalah is to genuine Kabbalah as pornography is to love," he said.
Katz said the Kabbalah Centre is a New Age religion that tries to fill holes left open by traditional religions.
"In general, people are dissatisfied," he said. "But people have a soul and look for spirituality outside synagogues and churches."
Some consider the center a religious cult, where leaders seem to take financial advantage of their adherents and tend to distance followers from their family and community.
"Some say that the Kabbalah Centre does all of these," he said.
The Kabbalah Centre has thousands of students around the world, and about 400 of them attend the center in Palm Beach County, Langer said. About 100 students a year have been joining the center west of Boca Raton in recent years, he said. There are 26 centers worldwide, including one in Miami.
The Kabbalah Centre gained popularity a few years ago when Madonna became a devotee. Other celebrities associated with the center have included Lindsay Lohan and Ashton Kutcher.
Kabbalah teaches that each person is a work in progress and needs to let go of anger, jealousy and other reactive behaviors in favor of patience, empathy and compassion, according to the center's Web site.
"They will then experience fulfillment and joy in a way previously unknown to them," according to the center.