Rabbis slam school Kabbalah classes

The Jewish Chronicle, UK/June 13, 2008

Two Orthodox rabbis have expressed grave concerns and called for government intervention after it emerged that a charity linked to the controversial Kabbalah Centre has been establishing a foothold in a number of UK primary and secondary schools.

After the JC made inquiries at one Catholic school, Westminster's St Vincent de Paul, it suspended lessons run by workers from the charity, Spirituality For Kids (SFK).

SFK workers have been giving lessons in schools in two London boroughs, Westminster and Tower Hamlets. Parents have not been told about the lessons because they come under personal health, social and citizenship education, not religious study.

The Kabbalah Centre sprang to prominence after attracting celebrity supporters such as Madonna and Demi Moore. But it has faced serious criticisms over its aggressive fundraising and what some cult-monitoring agencies have claimed is its destructive impact on the lives of some individuals who become involved.

Four years ago, the Chief Rabbi took the unusual step of issuing, together with the London Beth Din and the United Synagogue, a public warning to be read out in synagogues. "In the light of issues which have been brought to our attention relating to the Kabbalah Centre in the UK," it stated, "we wish it to be known that this organisation does not fall within the remit of the Chief Rabbinate or any other authority in the UK recognised by us."

Two United Synagogue rabbis, Barry Marcus of the Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street, and Yitzchok Schochet from Mill Hill, viewed the latest news as a sinister development.

Rabbi Marcus, who assisted a BBC Panorama exposé on the centre, said: "It was quite a shock to read that these people are being allowed into schools.They have an agenda which is getting to the adults and their money through the children. They have become a lot more sophisticated since they started in the 1990s and are exploiting the naïvete of schools, which are playing with fire.

"The Panorama programme did a lot of damage but they seem to have regrouped. The problem is when this all begins to unravel, people will say it is kabbalah, it's Jewish and the community will be blamed by association."

Rabbi Schochet said: "The Kabbalah Centre never makes reference to God. There is nothing Jewish mentioned in Kabbalah Centres but they are peddling themselves on the back of being an ancient part of the Jewish faith. The themes taught by SFK are similar to those in Kabbalah centres, but dumbed down.

"When these ideas are implanted in such young, innocent minds, they will make a lasting impression."

But although the rabbis told the schools to beware of the messages being given to the children and suggested schools' freedom to introduce such groups should be curbed, one headmaster of a Roman Catholic primary initially told the JC how well the lessons fitted with his school's ethos.

Children were taught to find "the light" and reject an inner voice called "the opponent", Jack O'Neill, head of St Vincent de Paul, said. "We heard about SFK at a conference and we approached them to come in. They have not asked for any money for anything .

"I and my staff have been very happy with the lessons. It's a straightforward programme that gets children to reflect on choices they make and how they make them.

"One of the biggest festivals is Easter and 'the light' with reference to Christ sits very comfortably," he added.

"There has been no reference to Jewish spirituality, the Kabbalah or any such thing. There has not been one iota of anything Jewish." He described his school as "one of the most orthodox, conservative Roman Catholic schools".

But later Mr O'Neill said that after talking to his diocese - in charge of the religious side of the school - he had decided to suspend the lessons "for the moment".

He said: "The school has used the SFK programme as a part of its personal, social, health, and citizenship education. The school has monitored use of the programme carefully and is now reviewing its use in conjunction with the education service of the Diocese of Westminster. Pending the outcome of the review, use of the SFK programme has been suspended."

Rabbi Schochet said the government should intervene to exercise more control over what schools could allow through their doors. "The government has allowed free rein to schools without appreciating what is going on," he said. He said he would join forces with Rabbi Marcus to counter what he described as "a threat to society as a whole".

Two schools in Tower Hamlets, Oaklands Secondary and Lawdale Primary, have been working with SFK. A Tower Hamlets spokesman said: "SFK originally approached Oaklands. Oaklands works closely with Lawdale and SFK now also work with Year 6 pupils at Lawdale.

"SFK is just one of a number of different organisations that work within our schools, all of which are supervised and closely monitored."

The Kabbalah Centre was given the opportunity to comment, but had not done so as the JC went to press.

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