The Accidental Kabbalist

Seeking a spiritual lift, our reporter enrolled in classes at the Kabbalah Centre, only to discover himself involved with a group under fire from Kabbalah experts, cult-watchers and disgruntled ex-members.

City Link Magazine--Broward and South Beach, Florida/January 24, 2001
By Art Levine

"Suppose this hidden wisdom revealed all the secrets of the universe, all the solutions to your problems ... " from Power of Kabbalah by Rabbi Yehuda Berg

I was in one of my periodic funks when I heard about the Kabbalah Centre awhile ago. Since I'd long been seeking miracles in the secular world for my assorted complaints, ranging from back pain to low-grade malaise, I thought it was finally time for a spiritual makeover, looking to God as perhaps the ultimate personal trainer. After my flings with self-help courses, alternative healers and herbal cures, why not return to my Jewish roots and seek answers in the 2,000-year-old wisdom of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah? Besides, Madonna thought it was cool, too.

Madonna, along with such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, Rosie O'Donnell, Sandra Bernhard, Barbra Streisand and Jeff Goldblum, has helped give the once arcane study of Kabbalah new cachet. But the pop trendiness of it all troubles some local Jewish authorities: "It's a sad day for Judaism when an [ancient] tradition depends on Madonna attending a class to make it acceptable for Jews," notes Rabbi Terry Bookman of Miami's Temple Beth Am and the author of The Busy Soul.

Still, for disaffected Jews like myself who barely attended synagogue and non-Jews seeking another exotic route to enlightenment, the Kabbalah Centre has become probably the most popular place to go. The two centers in South Florida - in Boca Raton and, until recently, Aventura - are part of a network of nearly 40 assorted centers worldwide that have drawn since 1969 a claimed 3.4 million visitors. Whatever the truth about the group's attendance, there's little question that it's one of the fastest-growing, and most profitable, spiritual phenomena in the country.

The group has raked in enough to collect high-priced real estate around the world: a $4.5 million headquarters in Tel Aviv, a $2 million headquarters in Los Angeles and a $4 million investment in a midtown Manhattan building. The New York branch alone has more than $20 million in net assets, according to its 1999 IRS filing. As an Orthodox rabbi and former insurance salesman (real name: Feivel Gruberger), "Rav" (Rabbi) Philip Berg, 72, with his wife Karen, and their two sons, has figured out how to harness the power of the Kabbalah, turning the Centre into a multimillion-dollar organization to spread the mystic word to Jews and non-Jews alike.

Here in South Florida, the Kabbalah centers seem to be booming. Since opening in November 1993, the centers have drawn about 18,000 people to take courses or buy an array of books, tapes and other materials. Last week, the Miami-Dade office moved to a new Miami Beach headquarters on Collins Avenue and officials are securing more land for a new building. The opening ceremonies on Jan. 17, designed to promote a spate of new courses with such titles as "True Prosperity" and "Health and Healing," drew a large turnout of more than 150 people, ranging from twentysomethings to middle-aged baby boomers to senior citizens.

Inside a large, white, chapel-like room decorated with framed Hebrew letters, including the all-powerful "72 names of God," followers and potential recruits were told about the personal happiness that would be available to them if they just applied the principles and tools of the Kabbalah. These included, they would soon discover, scanning" the revered Zohar text in Aramaic by looking at the letters without needing to know their meaning and drinking bottles of allegedly curative Kabbalah" Mountain Spring Water blessed by the group's founder, Rav Berg. As with all the other centers, the new site features the slogan "Improving People's Lives."

But critics of the group, I discovered months after enrolling in courses at the Miami-Dade office, paint a far darker picture. "They don't practice what they preach," one former member says. The organization is under fire from Kabbalah authorities, ex-members, investigative journalists and cult-monitoring experts. These attacks are reflected in some disturbing allegations, appearing in everything from Israeli, Jewish and California publications to reports by American Jewish organizations: low-paid staffers are said to use scare tactics in door-to-door peddling of overpriced $345 Zohars, including threatening a few elderly couples in Boca Raton; vulnerable, even ill, members are preyed on for exorbitant donations or purchases of merchandise; Rav Berg has absolute authority in the group and is seen as a godlike figure with supernatural powers; and he in turn exploits his ill-paid, exhausted "volunteers" with degrading, menial tasks, such as cleaning his wife's slippers with a toothbrush. The organization has vigorously denied such charges.

A few South Florida families also are charging that the group's two local centers have used "mind control" to exploit their college-age children to work like "slaves" for the centers. One mother, who remains anonymous in part because of fear of retaliation, has watched helplessly as her son has nearly abandoned a high-achieving college career to focus on earning more money to donate to the center, while exhausting himself with lowly tasks for them. A few families are concerned that some members are engaging in coed ritual bathing - a complete perversion of the sacred Orthodox immersion ritual at a "mikveh," or ritual pool, which is done separately by each sex as a purification for such events as the Sabbath or 12 days after menstruation.

Charges of intimidation, greed and broken families also plague the Kabbalah organization. Critics say the group and its supporters sometimes threaten perceived enemies or wayward members who won't donate money. One critic, a Los Angeles rabbi, found a severed sheep's head outside his door. And one veteran ex-worker for the group, Ruth Bronstat of Tel Aviv, even alleges that she saw Karen Berg bring cash from the U.S. and elsewhere in suitcases; Bronstat also observed that the Centre in Tel Aviv used a dual set of books for accounting.

Moreover, the Centre allegedly spurs the breakup of marriages and families when members' involvement in the group strains their ties with their families, even promoting adultery among members by claiming their current spouses aren't their "soul mates."

"They're the closest thing to Scientology I've ever seen," says Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, director of the Los Angeles division of the anti-cult Jews for Judaism, of the Centre.

The Centre's national spokesman, Rabbi Yehuda Grundman, calmly dismisses all the assorted charges as lies or distortions. "Too many people have gone through the Centre [successfully] to neutralize the claim that the Centre is a cult," he says. "It's so easy to make slanderous remarks. For every negative story, there's 10,000 people who are happy with what they got."

The Centre's lure is indisputable. Its come-on for its beginner's course typically tells would-be Kabbalists: "Kabbalah means 'to receive.' What we're looking for in life is fulfillment so how come we don't have it? We're missing the rules of the game of life, and Kabbalah gives us the rules of how to receive fulfillment." For a mere $150 for a 10-week course, the course booklet adds, you can find out the secrets of existence for yourself. These include a class on "What makes miracles happen? Secret codes to change your physical and metaphysical DNA."

The Centre's Miami-Dade office in Aventura was - until it moved to Miami Beach last week - a cheery strip-mall storefront located right next to a Subway sandwich shop and Circuit City. Among posters of the swirling cosmos was the evidence of how brilliantly they cater to spiritual seekers, packaging New Age pursuits with Kabbalah in their lecture series and on the shelves of their store, turning the center into a one-stop shopping bazaar for aspiring mystics. For sale were tapes on Soulmate Secrets, Kabbalistic astrology and, for more material concerns, Kabbalah and Business: Eight Provocative Principles for Prosperity and Profit.

I was finally hooked by this bold promise in their catalog: "In 10 classes, you will learn the purpose of life, the source of all suffering and a strategy for personal fulfillment." At last, here was an approach to spiritual growth for those seeking a form of instant gratification, Kabbalah-style. You could find new meaning in life while getting even more of the goodies life has to offer.

Or so it seemed when I joined roughly 30 other people to hear about the glories that awaited us by studying Kabbalah.

When I arrived for my first class, sweet-natured young women, some from Israel, greeted me with big smiles. It was an unusual and slightly unsettling sight: lots of Jews smiling. It must be a cult! I thought for a moment, but then dismissed such doubts. My concerns were eased somewhat by my teacher, Avi Nahmias, a portly, good-natured Israeli recently transferred to the Kabbalah center from Paris. (His class was just one of about 15 classes and lectures offered by the center that semester.)

His enthusiasm was inspiring and persuasive, despite his thick Israeli accent. He told us how the Kabbalah gave him the answers to life's questions, and the program we were taking was designed by Rav Berg, the heir, Avi claimed, to the tradition of a distinguished Kabbalist yeshiva in Jerusalem founded in 1922.

Avi then incited our hopes by the simple act of encouraging us to shout out everything we wanted in life, as a dutiful new student, a middle-aged blond woman, wrote it down on a chalkboard: "Health!" "Happiness!" "Love!" "Money!" "Knowledge!" "More Money!" So much for selflessly serving a higher power.

The group's appeal seemed clear from this class. All that we hoped for was possible for us because, Avi told us, "Kabbalah has the knowledge, Kabbalah has the power." The way to tap into the power of God that the Kabbalists call the Light is to follow a variation on the golden rule, Avi said: "The only way to help myself is by helping you; it's the only system to have everything I want to receive from this Light." Indeed, he promised us, "What you call a miracle is a way of life for Kabbalists."

The center's pop cosmology reduced a complex, demanding tradition into an accessible Kabbalah-for-Dummies. Most Kabbalist authorities denounce Berg's E-Z approach as either a distortion or oversimplification of what the various strands of the Kabbalah say. Still, their basic themes made sense to me and seemed, at first glance, to promote helpful behavior and attitudes. Of course, their basic points and practices may all be balderdash, but it's impossible to know if they're any more or less true than, say, Christianity's belief in the virgin birth. But what is clear, if the allegations about the group's misconduct are true, is that they've taken what could be sound spiritual principles and used them to justify greed, exploitation and abuse.

In keeping with the broad themes of Kabbalah, the center taught the basic notion that the best way to connect with God is to try to be more like God ourselves. Reflecting a view common to a range of New Age philosophies, Avi told us, "We have the power to create what we want." Among other points, the course also taught us that if we're to receive fulfillment - also called the Light or energy - we need to stop our selfish, instinctive "reactive" behavior and act in a more God-like, "proactive" way, especially when faced with upsetting situations.

They also taught other principles that at first seemed benign, but perhaps served as a justification for the alleged staff exploitation and hardball fundraising tactics by the group. But as a new student, the pointers appeared to be an appropriate response to the challenges we faced in life. Such difficulties were, they claimed, generally caused by the "tikun," or correction, our souls needed for bad or "reactive" behavior earlier in our life - or past lives. It was a Jewish version of karma, the law of cause and effect, with, naturally, a little more guilt added. Their life rules sounded ethical, but also could be twisted to exploit followers, such as: "Giving beyond your comfort zone generates light." Still, Rabbi Alan Brill, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Jewish mysticism at the New York-based Yeshiva University, says of their basic points: "It sounds very good; what they're putting out is incredibly standard Kabbalah."

Even so, the group's philosophy can be unsettling, especially their view of evil. We needed challenges to overcome in order to "earn" the Light, Avi told us, and the universe provided a force, an opponent, to test us: "The Satan," a metaphysical energy that he pronounced Suh-tan, emphasizing the last syllable. "He controls every negative action "the Satan is the cause, the seed level for chaos in the universe!" It turns out that the Satan, besides tempting us with selfish desires, also was the force behind all the attacks that the Kabbalah Centre faced from critics, Rav Berg argued in his latest book, Immortality. This paranoid-style mentality was apparently muted in the early classes that novices like myself took, but is clearly evident in Berg's writings and, critics and local families say, in the stance adopted by the group with staffers and longtime students.

"They foster a very strong 'us vs. them' mentality," notes Rabbi Michael Skobac, the education director of the Toronto branch of Jews for Judaism, a national organization dedicated to resisting cult and missionary groups targeting Jews. "And they foster a sense of dependence on them as the only purveyors of the truth."

As I attended more classes and lectures, and learned more about the group, I began to wonder: Had I somehow stumbled into a cult?

"We are certain that the Satan has chosen Kabbalah as his battleground. He has fired up his troops with all his energy. ... They are adopting the tactic of discrediting us, of spreading rumors that the people involved in the Centre are brainwashed ... "

--Rav Philip Berg in Immortality

Whatever Satan's role in the attacks on the Centre, there weren't any overt signs of cultish mind-control in the Florida program's enthusiastic students. Despite their long hours, the young center staff didn't seem to be obviously exhausted or exploited, either; although most were volunteers, some of the most dedicated were working for little more than room and board. (The national office, though, curiously barred me from interviewing any center workers.) The South Florida Kabbalah students who attended classes there seemed to be well-adjusted professionals independently pursuing their careers, while finding meaning, community and improved lives through Kabbalah. They also appeared to be unaware of the most serious allegations raised against the group by the news media and cult-watchers, although one of the students sought to reassure me, "We're not a cult because we're not asked to conform." (These professionals are generally not exposed to the allegedly darker side of such religious groups until they're drawn into a devoted inner circle, cult experts contend.)

Maybe I should have been more suspicious because they were so upbeat about the center, but such fervent endorsements at first only made me feel that I was missing out on something valuable - not that they were victims of a Svengali-like Rav Berg.

"When I scan the Zohar or go to Shabbat services, there's an inner peace and feeling of confidence that I get," says Zev Auerbach, a 43-year-old creative director at Zimmerman and Partners ad agency in Fort Lauderdale. 'The Kabbalah is a study of how positive energy can benefit you physically and spiritually." He started taking private weekly classes there about three years ago, after his wife got involved. While Jewish groups around the country are complaining that the Kabbalah Centre seeks to break up spouses who disagree about attending the centers, this couple found new strength together. "It's enhanced our life and gotten us closer together. And we've met a whole lot of good people through the center," he says.

The Kabbalah program, in fact, has a particularly powerful appeal to local Jews who had pursued other spiritual paths or drifted away from mainstream Judaism. That's what happened to John Corovay, 53, a Jewish Broward-based general contractor who visited astrologers and psychics before turning to the Kabbalah Centre here about two years ago. "I have no doubt an elevation in consciousness," he asserts, in addition to greater calmness. He was attracted to Kabbalah classes, in part, because they involved some astrology, plus he welcomed discovering the supernatural value of the prayers he once took for granted. "You're not just reciting prayers, you're making visual connections to myriad assemblages of Hebrew letters that are powerfully connected to the universe." This view has the added advantage of permitting non-Jews (who make up about half of the group's students) and secular Jews who can't read a word of Hebrew or Aramaic to buy expensive ancient texts and recite prayers.

Indeed, he admits, "When I first started 'scanning' the Zohar, I felt like a shmegegge [Yiddish for fool], but then I thought, 'It can't hurt.' And then, I found that along with the courses, I really got benefits. They're more tools that the universe has provided." But such tools come at a steep price: $345 for a 23-volume set of the Zohar - available at Judaica Enterprises in North Miami Beach for $150 - and it's almost pure profit for the Centre, because the printing costs often have already been subsidized. (Spokesman Grundman, though, claims other Zohars aren't as comprehensive.) Fortunately, cash-strapped Zohar buffs also can buy a tiny-print version of a Zohar section devoted to healing for a mere $10. Presumably, it doesn't produce the magical effects that the recommended minimum 30 minutes a day with the big-ticket Zohar provides.

The money students spend here on Kabbalah courses and materials doesn't seem to bother most of them. Although they won't discuss amounts, elsewhere in the country, some loyal followers have spent up to $20,000 or more on donations and courses, former members say. The young workers and volunteers sometimes turn over a significant portion of their earnings in outside jobs to the local centers for courses and "tithing," while the "chevras," the most dedicated workers, raise $5,000 or more a month in sales of Zohars for the centers. Individual courses still average about $15 a class, or $150, but there are successive course levels to complete, with students encouraged to take more classes to achieve greater growth and achieve the miracles they were first promised. (When they don't achieve those goals, one former South Florida student recalls, "The rabbi said you haven't tried hard enough.") There's always more tithing, praying, scanning, volunteering and classes they're urged to do, former students say. "Doubts," they are told in more advanced classes, "are from the Satan."

Still, there is no hard sell put on members in most of their public gatherings, although the Centre also uses spiritual manipulation in its written appeals to loyal followers, including those in Florida. One recent note from Rav and Karen Berg claimed, "The most certain method by which we can both retain and increase the blessings God has bestowed upon us is to share a portion of that bounty with others," especially the Centre with its Kabbalah promotion efforts.

They urged their believers, in a variation on old-fashioned televangelist appeals, to participate in the "cosmic circuitry of the Creator" by giving money to the Centre. "It is an incentive program that puts stock options to shame," they said.

Often, though, donations are cultivated as part of the individual mentoring relationship between teacher and student.

"There's an interest [in giving] if you feel you're getting spiritual enlightenment," student Corovay notes. "It's all one to one." (If Jews have created a cult, as critics charge, at least the fundraising is tasteful.) As for him, "I don't want to count the money I spent."

He was, though, initially skeptical about spending on the purportedly miraculous bottled water the group sells by the caseload. "How come we're being milked for money for the water?" he wondered, but then accepted that the money would be used to spread the message of Kabbalah - and the water itself would also be sent to Chernobyl to somehow heal the polluted environment.

They fervently believe in the power of the water. Case in point: For the Hebrew month of Tammuz, roughly corresponding to July, they held a "Rosh Chodesh" (first of the month) lecture and meal that drew about 70 people, instructing us how to tap into the astrological energies of the month, which happened to be the Cancer sign. Dangling above us were bottles of Kabbalah water as decoration. "This month, you may find yourself uniquely vulnerable to negative influences," we were warned by Rabbi Shimon Sarfati, short, bearded and articulate. "The month of Cancer is when the cancer cells start to go wild." Worse, we were told that our protection from cancer and other dangers was especially weakened this month so we would need added "tools" to help us.

After discussing the spiritual value of sharing, etc., Shimon finally said of the water, "This is a very powerful tool to remove disease and problems from your life."

No one in this happy group of believers seemed to have any doubts. Still, for the center's Jews to get away with selling magic water to these well-educated Kabbalah students, they needed to embellish their spiel with enough references to science and spiritual tradition to make it plausible. The Centre's case, backed up by pseudoscientific literature and the Rav's book, Immortality, claimed that the new millennium launched an era when immortality was possible, and that the fabled Rav Berg has learned how to restore water's ancient longevity powers through special Kabbalistic meditations. "He's blessing the water," Shimon told the rapt audience. "The water itself has the power to cure. This information was delivered to us to remove cancer from our lives. The water can create miracles!"

We were, naturally, eager to start loading up on some of that water, but first, we were guided through a healing meditation on the water. With eyes closed, we each held up a cup of the elixir, as waterfall music played softly, and Avi intoned, "We want to receive the water to help us ... prevent cancer, confusion, chaos, all kinds of problems, and create the protective shield we need."

Soon, he made a bold claim that not even a Jim Bakker or an Oral Roberts would dare to make: "This is immortal water." Avi then stoked the crowd's fervor by asking, "Do you believe you're immortal?"

The crowd roared back, "Yes!" and broke into chants of "Immortality!" I suddenly felt like I had wandered by accident into a pep rally for Heaven's Gate members.

There was a mania in their response that chilled me, and my unease wasn't helped when I asked Avi later, "By immortality, do you mean physical immortality or the soul's immortality?"

He answered confidently, "Physical immortality. People will not die anymore. That's what science says."

The science for the water's power was highlighted by a report that supposedly showed special before-and-after photographs of water molecules treated with Kabbalistic blessings. It showed the water before the blessing as a random pattern, but after the blessing, the water molecules appeared to take a more crystalline, ordered arrangement, resembling a leaf. "We have reversed entropy and reversed the second law of thermodynamics," contended Dr. Artur Spokojny, a cardiologist who oversaw the independent lab tests.

Decay and aging thus can be halted with blessed water, these New-Age Kabbalists argue, although it's a view shared only by a fringe element in other Kabbalistic factions. Indeed, the miracle claims disturb most mainstream religious observers. Miami's Rabbi Terry Bookman observes, "I'd like to see the medical evidence, not just anecdotal accounts. In cultlike groups, miraculous powers are attributed to the leaders - one blessing from him can cure you - and that stuff is pretty sick."

He adds, "I'd hate to hear someone is drinking the water in lieu of getting treatment. You're running the risk of people dying, it's very scary stuff."

The organization's staffers don't discourage the use of medical treatment, but they say medical treatment doesn't remove the emotional or spiritual causes of illness.

Despite skepticism, the Centre still seeks to wrap itself in the mantle of science. Even so, when it comes to the magic water, there are less supernatural explanations for the changes in the photos the group cites. Dr. Katherine Baker, a microbiologist at Penn State-Harrisburg who studies drinking water, notes, for instance, that even the slightest change in light or the position of the container with the water could account for the differences shown in the photos and other tests. ("We're sure it's not an artifact," Spokojny insists, citing more high-tech studies supposedly showing the water's unique structure.) Baker says, "I'm very skeptical," although she doesn't completely rule out the possibility of some other mysterious factors at work. Still, she dismisses the notion that somehow an immutable law of physics has been proven to be reversed by these photos. "You could get a pattern just by freezing water in your refrigerator," she notes. "I don't think that means you've reversed the second law of thermodynamics." Still, the Kabbalah Centre continues to use scientific jargon to promote ancient superstitions to modern-day yuppies. The Hebrew or Aramaic letters are like bar codes that we scan, we were told, and these letters represent the "DNA code" of the universe. "The letters are vehicles for metaphysical energy," Avi told one class. "You can't tap into the Light without using the Zohar." In practice, this meant students are urged to spend time regularly skimming the words with their fingers, somehow drawing in the energy from passages designed to help them resolve such issues as finding soul mates and battling "dark forces." In talks and lectures, scanning the Zohar had been presented as yet another way to "have no cancer," as Avi told us in one class, while the Zohar volumes were portrayed as a mystical force that altered the course of an earthquake in Iran. The Zohar itself is a dense, 13th century masterpiece in Aramaic that explores the mysteries of creation, the cryptic messages encoded in the Bible and the basic tenets of Kabbalah.

The scanning of these tomes is, Centre spokesman Grundman contends, "part of a meditative practice. Going back 3,800 years, letters were used for tapping into the energy of the divine."

Cult-watchers offer more sordid explanations for Zohar scanning. "It has its roots in Rabbi Berg's desire to sell books at high prices to people who can't read them," says veteran cult expert and counselor Rick Ross, who has advised the FBI on cults and offers a treasure trove of damaging reports and articles on numerous alleged cultlike groups, including the Kabbalah Centre, at his Web site, Rabbi Michael Skobac, of the Toronto branch of Jews for Judaism, also points out that the scanning practice robs students of their own ability to master the Zohar and Kabbalah. "It's part of the manipulation: What better way to keep people ignorant than to say, "We'll do the thinking for you, just scan, you don't have to learn on your own?' They're not given the ability to learn Kabbalah - they're being spoon-fed Berg's distillation of the Kabbalah." Grundman counters by noting that advanced students can take classes to study the Hebrew translation of the Zohar directly and a full English version will be published soon.

Perhaps the oddest talisman the group offers is a little red string that sells for about 25 cents in Israel and retails for as much as $26 in the Kabbalah centers. (Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, for example, were recently spotted wearing them following a consultation with a Centre rabbi.) Supposedly, it offers protection from the "evil eye" of strangers and assorted negative influences. After one class in which Shimon warned us about how gossiping and speaking ill of anyone - the "evil tongue," he called it - would come back to haunt us for eternity, I rushed out to buy the red string. As Shimon tied the string around my left wrist, he silently meditated over a vision of the tomb of the matriarch Rachel where the yarns of red string are blessed. "I sent you to Israel," he told me when he finished, but it was up to me to manifest its power by refraining from negative thoughts or talk about others - no easy task for a reporter.

All these amulets and magical practices cheapen Kabbalah, critics say, but there is a long folk tradition known as "practical Kabbalah" that the Kabbalah Centre has in fact inherited - even if it dismays scholars and rabbis who prefer Kabbalah's more philosophical and intellectual legacy. "You can have your cake and eat it, too," as one traditional Kabbalist authority, Canadian Rabbi Emmanuel Shochet, scornfully describes the center's perspective. "It's sacrilegious and blasphemous to try to manipulate God to act for you."

Shochet's bitterness may stem from the fact that he's been sued for libel and slander by the national organization for $4.5 million for critical comments he made in a 1993 lecture. The still-pending lawsuit asserts that Berg and his group were slandered by Shochet's claims that they were violating Jewish law by offering astrology in counseling, scaring naive people with evil that would come to them if they don't donate money and making "ludicrous" promises of physical health and wealth to those who buy their publications. Grundman denies the charges and says the suit was needed to "halt the slander": "To be spiritual is not to roll over and play dead," he says. But by suing in a secular court over essentially a religious dispute normally handled by a rabbinical court, Berg, an Orthodox rabbi, and his group violated a very firm traditional injunction against Orthodox Jews turning to secular courts. Indeed, traditional Jewish law notes that to do so marks the person as a "rasha" - a totally wicked person - who "is regarded as one who reviles, blasphemes and rebels against the Torah of Moses our Teacher!"

That's also a good summary of how much of the Jewish world sees Rav Berg, the "renegade rabbi," as Rick Ross puts it.

"Rav Berg is not only the messenger, but the personification of Kabbalah for our time. His humility and self-effacing persona ... is not a contradiction of his importance as a Kabbalist, but rather proof of it."

-- from the introduction to Education of a Kabbalist by Rav Philip Berg

Rav Berg's approach to Kabbalah has been denounced by Jewish critics and rabbinical authorities around the world. In Israel, the country's leading Kabbalist, Harav Kadouri, issued a statement saying, "Whomever is supporting Mr. Berg financially or otherwise, or any of his affiliated organizations is endangering his soul." It's unusual for rabbinical or Jewish organizations to publicly denounce the practices of other Jews, but that's what has happened in Toronto, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. For example, the Vaad Harabonim of Toronto, an organization of Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement saying the group, then known as the Centre for Kabbalah Research, is "not approved nor endorsed by the undersigned rabbis." Berg has chalked up the criticisms to sheer "jealousy" over his success and to archaic Orthodox views, but as cultbuster Ross notes, "We haven't gotten complaints about any other Kabbalah group."

On top of that, Rav Berg's claim to inherit the mantle of two beloved, legendary Kabbalist rabbis has been disputed by their heirs in Israel. Particularly open to question is the assertion emblazoned on the group's literature that the Centre was "established in 1922 by Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag," and that Berg took over the directorship of the Centre from Ashlag's student and his mentor, Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, who died in 1969. But the Kabbalist yeshiva run by Rabbi Brandwein where Berg studied, Kol Yehuda, issued a statement noting that "our yeshiva has no connection, in any way, shape or form, to the Kabbalah Research Centre under the auspices of Philip Berg."

Grundman asserts that letters between Rav Berg and Rabbi Brandwein show Brandwein's intention to make Berg his successor and he blames resentment by Brandwein's heirs for the "venomous" attacks.

Berg's primary connection to Rabbi Brandwein is that he studied with him when he first visited Israel in 1962 and married his niece, ultimately divorcing her in 1971 to marry Karen Berg. As a successful salesman of insurance and real estate in Brooklyn, he retained his marketing flair when he established the first Kabbalah Learning Centre in 1969 in Israel with the mission to spread the Kabbalah to both Jews and non-Jews as a way to hasten the Messiah's arrival. His selective quotation of earlier Kabbalists to justify teaching Kabbalah to non-Jews - when traditionally it's been taught to married Jewish men over 40 well-versed in Torah - is disputed by virtually all experts on Kabbalah. Even so, by opening Kabbalah to all (Jews only make up 3 percent of the U.S. population), he and his wife have propelled its rapid growth since returning to the U.S. to launch branches here in 1981. Indeed, despite their leadership being primarily Orthodox Jews, the staffers in Florida deny that the Kabbalah Centre is even a "Jewish organization." There are now nine primary centers in the U.S. and 11 in Israel, Europe, Canada and Latin America, with nearly 20 smaller offices claimed elsewhere.

Berg has been a prolific author and lecturer, and the clarity and simplicity of his prose - not to mention all the talk of miracles - has helped immeasurably in spreading the Centre's version of Kabbalah. In fact, it's become the AOL of Jewish mysticism: It's so easy to use, no wonder it's No. 1. This bothers other Jewish authorities: "It does a disservice to Kabbalah to dumb it down to a point where anyone can do it. It reduces Kabbalah to a self-help course," says Rabbi Skobac of Jews for Judaism.

The group's lure - as well as its apparent control over the most devoted believers - also has been enhanced by tales of Berg's supposed supernatural powers. Officially, Centre spokesmen have denied he's viewed in a godlike way or has special gifts. Still, he's been openly touted as blessing healing water, and even his memoir tells of long conversations with the living spirit of his departed mentor, Rabbi Brandwein. One awestruck follower even begged the Rav to raise her cousin from the dead. And in a bizarre ritual recounted in Tel Aviv magazine, former staffers say that on the harvest holiday Sukkot, Rav Berg is surrounded by hundreds of followers in the moonlight as he looks at their shadows to see the state of their souls. "By the light of the moon, the Rav sees your soul inside the shadow and finds if it has an illness or shortcoming," the magazine quoted one former "chevra" (the Hebrew word for "friend"). Grundman concedes that the ceremonies occur, but contends they're based on traditional Kabbalah texts: "There's an entire science to it; it isn't something we came up with."

As the all-powerful authority in the group, Berg is apparently free to disregard some of the tenets he teaches. For instance, while students are told to avoid blaming others and accept responsibility for obstacles, the Rav has a different view when he's upset. Once, Tel Aviv magazine reported, he slipped on the stairs at a synagogue and blamed the lack of positive energy among his followers. "Why isn't there unity?" he exploded. "There are no energies, people are not strong enough."

There was certainly enough positive energy greeting him recently when he and Karen came to South Florida to visit the two centers for Sabbath services and lectures. At one Friday Sabbath service, the chapel of the Miami Beach center was packed by joyous Kabbalah followers eager to worship with the Rav, men and women separated by a white ribbon down an aisle, most dressed in white as a symbol of the Light they hoped to attain. The Rav, wearing a white caftan and long beard, sat with quiet authority in the front on a raised platform as the service sometimes reached a near-frenzied intensity. At one point, during the recitation of the traditional Kaddish for the dead, they began shouting Hebrew phrases from a Kabbalist prayer, pointing down to the ground and upward, then leaping up, a symbol of their hoped-for ascent to higher levels. I just found it creepy.

After the service, the Rav and Karen, sitting in high-backed black chairs, were treated to fancier foods as the rest of us made do with mediocre buffet fare, part of a roughly $30 fee we spent for the event. The Bergs are usually treated, former chevras have said in interviews with Tel Aviv magazine, as "the royal couple." The Rav didn't speak that night, but his wife, the ambitious force behind the Kabbalah throne, addressed the reverent crowd. "We thank you for your energy," she said and talked about their plans to buy more land for the center. "The Light we have extended is a door that can be opened to another soul. Use that ability and share it with as many people as possible." The parents in the crowd then brought their little children forward to huddle at the great man's feet as he blessed them. Soon, a woman stepped forward and kneeled before him, as he placed his hands on her forehead, offering the Light.

"Multitudes have returned, in one form or another, to a deeper spirituality. ... To give just one small example, thousands of men and women today follow the tradition of mikveh, the ritual bath."

--from Education of a Kabbalist by Rav Philip Berg

To some South Florida families, Rav Berg and his group haven't brought much Light, but instead, they charge, a living hell of mind-controlled young people drifting away from their families and careers, ugly intimidation and distorted Jewish rituals.

One claim is that some members, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, are engaging in coed ritual bathing.

In some cases, according to documents I reviewed, some young followers of the Centre are apparently boasting about having coed ritual baths together by sneaking in at odd hours to the mikveh, the Orthodox Jacuzzi-like pools usually reserved for traditional rituals. Grundman asserts those documents don't prove the couples actually went in the pool together, but just visited the mikveh at the same time. More troubling, some families here say, is the erosion of identity and family ties happening to young people lured to work there. "It's difficult to explain the horror of the complete change in personality," says one mother of her son's transformation in a South Florida center. "They drill the love right out of them."

Her son, once affectionate, has been indoctrinated to believe that his parents are one with The Satan, she says, and now refuses to share bread or wine with the family. That's because in advanced classes, he and other followers are told that such fare supposedly absorbs Light and energy, and they risk absorbing the energy of "evil people" if they share them, according to a former student and class materials I obtained.

Cooling to the Satanic agents at home, the young Florida student has now become so enmeshed in his new "family" that he turned over his college savings to the group and has virtually given up his once-promising college career. Now, his mother says, he "slaves" for them long hours at the center, while holding down another job to give them more money. "I hate to see my son every month give away all his money," she says.

Grundman asserts the Centre doesn't promote hostile views of parents or loved ones who are skeptical of students' heavy involvement.

Part of the followers' search for the Light comes in the zealous - if not rabid - efforts to sell the $345 Zohars and solicit donations door-to-door, work known as "charisha." It's all spurred by daily pressure and monitoring of their sales efforts, former workers say. (One sign of the pressure: a 1997 report listing every in-house worker's monthly revenues in major centers; my talented Kabbalah II teacher, Shimon Sarfati, pulled in $128,000 in just three months of work. Grundman, however, is doubtful about its authenticity, although the document lists exact dollar figures by name, for most chevras at every center.)

But in Boca Raton and other centers, the pressure to make sales has reportedly led to the use of scare tactics and the preying on customers' vulnerabilities. One elderly couple in Boca, for instance, was "strong-armed to help pay for a new Torah and give over $20,000," according to Rachel Bernstein, a therapist with the New York-based Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services Cult Hotline and Clinic. As recounted by the couple's son, the center's peddlers told them unless they donated they wouldn't be protected from bad luck. Another Boca couple, Bernstein was told by their son, was approached to buy materials and attend an introductory course, and when they declined, "they were then told that their house could be burned."

Grundman and other Centre spokesmen deny such incidents and say they contradict their philosophy. "This is not our practice," Grundman says. "It's irresponsible." But, Bernstein points out, "It's easy to say it's not something they believe in, but once the problem is brought to their attention, nothing is done about it. It's an unhealthy organization."

In fact, preying on people's fears and weaknesses is central to the sales effort, according to Ruth Bronstat, who helped create the original chevra program and develop schemes to sell Zohars. She left the group five years ago after seven years of labor, but remembers cooking up sales pitches for the bulky, costly set. "Let's tell people it will bring you luck," she recalls suggesting. "We looked for people who are sick and had problems," she adds. She recites the highlights of her spiel: "It's no accident that I'm here today. Now is the chance to change your life - or you can lose." For $5,000, their chances for momentous life changes would be greatly enhanced if they got an inscribed Zohar with their name, she told them. Plus, "We had an instinct for problems: If they told us, "My son is sick now,' we told them, "You must buy this or your son could die.' "

She truly believed she was doing holy work and spreading the Light, and felt that selling Zohars would bring a miracle of sorts to her, too. "I was told if I worked to bring a lot of Light I would find a soul mate," she said. For seven years, "I work heavy and bring more Light," she says in halting English. "I sell a lot of Zohars but I'm single," the 45-year-old Bronstat notes with some bitterness.

Bronstat and other former devotees of the Bergs are just as disillusioned by the couple's alleged greed and flaunting of privileges. One chevra told Tel Aviv magazine of working all day schlepping Zohars and finally eating a cheap pizza slice, "then I would come and see a van being unloaded with food worth hundreds of dollars for Karen's three dogs." Bronstat recalls bunking with 10 other people in a one-bedroom apartment and scraping by with modest meals - while the Bergs were treated to caviar and other fancy food when they visited. (Grundman discounts all Bronstat's claims, "She's embittered, period" - and based in part on his own 10-year experience at the Centre, denies claims of the Bergs' excesses and says the alleged degradation of chevras "doesn't exist. End of story." He argues, for instance, that they eat so well they're even a bit overweight.)

Bronstat also claims to have spotted while cleaning Karen Berg's room a large black suitcase and a smaller valise stuffed with American dollars. "I was shocked," she recalls. As Bronstat tells it, Karen Berg helped oversee a system in which a few Tel Aviv loyalists were recruited to set up Israeli bank accounts in which funds from America and other countries were funneled into their accounts and in others in obscure towns throughout Israel. "She did a lot of combinations," she says. In addition, she asserts, "There were two [accounting] books; they write half the count in one book and in another they write the donations."

Such charges, though, haven't led to any criminal investigations. And Grundman contends all Bronstat's financial allegations are "flat-out lies," noting, "There's no way that someone [Karen Berg] could be so clever to conceal everything." The Centre hasn't bothered to sue Bronstat because "it takes an enormous effort proving slanderous remarks wrong."

Her claims of an organization awash in money, though, are perhaps underscored by the internal sales report I obtained. In 1997, when the Centre was starting to attract new attention because of celebrities such as Madonna, door-to-door Zohar and related sales items brought in roughly $1.3 million in six months in just three major U.S. urban areas: Los Angeles, New York and South Florida. Los Angeles alone pulled in $675,000 in door-to-door sales in six months.

There's little doubt about one thing: The Kabbalah Centre has surely tapped into the "cosmic circuitry" of prosperity.

"We all need to work hard to return the world to spirituality. ... Each person must simply be treated with love and respect."

-- from Education of a Kabbalist by Rav Berg

If revenues from Zohar sales and other sources have come in part because of preying on fears and hopes, it apparently reflects a troubling undercurrent of intimidation linked to the group. In Los Angeles, Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz of Jews for Judaism reports he still gets regular complaints from people who've been contacted by center fundraisers: "If they didn't give money to the Kabbalah center, they're told their house could be burned down and their children [could] die." Kravitz himself was at the receiving end of threats when he sought to aid a Russian immigrant woman in the mid-'90s who had turned to the local Kabbalah center for help with pains after a miscarriage. "She was told if she bought the Zohar and scanned it, her problems and pain would go away. It wasn't helping," he says. So, he advised her to give back the books, seek a refund and separate herself from the center.

As a result, a few Kabbalah center fanatics invaded the local Orthodox mikveh pool where he was cleansing himself prior to the Sabbath and began screaming at him, "You took this woman away from us! You damaged her soul!" Ultimately, one of them spat on him. "I feared for my life," Kravitz has said, but Centre spokesmen deny such incidents have occurred.

Perhaps the most notorious 1992 incident involved Rabbi Abraham Union, the administrator of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of California, who suggested in a fax to some colleagues that they send out a copy of the Toronto rabbinical letter criticizing the Kabbalah Centre to all Southern California rabbis. When he arrived at work the next day, he found a severed sheep's head on his doorstep. Several young men then appeared at his home that night and asked him, in Hebrew, "Did you get our message?" He filed a police report but detectives found no evidence of a link to the Kabbalah Centre. Still, he never sent out the letter, fearing for his life.

"These events being described are fabrications of some sort," Rabbi Grundman says. "It's got nothing to do with anything we stand for."

Even loyal students can face threats if they show signs of drifting away from the Centre.

Robert (not his real name), a former student so fearful of Centre retaliation he won't even reveal the city he lives in, recalls how his growing belief in the value of the program was undercut by the mounting pressure from a friendly teacher to donate $10,000. After he still balked following a few visits to his house by the teacher, he ran into the teacher at the center, who threatened him, "If you don't give money, something bad will happen in your life." Robert thought at the time: "Who the fuck does this guy think he is?" Later, the teacher flatly lied about the incident to Robert's wife, who is still pursuing studies there.

The Centre may end up sowing divisions between them and finding new astrologically inspired "soul mates" for the still-loyal spouse. Critics say that's the Centre's m.o. with troubled marriage partners. One former South Florida student recalls mentioning marital troubles to a staffer and being told, "Dump him, we'll find you another one."

Cult hotline therapist Rachel Bernstein remembers counseling a woman who had mentioned to her husband outside one center that the place gave her the "creeps." "The next thing she knew," Bernstein says, "he was asking for her birthdate and astrological sign, and that there was something wrong with the date they were married." Later, the local center steered him to a woman with a supposedly better astrological fit, and the wife was abandoned.

Grundman counters, "Why would we be interested in splitting people up? Sometimes, people drift apart, but it's not because of Centre indoctrination. We don't tell people who to be with or not to be with."

Maybe so, but the saddest cases, according to some followers, are those still-married couples who belong to the Centre and are apparently encouraged to try one new "soul mate" after another to resolve their marital troubles, with each new relationship ending in heartbreak.

The most tragic victims of all, though, may turn out to be those loyal chevras and other volunteers who have genuinely sought the Light by following the Bergs - and might have little to show for all their devotion except fear of their power. "Once they give up a career, they work more or less for free, they're in there for 10 years, and they walk out with nothing but the shirt on their back," Rick Ross says. Another loss for the disillusioned is their faith itself: "People have come to have something religious, they have a bad experience and then they think this is Kabbalah and Judaism; they're getting a skewed picture of what something could be in their lives. It's a real shame," therapist Bernstein observes.

The hardcore devotees who now feel such joy in devoting themselves to the Bergs' version of Kabbalah also may someday find, as Ruth Bronstat did, there's no place for them to go. She realized how little she was valued when she asked permission to leave her post in Paris to visit her dying mother in the hospital back in Tel Aviv and was told, "Leave it and go sell the Zohar - that will change the life of your mother." When she finally returned to the Tel Aviv center to her little room after mourning her dead mother, Karen Berg spotted her weeping and told her, "Here, you can't cry. If you don't want to work, go home." In any case, as Ruth Bronstat recalls, "That made me understand I didn't have a home." (Grundman insists the story involving Karen Berg is a fabrication: "That's not the language Karen uses. She appreciates the chevra for devoting their lives.")

Bronstat hadn't spoken to her family for close to seven years, because they were, she was told, the evil "klipots," or shells. She wanted to earn some more money at the center so she could take some courses in the outside world, but ultimately, after seven years of work and at 40 years of age, she was thrown out with three shekels in her pocket - not even enough for bus fare.

She had never really found the Light the Bergs promised, and, in fact,"I saw I was blind."

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