The Kabbalah Learning Centre is the largest, richest and most star-studded Kabbalah group in America.

But all is not what it seems

Self Magazine/November 1998
By Josh Simon

Every Tuesday night Sarah Hardoon stands in front of us and explains life's eternal mysteries. Birth. Death. The meaning of it all. I look around the Kabbalah Learning Centre classroom-actually a conference room in a Manhattan hotel. We are a New York City rainbow: twenty something to middle-aged, suits, geeks, artists, immigrants. We are a mix of Jew and gentile, male and female. Kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism, was traditionally the preserve of married, observant Jewish men, 40 years old and over. As a newly married, 36-year-old rabbinical student, I probably come closest.

Sarah is wearing a short, brass-buttoned suit and dark, vibrant lipstick. Her dark eyes dart down to notes preserved in plastic as she bombards us with cosmic curiosities. On various nights she has told us that astrological signs define "points of corrections" that we were born with and need to overcome. (For example, the Bull may have to learn not to be so stubborn, the Lion so bossy, the Ram so aggressive.) Disease is caused by our own negativity. The dimple on our top lip is the impression of an angel's finger. She also tells us that running our eyes across a page of the Zohar, a thirteenth-century interpretation of the Bible, will help guarantee love and success-even if we don't understand a single word of the Aramaic text. Then Sarah, one of the KLC's senior teachers, hits us with this doozy: On the Jewish New Year 5760, September 11,1999, the Messiah will come.

Welcome to Kabbalahland, America's metaphysical flavor of the day. In the past year, Madonna hosted a star-spangled Kabbalah party in Hollywood, while her ex-friend Sandra Bernhard was a cover girl for the glossy magazine put out by the KLC. Last year Roseanne staged the KLC's Hanukkah pageant. "I want to spread the word," she gushed to a reporter from USA Today. Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern have all taken classes at the KLC, which claims 150,000 students. A gleaming, multimillion-dollar KLC building in midtown Manhattan opened this fall. There are already branches in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boca Raton, as well as floating classes in a number of other cities. Though courses in Kabbalah are offered by numerous organizations, KLC is the largest, richest and most star-studded group devoted to it in the United States. It is also the most controversial.

What is Kabbalah? Simply, it is a way for individuals to connect with God by being like God. Imitation is much more than flattery-it is the ticket to immortality. Kabbalah posits that the spark that is the human soul can be elevated until it merges back into the endless, eternal light that we call God. Some interpret Kabbalah's message with a more therapeutic slant. "Kabbalah asks us to balance our polarities," says Rabbi Goldie Milgram, a dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion-my own seminary. Often Jewish mystics study a different pair of God's attributes each day and look at these qualities in themselves in the belief that harmonizing conflicting traits can be beneficial. If today, for example, God must balance strength with generosity, so must we. The goal of many Kabbalah meditations is to ascend from the spiritual world of being to that of doing, then feeling and finally thinking, until one reaches a place of peace and unity with creation. It is in large part this hybrid between therapy and mysticism that makes Kabbalah so appealing. At its best, it offers a level of self-awareness and an emphasis on the soul that many Jews find lacking in more standard services. "Each event that we experience has a deeper message," says Rabbi David A. Cooper, in his book God Is a Verb. "Life is enormously rich and purposeful once we are able to penetrate its mysteries."

Navigating the cosmos is complicated, though. Over the course of several months, I came to admire the KLC's vitality, seeming sincerity and fresh way of addressing spirituality. This is the impression they wanted to make and, I assume, the reason they offered me so much access. In the end, I learned more than the KLC might have wanted.

Contemporary roots of Kabbalah arose in France and Spain at the turn of the thirteenth century, an era rife with anti-Semitism. Mystics began to fiddle with powerful meditations, spells and incantations, hoping to draw down divine assistance. The Bible furnished their raw materials.

But there was a snag: Kabbalah's key innovations weren't in the Bible. Nothing on reincarnation or an afterlife. No hierarchies of angels. No creation story describing Kabbalah's 10 parallel universes. Around 1280, a Spanish Jew solved this dilemma when he "discovered" the Zohar or "Book of Splendor." Kabbalists believe this supposedly ancient text ferrets out, in a rather indirect way, Kabbalah traditions hidden in the Bible. Like those preachers who "hear" Satanic messages when they spin heavy metal records backward, Zohar-readers were told to flip the Bible's letters. Reverse "dog" and you get "God," right? Words were reshuffled like anagrams. Numerology led to further feats of interpretation. The Zohar also offered fables spun around Biblical characters.

Since then, Kabbalah has gone in and out of favor. In the sixteenth century a rabbi in Galilee garnered numerous disciples with his interpretations of the Zohar. (They dressed in white on Sabbath Eve, symbolic bridegrooms ready to betroth themselves to God.) Thanks to the new medium of publishing, this rabbi's ideas spread quickly. A hundred years later, Kabbalah's equation of earthly life with God's life powerfully impacted the Jewish peasants of Eastern Europe. Such naive mysticism had its downside. In 1666 a would-be messiah used Kabbalah to convince many Jews to sell their possessions and march to the Holy Land. When the movement collapsed, tens of thousands were left destitute. Kabbalah went through another big revival in the Sixties, when experimentation with different forms of enlightenment, both spiritual and chemical, led many young Jews to explore the eternal and divine within themselves.

But Kabbalah has never enjoyed the visibility it has now. Rodger Kamenetz, author of the best-selling Jew in the Lotus, believes that many Jews are seeking "to move from recitation to meditation." He sees Kabbalah as a boon to Jews turned off by wordy services and the fixation on communal issues, such as Israel and the Holocaust. "The real story is that Jews need to make Judaism work in their lives," he says. Mainstream Judaism is taking note. Kabbalah-flavored Sabbath and holiday services draw worshipers to more than 200 congregations from Seattle to Miami, where one synagogue even put in a meditation garden. I dive in, drawn to the spirituality but unsure what I will find. Tuesdays I study with the KLC's Sarah Hardoon. Thursdays I hit Showroom Seven in the garment district, one of the spaces the KLC uses for classes in New York City. The Showroom is filled with racks of funky fashions including wild hats, retro cardigans, and beaded handbags. A stream of fashionistas enter, garbed mostly in black despite the fact that black, a lack of light, is a no-no in Kabbalah. A pregnant Sandra Bernhard is there, accompanied by a muscular makeup artist.

Rabbi Abraham Hardoon, Sarah's husband and a handsome former jet pilot in his late thirties, takes his place by a small blackboard. He opens his Zohar text. It is all about us: The enslavement and liberation of the Jews in ancient Egypt, for example, describes how we-the people sitting here today-are enslaved by our selfish desires. If we can share energy rather than hoard it, we can free ourselves from the cycle of reincarnation. Rabbi Hardoon tells us that priests of old were healers and could withstand the energy of death. That our hair works like an antenna, drawing in energy. (Married women's hair draws more energy than single women's, thus they should cover their heads.) That Satan enters a cup of water left uncovered. That seeing a camel in a dream means death. Enlightenment has a price tag. The introductory course is $150 for 10 classes.

After the lecture, I linger at the book table. I pay $20 for two paperback books. I do not invest $345 in the KLC's 24-volume edition of the Zohar, but others do. Some own a set for the office, one for the home and another for the car. Encouraged by my teachers, I buy a pair of $25 seats for Friday night service and meal at ground zero: the Queens, New York, home of the KLC's charismatic leader, Rabbi Phillip Berg, even though he won't be there.

It's Friday evening rush hour and my wife and I are driving past Shea Stadium to Rabbi Berg's house. (Now in his seventies, he is affectionately called "the Rav") We pull up to his house. Through big bay windows, I see men gathered in the living room, garbed in white. Inside, I'm hit with the delicious aroma of fresh-baked challah bread. Kids play in a toy-strewn room, and more than a few of the women are pregnant. There are no old folks in sight, despite the graying of most American synagogues. Many are speaking Hebrew. Entering the living-room-turned-chapel, I grab a prayer book while Sarah leads my wife by the arm to a cordoned-off area where the women pray.

I forge ahead and find myself enveloped in Rabbi Hardoon's bear hug. Other men embrace me, and one of them glues himself to my side. As the prayers proceed, he points to our place on the page. Though I've been to numerous Orthodox services, when this group prays, they do something I've never seen before. At key points, they lock their eyes onto wall posters that look like oversize Hebrew eye charts. These jumbles are the secret names of God. The man helping me has clipped a laminated chart of all 72 names to his prayer book and pokes his finger at the correct names at the correct times.

When we are done, the KLC's staff pops open tables and ferries trays of food from the kitchen. My wife and I are seated with Rabbi Berg's daughter and son-in-law. Between courses, they instruct us to have a bite of fish and a sip of liquor, to "make the connection" with the souls of long-gone sages. We do as we're told. After dinner, spirited singing floods the room. Even my wife is having a good time. Our companions offer toasts, wishing one another "successful corrections."

As the weeks go by, I veer between doubt and belief. Sarah tells our class, All creation is made only for you. You are the hero of the show." She often compares Kabbalah's system of parallel universes to a multiplex. We choose the movie we wish to be in. Every action seems part of my personal battle between Satan and the Light. My wife, growing increasingly intolerant of my Kabbalah obsession, declines an invitation to visit the KLC for a holiday service. I go without her. I come home too wired for a snuggle and Seinfeld rerun. Instead, I excuse myself and go into another room. The Hardoons have instructed us to question the relationships in our lives. They have made it clear that they are there to help us answer such questions. They encourage us to set up private appointments, to take more classes, to visit the center's astrologer and face and palm readers. I'm not so sure this is good for my months-old marriage. (Orly Sibilia, spokesperson for the KLC, denies any suggestion that the KLC's goal is to break up relationships, but rather to make people question how they function within them and "see if you're drawing energy in an unhealthy way.")

Other things add to my discomfort. Before Passover, Rabbi Hardoon delivers a lecture on the significance of the Seder plate. He tells us that the five items on it are not religious symbols, as I have always been taught. Rather, "They are metaphysical energy instruments. Each item works on the center of your consciousness that will help you create order for the next year. He picks up the matzo. "It has the energy of restricted bread, which makes us want to transform our receiving nature into a sharing nature." The burned lamb shank "gives us control over our reactive behavior." As for the horseradish, "Chew it slowly," he pleads, "and convert death energy into Light."

He begins to sell the KLC's holiday Seder by insulting the Seders held by our families, calling them "a waste of time." Rabbi Hardoon insists that sentiment is not part of the game plan. "Did we come to this world to be nice?" he taunts. "We don't need tradition, we need energy. We need to separate ourselves from family." With a mix of flattery and threats-do you really want to risk not having Light for the entire coming year?-he encourages us to fly across the country to the KLC's Los Angeles headquarters, where 600 people are to join Rabbi Berg's Seder. (The KLC strongly denies any suggestion that they aim to separate people from their families.) The price is $520 for the holiday meals and two nights' lodging. Airfare is not included.

The Hardoons tell people to look things up, check things out. I decide to take them at their word. The KLC offers a Zohar for $345 similar to the one my local Jewish bookstore sells for $125. They charge $1,818 for tefillin (amulets containing handwritten Biblical passages, worn on a person's forehead and arm during weekday prayers), but even the most stringently kosher tefillin would be $300 to $400 elsewhere. The strangest markup is the $26 the KLC charges for a few pennies" worth of red yarn. For the price, you get a red yarn that has been "energized" at the Tomb of the Matriarch Rachel, outside of Bethlehem. Tied around the wrist with a blessing recited by a KLC staffer, the yarn is supposed to ward off evil. (The KLC explains that it has its own method of production for religious items that "is more time intensive with lots of Kabalistic meditations that are done throughout the process to give it energy.")

The KLC is a nonprofit organization and filed a 990 form that is open to the public. According to the KLC's 1996 filing they had contributions that year of $3,341,316. They also had a profit from sales of books and tapes of $285,693. Despite its being a religious group, I never heard the KLC mention social justice, caring for the homeless or comforting the sick. (The KLC replies that "there are people in the Centre who have committed their whole lives to helping others, giving them tools and putting books out there.") We are told disease comes for two reasons: to teach us a lesson, like a wakeup call, or as payment for past wrongdoing. Though the KLC welcomes non-Jews, Rabbi Hardoon declares that they are different metaphysical beings.

But nothing I've heard at the KLC strikes me as more outlandish than its take on the Holocaust. According to the KLC's introductory video, only Jews who didn't have the Zohar died in the Holocaust. Sephardic, or Mediterranean, Jews were saved because they respected the Zohar. This is contrary to all historic evidence. Rabbi Marc Angel of New York City's Congregation Shearith Israel, a Sephardic historian and past president of the largest Orthodox rabbinical organization in America, agrees to screen the video. He writes in response that the KLC has the facts completely wrong. Sephardic Jews died, as did non-Sephardic Jews who had the Zohar. He adds, "It is repugnant to blame Jewish victims for their own deaths. I think it is important for all Jews to draw on Kabbalah's wisdom. If the Kabbalah Centre has taken on a cultic quality, that is regrettable."

Cult. It's not the first time the word has been attached to the KLC. The Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services' Cult Hotline and Clinic has task force reports and photocopied news clippings on the KLC. They're not the only ones. Rabbi Michael Skobac, a graduate of Yeshiva University, a major Orthodox seminary in the U.S., is the director of education for Jews for Judaism in Toronto, a counter-missionary group that has been monitoring the KLC for many years. Both organizations claim they have never heard a single complaint about any other Kabbalah-oriented institution in America.

Together these groups log approximately 50 complaints about the KLC per year. Debbie Pine, former director of the Maynard Bernstein Resource Center on Cults in Los Angeles, says the KLC matches the classic criteria for cults. It fosters dependence. "Even people who have studied with them for years haven't been given the tools to study independently," Rabbi Skobac says. There is "only this endless series of classes and tapes to buy." The KLC alienates devotees from other sources of influence, including family members, according to Pine. Staffers are frequently given new names and some are housed under the KLC's roof. It uses a belief system to justify its pecking order and control the staffers: The Bergs, as the source of the energy, enjoy their creature comforts, while the rest of the rank and file live modestly on whatever the Bergs think appropriate.

The KLC denies that it is a cult. It claims not to discourage members from independent study. "Everything you learn at the Centre is about giving individuals the tools they can take with them and use," Sibilia says. She adds that the KLC does not alienate members from their families, although she admits that staffers do sometimes change their names when they move into the KLC "for spiritual reasons, but it's not mandatory." The KLC also denies the charge that it uses a belief system to justify a pecking order or that the Bergs live better than other staff members.

The Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, Jews for Judaism and the Maynard Bernstein Resource Center on Cults have been contacted by families feeling harassed by KLC's fund-raisers, described by Rabbi Skobac as "aggressive and deceptive." They have also heard from spouses who blame their divorces on the KLC. "An inordinate number have taken place because of the Centre, often when one partner is into it and one is not," explains Rabbi Skobac, who says he has dealt with 65 KLC-related divorces or family crises. Sibilia replies, "It's not that the Centre creates the problems in the relationships. It's that once a person is on a spiritual path he becomes more aware of the issues that exist."

Investigative newspaper stories from cities across North America and Israel have gone even further. They contain a potpourri of allegations. A man suffering from depression in Los Angeles is told to stop his medication and instead buy the Zohar and scan it and he will have divine protection. An elderly Florida couple are pressed for a chunk of their life savings, and warned that to refuse might bring tragedy their way. The KLC denies knowledge of these cases. Teaming up with an Israeli investigative journalist, I interviewed four former KLC insiders who spent a combined 40 years working in the New York and Tel Aviv branches. What we learned is that the organization's origins are rather murky. Even the slogan emblazoned on the KLC's paper, "The Kabbalah Learning Centre. Established 1922. Jerusalem," turns out to be misleading.

Through its spokesperson, the KLC admits there is no Learning Centre in Jerusalem now and that the KLC actually came into existence in 1969, though it claims a link to an earlier institution. Phillip Berg was once named Feivel Gruberger, a rabbi from Brooklyn who made a living selling insurance. On a trip to Israel in 1962, he befriended Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, an influential mystic much beloved for earning his daily bread as a day laborer. Gruberger married Brandwein's niece, fathered seven children with her and, when Brandwein died, claimed to inherit the school he had founded. The only trouble was, Brandwein had left it to his son. Gruberger left his wife and seven children, all of whom are conveniently left out of his official KLC biography. He changed his name to Berg, married Karen and started their fledgling empire with a line of mystical paperbacks. Edna Segal joined the KLC in 1985 and worked closely with Karen Berg in the New York City and Tel Aviv offices. (At the KLC, she was known as Miriam.) It was a time when the KLC was growing by leaps and bounds. Segal's generation of KLC staffers was young, committed and mostly Israeli. All were seeking ways to bring spirituality into their lives.

According to former staffers, key players in the KLC youth movement were sent to Los Angeles, Toronto, Paris, Boca Raton and Mexico City to set up branches. They were moved around repeatedly with little notice. The men were referred to as rabbis, though few have institutional rabbinical training or ordination. (The KLC claims its relocation practice was on a voluntary basis. Its spokesperson adds that the KLC has its own form of intensive training for rabbis.)

At the bottom of the KLC staff hierarchy are "plowers," the door-to-door Zohar salespeople, who drag suitcases of books from block to block and city to city. Many of them bring in as much as $5,000 in donations each month, in exchange for room, board and $200 or so a month in salary. KLC staff members lived in groups of as many as eight in small apartments to save money. Sibilia replies that "some people at the Centre work for a salary that they negotiate. Some basically commit their lives and live and eat and work there, and the Centre looks after everything for them. I know that staff people can sometimes bring in 2, 3, 4 or 5 million dollars. Sometimes they get a percentage of it, sometimes they don't."

According to Segal, staffers would do virtually anything to win the Bergs' approval, even things the Bergs didn't explicitly ask for. Segal recalls an incident before a holiday meal when staffers carefully scrubbed the kitchen with a toothbrush because they thought that level of cleanliness would please Karen. Staffers also believed that she had the power to tell if a proposed partner was a "soul mate." If the answer was no, some couples broke up. (The KLC does not claim that the Bergs have any special powers.)

After 10 years with the KLC, Segal left. Life on the outside came as a shock. She had no money, no friends and no profession. "It was like recovering from drug addiction," she says. Ironically, her greatest regret about her stint at the KLC is that she never got to study Kabbalah beyond one introductory course. "Most of us didn't read Rabbi Berg's books," Segal says. " We didn't have time."

Staffers weren't the only ones whose relationships suffered at the hands of the KLC. Jacqueline and Nace Goldman are examples of what has gone wrong for some families with one spouse in the KLC and one on the outside. During his four-and-a-half-year run with the Los Angeles branch, which ended in November 1996, Nace's involvement, which included $11,000 in contributions, severely strained and nearly destroyed his marriage to Jacqueline.

The Goldmans have been married for 12 years. Jackie had converted to Judaism after meeting Nace. They started a family and opened a pair of flower shops in the San Fernando Valley. "We were very happy," Jackie recalls. It all changed one day in 1991 when Elton Yardeni, the man who currently teaches Hollywood's KLC devotees, walked into their store. "He was just a plower back then," Jackie says. Nace offered him a cold drink, and he went to work, explaining that the couple should make a $10,000 donation. Nace settled for three books by Rabbi Berg and, after a free introductory lecture, signed up for a course. Soon Nace was attending services dressed in white, leaving Jackie to run the businesses and care for their home and two children. When she challenged him, Nace said, "Jackie, don't make me choose between you and God. You know who will win." Nace rarely saw his son and daughter except when he took them to the KLC for Sabbath services. They would come home and attack their mother's Judaism.

They weren't the only ones. Jackie discovered that the KLC's rabbi had advised Nace to divorce her. He was also advised to keep a proposed additional $26,000 donation a secret, but Nace told Jackie about it and they vetoed the idea. Finally, during a quarrel one night, Nace raised a volume of the Zohar as if to strike his wife. Jackie threw him out of the house. He took refuge in a fellow KLC member's home. There, Nace's growing change of heart about the Learning Centre reached its culmination when he heard a KLC teacher pin the annual fires in Malibu on the group's enemies. Nace says that after he left the KLC, "I asked one of the staff, 'If Rabbi Berg asked you to jump off a building, would you?' He said, 'If Rabbi Berg promised I'd be safe, I would.'" Nace added, "When I joined the Centre my life fell apart." Despite two previous press accounts of the Goldmans, which included KLC rebuttals, Sibilia says she has never heard of the couple.

If the KLC wreaked havoc with the personal lives of some members, their approach to fund-raising could be considered equally manipulative and unscrupulous. According to a report by the Task Force on Missionaries & Cults (a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York) in 1992, the KLC obtained a record of Jewish employees at a New York City government agency on the pretext of delivering holiday gifts, and approached these workers to say that Rabbi Berg had located them in a vision, a vision that included a Zohar purchase. A former KLC member said that an old Torah scroll already in the KLC's possession was spiffed up and paraded with a fresh cover in front of a benefactor who had given $30,000 for what he assumed would be an entirely new scroll. The KLC denies both incidents.

The Bergs' main interest is not financial gain. They pour the bulk of the money the KLC earns back into the empire. "I am busy with world powers," Rabbi Berg has said. He has claimed his clients included the King of Morocco. "People from the world's largest corporations come to consult with me. I have kings in the world who like me. I advise them through the Kabbalah."

We wind down the last of our 10 classes, and go around the room to address how the KLC has improved our lives. A beefy Russian is pleased he has lost weight over the 10 weeks. Afterward, the two men in the row in front of me say they both plan to take more courses sometime in the future. A few days later, a yuppie-ish lawyer tells me he is through with the KLC, offended that his girlfriend was told she ought to buy KLC mezuzahs for her apartment door and was recommended ones that cost $300 each.

There is a buzz in the room: Rabbi Berg is coming east. I make a Sabbath meal reservation for $25 and head back to Queens. Again, the crowd is mostly young and Israeli, although other immigrant communities, particularly Russian and Persian Jews, are heavily represented. These groups, like the Israelis, make prime KLC recruits, since they have come to the U.S. without their own rabbis, schools or congregations.

Dinner is served. More than 300 people have shown up and the food runs out before everyone has had their plastic plates filled. Several people fork little bits of fish "for making the connection" onto neighbors' plates. Meanwhile, the Bergs sit at a round table set beyond earshot of the crowd. He is shockingly normal looking, garbed in a white caftan. Karen sits beside him, her hair concealed beneath a scarf, Orthodox style.

I am escorted to the head table. After I'm introduced, the Rav acknowledges me with a few words. Rabbi Hardoon and other senior staffers stand at a respectful distance, watching closely for the slightest hint the Bergs need more food or Pellegrino. When dinner is over, the men adjourn for prayers while the women clean.

After prayers, I bump into a woman I met in Sarah's class. She was ahead of the rest of us and already knew a lot of the basics. She is moving into the KLC house, a staff member at last. I recall that she said she had a child, and a different name, back home in California. I meet a man who just won a nasty custody battle, thanks, he says, to carrying the correct Zohar volume into the courtroom. He admits that he doesn't really mind if his children live with their mother, though. He wants to devote time to what he calls his "family," the KLC.

Can any good come out of the KLC? One hopes the answer is yes. At a time when so many people are starved for a sense of meaning in their lives, the KLC opens the door to the possibility of meditation, prayer and finding a place in the cosmos. But the KLC seems to believe that the end justifies the means if you are serving the Light. Maybe the Bergs have forgotten that if Kabbalah has a message, it is that our actions here and now are a mirror of everything we want to experience in the eternal realm. Kabbalah says: This life counts. What we do today reverberates through time and space. The God Kabbalah describes so wonderfully as Light-warm, illuminating, energizing-is everywhere. And it's not for sale.

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