Strings Attached

The London Times Magazine/April 3, 2004
By David Rowan

Its celebrity followers claim the ultra-fashionable Kabbalah Centre has brought them serenity and fulfilment. But others are coming forward to accuse the organisation of emotional manipulation and financial pressure.

It was the rabbi's sudden demand for £65,000 to "cleanse" her late parents' souls that finally drove Susie to speak out. She had already faced moments of doubt during 13 months as a volunteer member of the London Kabbalah Centre. There was the instruction before a visitors' open day to "work on those not yet ready to buy, and forget those with their wallets already out"; then the intense pressure for her to spend £360 on "holy" books and £900 attending a religious ceremony. But these glancing reservations were far from Susie's mind when she agreed to meet the rabbi for a friendly cappuccino. She had become close to his family through the centre in recent months, often taking his son to the cinema or the zoo, and signing up at his suggestion for more classes. An attractive and financially independent businesswoman in her early thirties, Susie had also confided in him about her unfulfilled spiritual and emotional needs, no doubt partly caused by her parents' early deaths. She had dabbled with Neuro-Linguistic Programming, but now seemed to have found fulfilment - like Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor - in the structured teachings of the Kabbalah Centre.

The centre, based in Los Angeles, has attracted widespread celebrity support in recent years, with new members drawn to the persuasive mystical teachings of its founder, Rabbi Philip Berg. Berg - "the Rav" to his followers - has proved a controversial figure among more conventional rabbis, who question his fundraising methods as well as his teachings, such as his claim that Jews would have survived the Holocaust had they only studied Kabbalah. But for Susie, the London Kabbalah Centre was simply a supportive network that she had allowed to touch ever-larger areas of her life.

So when she met the rabbi on January 26 near the centre's new £3.65 million offices in Stratford Place in the West End of London, she wondered why he seemed unusually serious. "I thought maybe it was because he'd heard some of the questions I'd started asking, such as why, for all its fundraising, the centre was not doing much for the wider community," she recalls. "So I explained that my mother had died of cancer in 1980, and that, though I'm involved with Cancer Research, I'd be willing to participate in community work for the centre in hospitals, or prisons, or with the homeless." According to Susie, the rabbi looked at her and said that there was one thing she could do to honour her parents' memory: she could buy the centre a new Kabbalistic Torah, the sacred scroll containing the five Books of Moses. "He explained that their souls would benefit from the 'light', and my channels would be opened," she says. "He said that I had 'Klippah', which means negative energy that stops the light coming into my life, and that was why I couldn't have a relationship with a man, or have children, and why people in my business were stealing money. There were only three Kabbalistic Torahs in the world, he said, but if I donated money there and then, he would bring one there tomorrow, just for me."

Susie asked the cost, but was initially told that she was not ready to hear "because you focus on the material aspect, not the spiritual". "He said it wasn't about the money, it was about getting closer to the light. Then he said that it would cost $110,000. I smiled, and explained that I didn't have the money. And he said, repeatedly, 'No, I'm sure you have it. Do it for me, do it for your parents.'

"To get out of what was now a very uncomfortable situation, I explained that everything was invested in property. And he replied: 'Then give us a property!'" The rabbi then made another suggestion. "He said, 'I'll let you pay by instalments.' I could write a series of post-dated cheques that his wife would cash each month. When I insisted that the cheques would bounce, he again started to argue quite aggressively that I did have it, and that we should go straight to the centre and sign."

Susie left the café in shock. "I felt as if I'd trusted this person so much," she says now. "It was so unexpected. But then I remembered a friend's warning, that I had dismissed at the time, to 'watch out for the money thing'. I feel abused emotionally and blackmailed in the name of 'light'."

Susie has not returned to the centre, despite receiving follow-up calls about the expected donation. Instead, she took her concerns to the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. As she explained to him, she now believes that she was carefully targeted by the centre as a vulnerable yet potentially high-value donor, and that her trust was gained over months of Kabbalah classes and social events. "They seek out people with an obvious need, for what is clearly a very organised form of selling," she now believes. "You stop seeing your friends, you forget your reality. If someone had been weaker, they'd have given the money."

At the Chief Rabbi's Office, Susie's story only confirmed a growing number of complaints from synagogues about the Kabbalah Centre's activities. In a highly unusual step, the Chief Rabbi has now issued a carefully worded joint statement with the London Beth Din (the main rabbinical court) and the United Synagogue, intended as a public warning. "In the light of issues which have been brought to our attention relating to the Kabbalah Centre in the UK, 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." There is also concern within the Chief Rabbi's office that rabbinical organisations overseas where the group operates have expressed their own reservations. The statement is being sent to synagogues across Britain to be read out during Sabbath services.

"The warning comes in view of the grave concerns being expressed about this organisation by rabbis and members of their communities," explains Rabbi Barry Marcus, a member of the Chief Rabbi's cabinet and, as minister at the Central London Synagogue in Great Portland Street, one of those receiving complaints. "People are volunteering information about feeling pressured to part with money, or with concerns regarding the alienation from families of children involved with the centre. There's a great deal of unease about their methods and the pressure brought to bear on those they view as being vulnerable and as possible sources of income."

Rabbi Marcus, 54, who came to London from South Africa, hopes the statement will have a similar effect in Britain to the one issued in 1993 by the South African Chief Rabbi, Cyril K. Harris. "There have been cases of spiritual and psychological damage caused by the centre," Rabbi Harris told his community. "We advise congregants to have nothing to do with the Kabbalah Centre." The organisation subsequently closed its local operation. Similar warnings have been issued by Jewish organisations in Toronto, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles.

"The pattern is well established, from Israel to the US," Rabbi Marcus says. "I have come across four cases myself in the past year alone. They isolate people from their families, getting them to stop their careers and dedicate themselves to selling books or living as virtual serfs within the centres. They're using methods that I saw the Moonies using in South Africa, not making it immediately obvious what their real aim is. As a Jew, I'm particularly ashamed that Kabbalah, something held so valuable by us, is being traded to ensnare people."

Britain's rabbinical establishment hopes that its warning will help counter the uncritical publicity generated by the Kabbalah Centre's extensive celebrity network. Madonna, its most prominent supporter, credited the centre with "creative guidance" on her Ray of Light album, and told MTV: "Studying Kabbalah has changed my whole outlook on life." Guy Ritchie, too, has been developing various Kabbalah-related film projects. Although the couple did give a donation, they did not, as was widely reported, pay for the centre's new London building (it required a £2.8 million mortgage). Other celebrities drawn to the London centre have included Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, who in 2000 organised a fundraising dinner in Rabbi Berg's honour at the Harrington Club in South Kensington "so that others can benefit from this wisdom and find fulfilment".

But the Kabbalah Centre's impact has been greatest in Hollywood. Elizabeth Taylor has commended Berg's teachings as "a light to lead me through the darkness;" Roseanne Barr sees them as the basis of "everything I believe." Winona Ryder wore a red Kabbalah string bracelet during her shoplifting trial, and Demi Moore recently told Vogue that the Kabbalah had helped her learn "the value of her worth." How can an ancient mystical commentary on the Torah - once available only to elderly male Talmudic scholars - have attracted interest from celebrities such as Britney Spears and Barbra Streisand? Kabbalah, Hebrew for "received tradition," purports to bring its students closer to God through its interpretation of his sacred works. Its central text is the Zohar ("Book of Splendour"), attributed to a 2nd-century scholar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and circulated in the 13th century by a Spanish rabbi, Moses de León. Yet it was Philip Berg, who runs the Kabbalah Centre with his wife, Karen, and sons, Michael and Yehuda, who found a wider audience for its complex teachings. These combine numerology and astrology - knowledge, as he put it, that had remained "a forbidden fruit since the dawn of civilisation".

In traditional Judaism, Kabbalah offers a way of connecting with God by uncovering the inner truths of his universe. If you can become close to God through intense study, your soul might attain the "light" that can lead to immortality. Berg's interpretation of Kabbalah takes a far more practical approach. Because the spiritual and physical worlds are interconnected, he teaches, Kabbalah can be used as a "tool" to improve your life in the world today. Whether or not you are Jewish, simply understanding these "unseen spiritual laws" can bring you happiness and material fulfilment.

Since opening the centre's first branch in Jerusalem in 1969, Berg and his wife Karen claim to have brought Kabbalah to 3.5 million people around the world. To believers, the centre - "motivated by no other desire than the spiritual growth of humankind" - promises "fulfilment in every aspect of your life: relationships, business, health, and more." Its success is such that its website now lists contact details for 56 local centres, with branches from Buenos Aires to Bogotá, Toronto to Tel Aviv. The local offices are normally registered as charities (as was the London branch, in May 2000). Yet Berg's many critics have been far from charitable about some of his own claims. They point out that Rabbi Berg was not always, as his official biography states, "the world's foremost authority on the Kabbalah." Born Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, he was, in fact, an insurance salesman, before leaving his first wife and children to reinvent himself as a modern spiritual guru. He was ordained as a rabbi at a rabbinical seminary, Torah VaDaat, in Williamsburg, New York, before moving on to study in Jerusalem. As part of the process, he began signing his books as "Dr." Philip Berg, although the source of the doctorate remains unclear.

A deeper mystery surrounds the origins of the Kabbalah Centre itself. Its own literature claims that it was founded in Jerusalem in 1922, and that Berg "assumed the directorship" in 1969 on the death of his teacher, the eminent Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein. Berg certainly studied under Brandwein at the Kol Yehuda seminary, founded in Jerusalem in 1922. But Brandwein's son Avraham, who took over as Kol Yehuda's dean, has angrily disputed Berg's claim to succession. Indeed, the seminary has insisted that it "has no connection, in any way, shape or form" with Berg's organisation.

Berg's teachings, too, have angered more traditional Kabbalah scholars, particularly his claim that anyone can "read" these ancient Aramaic or Hebrew texts simply by scanning their eyes or fingers over the pages. Still, the promised benefits are an impressive selling point (with courses starting at £151): Kabbalah can make you rich, cure illness and help you find true love. "You'll learn how to harness the Light of the Creator to get what money can't buy - including more money," its literature claims. "You'll learn how to... find the perfect mate, how to remove illness from your life, and even before illness strikes, prevent it. You'll also learn about a precise technique that can methodically reverse the ageing process and prolong life."

Some Orthodox rabbis object to this "oversimplification" of the Kabbalah for "unwarranted spiritual claims". But what worries them more is the centre's impact on the lives of the ordinary families it has touched. A number of former members, and anxious relatives or partners of those currently involved, have told The Times of serious concerns about the centre's ability to "take over" people's lives. In a series of interviews, The Times heard claims that the centre sold "specially blessed" mineral water as a means of treating cancer, that it warned supporters that unless they donated money their children might fall ill, and that volunteer workers were warned that the "dark forces" would bring them personal tragedy if they ever left. Other former insiders allege that they were told to abandon unsupportive partners or families at the centre's behest.

Rick Ross, who runs a New Jersey-based institute devoted to studying "destructive cults and controversial groups," says that he has personally counselled more than a dozen former Kabbalah Centre members. Ross believes that the centre shares many typical characteristics of cultic organisations. "First, you have a charismatic authoritarian leader who has no meaningful accountability," he says. "Berg is that defining element. Second, people come under undue influence through some kind of 'thought reform,' and they let their thinking be reshaped in a group mindset." Ross claims that former members he has talked to have typically alleged that they were exploited and "threatened with distressing consequences" should they leave.

"I've had complaints about [the Kabbalah Centre] from Canada, Chicago, Las Vegas, New York - and two complaints in the last month from London," Ross says. "In the past week alone, I received three serious complaints from people deeply involved - one of whom, an Israeli woman, told me she was broke after giving them everything she had in order to stay 'spiritually blessed'."

One of Ross's toughest assignments involved a London woman in her early thirties from a prominent and wealthy Jewish family. The woman had been recruited by a friend to the London centre, and spent three years involved so closely with the organisation - two as a volunteer worker living in its Los Angeles headquarters - that her parents feared they would lose all contact. Last summer, the family - which has asked for privacy - hired Ross to "get her out."

"She was managing education programmes, in particular children's classes," Ross says. "She became very important to the Bergs - so much so that she even had the keys to their house."

Her family had been unable to arrange an extended visit with the woman, but she was due to visit London for the opening of the Stratford Place office. Ross flew to London in advance, and after meeting her arranged to spend time with her in a Cotswolds village. "The intervention took quite a few days, as she really didn't want to talk," he says. "Finally, she said I had one hour to tell her what I knew about the centre, after which she was leaving. We sat in the garden drinking tea, I surrounded her with documents about Philip Berg, and apparently it all made sense. Gradually, she explained that she could now see what had happened, how carefully layered and advanced the process had been. Then she said to me: 'You have no idea how subtle and clever this process is.' She claimed that she had been influenced to have less and less contact with members of her family and that this was achieved by keeping her isolated and hyper-busy."

According to Ross, the woman had been told that "only by being with the Rav, and having his 'light' shielding her from the world's evils, would she be safe. If she left, terrible things would happen: her health would fail, a terrible accident would occur, her life would be accursed." She now believed that her true value had been in working unreasonable hours for virtually no pay.

After counselling by Ross, the woman spent two weeks at the Wellspring Retreat, a residential centre in Albany, Ohio, specialising in "the rehabilitation of victims of cultic abuse". Wellspring confirms that it has treated a number of former Kabbalah Centre members. "We treat people from a variety of cults and abusive organisations," a spokeswoman says, "and we have found this organisation to meet all our criteria for being a cultic group." Ross's client, meanwhile, is back living in North London, and is no longer involved with the group.

Her experience does not appear to be exceptional. A similar story is told by Karen, 27, who spent three years with the group after abandoning her medical studies on what she says was its advice. She left her family home in Florida to live in the Los Angeles office as a "chevra", one of around 40 full-time volunteer workers. "I'd regularly be working from 9am until 1am, and sometimes I'd work all night, with just an hour for dinner," Karen claims. "I was paid $35 [£19] a month and given space in a filthy, one-bedroom apartment sharing with four other young women. It was as if I was a slave."

Karen's involvement began gradually: after taking courses and buying a £170 astrological chart, she was selected for the "honour" of working for the Bergs. "They were very loving towards me at first," she recalls. "I was having a bad relationship with my parents, and they comforted me. They said these weren't my spiritual parents, and that I needed to correct a lot of things in my life." It was also made clear that a "spiritually compatible" soulmate would be found.

Karen's mother travelled from Florida to Los Angeles with an Orthodox rabbi to urge her to leave. "They told me my mother was a destructive environment and was standing in my way," Karen says. It was only months later, when her father suffered a heart attack, that she questioned the rabbis' wisdom. She was told that he could be cured by drinking Kabbalah water. In fact, he needed a triple heart bypass. The centre says its water is a "spiritual tool," but insists it would never be offered as an alternative to medical treatment.

Depressed and exhausted, Karen told the rabbis she was leaving. "They got really angry," she recalls. "I was told that if I left, my father could get worse. I had a lot of fear. Then they simply stopped talking to me." Today, life is good again: Karen has an office job in Miami Springs and is engaged to be married. But she hopes that describing her "terrible experience" may deter others from becoming involved. "They change your behaviour, control your emotions and thoughts, cut you off from friends and family," she warns.

Other families tell similar stories. A woman in Israel told The Times that her estranged son, in his twenties, abandoned his studies to move into the local Kabbalah Centre and now helps run the London office. "He lost his interest in his friends, studies, family and everything apart from the Kabbalah Centre, where he sold books door-to-door for 15 hours a day and was paid only pocket money," the woman says. "It's like he's been brainwashed." An American mother, whose son is also now in London, says she became concerned when he refused medical treatment after a road accident, and instead had Kabbalah water poured on to his wounds. When she expressed her concerns forcefully to a Kabbalah Centre rabbi, the woman claims, she was told that a mysterious illness might befall her younger child if she stood in her son's way. The centre denies that such threats have been made.

Steven Hassan, a Massachusetts-based cult counsellor who treated Karen, lists "the classic symptoms" that he recognises in almost all of the Kabbalah Centre members he has counselled: "Radical personality changes, sleep problems, depression, fear of trusting anyone... People think they've developed mystical powers. They typically make bad decisions - drop out of college, or turn over their bank accounts to the organisation." On his "Freedom of Mind" website, Hassan offers prominent warnings of the group's "destructive" impact.

Fear appears to be a constant factor. Many of those who spoke to The Times were afraid of being openly critical: Susie, the London businesswoman, insisted on anonymity "in case they attack my premises." There is no evidence, however, that the group has been involved in any such violence. Rabbis, too, can be cautious: they cite the case of Rabbi Avrohom Union, of the Rabbinical Council of California, who 12 years ago urged colleagues to warn congregants about the group. Rabbi Union claimed he then found a sheep's head left at his door, which he took as a warning. No evidence was found of the centre's involvement, and Berg's son Michael insisted it had no connection with the incident: "That's totally against who we are and what we teach, which is compassion and caring," he told a reporter. Still, Rabbi Union tempered his criticisms.

The centre has certainly sought to silence an eminent Kabbalah scholar in Toronto through what he calls a "libel chill". Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, an authority on Jewish mysticism, condemned the centre in a 1992 lecture over its interpretation of Jewish teachings, its "expensive" merchandise, and its practice of "scaring naive people with all kinds of evil and curses... if they refuse to offer money". A year later, Berg and the centre launched $4.5 million libel and slander lawsuits against Schochet. The rabbi believes that the substantial evidence he has gathered will cause the centre "enormous damage" if presented in court. But that seems increasingly unlikely: the centre has allowed the case to lie dormant for six years.

A frequent criticism concerns aggressive fundraising. When Jerry Hall ended her involvement last autumn, she stated: "They always talked about giving in order to receive, but I didn't really realise that in order to go through a door of miracles you had to give 10 per cent of your income." Its extensive merchandise range, too, appears designed to maximise revenue, from its £360 Zohar sets to its £17 symbolic red strings and "dynamic" mineral water, which, once blessed by Rabbi Berg, becomes "infused with kabbalistic meditation... for healing, well-being and rejuvenation". (Apparently, it also worked for Guy Ritchie's verrucas.)

It is impossible to know exactly how much the organisation is worth in total: in the past, insiders have challenged its tax statements, and there have been claims of unconventional accounting methods. The Times has been shown no evidence of financial impropriety. What we do know, from official records, is that one of the Bergs' network of companies and charities, Research Centre of Kabbalah, declared assets of $23,362,976 in the year to June 30, 2002. In that year, it received "contributions" worth $1,515,399 - yet paid just $94,999 in wages and salaries.

Others bodies are registered locally. The Los Angeles centre, for instance, made $8,302,984 in 2000, when it stated its assets as $11,895,396. A separate Los Angeles-based company, Kabbalah Centre International, took in $5,568,964 that year, boosting its own assets to $14,581,729. And, according to Companies House, the UK branch more than doubled its declared income between 2001 and 2002. Most of its £633,524 income came as "donations and gifts" - yet it paid just £31,496 in wages and £656 in tax.

Rabbis in London believe that the UK branch is about to mount a concerted recruitment campaign. A new call centre is at an advanced planning stage. Berg's son Yehuda recently told an interviewer: "Our new British centre [near] Oxford Street will serve 5,000 people, but we expect that to grow to 10,000 very soon.'' This worries those such as Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, minister of Mill Hill Synagogue and son of the Canadian rabbi, Immanuel Schochet. "It is high time this community - whether Jewish or otherwise - gets its act together to formally denounce and condemn them," he says. "If they are genuinely concerned with people's souls, why do they prey on their wallets? It doesn't add up."

The Times sought the Kabbalah Centre's response to these allegations through a detailed list of ten questions. It chose not to answer them directly, but four days later provided this statement in the name of Yehuda Berg: "As you can appreciate, success attracts the jealous and the sceptical. The Kabbalah Centre is a good example. The centre's success in attracting a large and fast-growing congregation has challenged the position of older, less dynamic, religious and spiritual leaders. Happily, we are aware of only a few such individuals. For the most part, the centre enjoys excellent relations with the organised Jewish religion and other Jewish rabbis."

"Any organisation attracts a very small number of would-be participants who misconstrue the organisation's ideals and purpose. Such malcontents are an unfortunate but inevitable part of life. Again, we are aware of only a very few individuals who are unhappy with their experience at the Kabbalah Centre."

"The Kabbalah is a spiritual and mystical experience. Spiritual discovery can elicit powerful devotion. This speaks to the strength of the teachings of the Kabbalah - no more. In no way does the centre espouse or encourage exclusive devotion. In fact, the centre owes its dynamic growth to the fact that congregants introduce family and friends to the centre."

"Finally, all religious and spiritual organisations depend upon donations to defray the temporal cost of worship. The centre is no different. We encourage contributions just as do other spiritual organisations. If there have been indiscretions (we are aware of none), they are no different than those experienced by other religious and spiritual groups."

At the Central London Synagogue, Barry Marcus insists that he is not on a "crusade" against the Kabbalah Centre. "It's not a personal issue," he says. "I'm just not alone. Complaints are being raised in three, four continents, and there's a track record that cannot be ignored. There's a suspicion that they're just really a business, as one of my members put it bluntly, exploiting people's desire for spirituality for their own financial gain." He then quotes Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 14: "You should not... place a stumbling block before the blind."

"We have a duty to warn fellow human beings of a possible pitfall," he says. "It's in that spirit that the Chief Rabbi has issued this statement. We have a responsibility to people."

*Some names have been changed.

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