Madonna's fad religion sets up shop above a tool seller in Alexandria 30, 2004
By Matthew Benns

A religious group that boasts Madonna and Demi Moore among its members has set up in Sydney.

But the Kabbalah movement, which has its headquarters above a tool shop in an industrial unit in Alexandria, has provoked a storm of outrage among Jewish groups who condemn the group as a cult organised by an ex-insurance salesman.

Jeremy Jones, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said: "I would advise people to be very wary of joining it."

The Sydney branch is linked to the Kabbalah centres in Los Angeles and London that have attracted celebrity members including Britney Spears, Jerry Hall, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand and Paris Hilton.

The movement was founded by former insurance representative Philip Berg in America 35 years ago. Today "Rav" Berg owns multimillion-dollar homes in Los Angeles and New York and lives a lavish lifestyle with second wife Karen. He commands almost Messianic devotion from his many followers.

Reports from London suggest the 75-year-old has allowed rumours to circulate that he is descended from Moses and sold his own writings to his non-profit organisation for $US2.5 million ($3.5 million). He regularly arrives for meetings in a Bentley or top-of-the-range Mercedes.

Kabbalah is "the mystical, religious stream in Judaism . . . [that] seeks to explain the connection between God and creation, the existence of good and evil, and to show the road to spiritual perfection", says The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia.

But Mr Jones has warned that the Kabbalah movement had taken the heart of the Jewish religion's most sacred text and turned it into "a kind of fast-food mysticism".

He said acolytes were encouraged to pay over the odds for books promising secrets to eternal happiness.

In a purpose-built meeting room above Mogy Tools in Alexandria, the Australian head of the Kabbalah movement, Gilla Mogilevsky, dismissed suggestions she was establishing a cult.

"People say it is a cult because they don't understand what it encompasses," Mrs Mogilevsky said. "The Kabbalah is 4000 years old and when I wanted to learn about it 30 years ago I was told I couldn't because I was too young and a woman.

"We want people to have this information and for it to be available to everyone - not just an exclusive group."

She said the 22 volumes of standard texts used by the group cost $US415.

Mrs Mogilevsky said that since the movement started in Sydney this year it had attracted about 20 people to its meetings.

Teaching was led by an instructor in Los Angeles.

Mrs Mogilevsky had also attended meetings overseas where she met Mr Berg and listened to his teachings together with Madonna and her husband, Guy Ritchie, and Demi Moore.

"Madonna was dressed very normally, incognito, she did not draw attention to herself and just blended in," she said. "Of course, she would be very welcome to attend meetings here if she wanted to."

Last week Victoria Beckham was seen wearing the trademark red bracelet worn by Kabbalah devotees but she insisted it was merely a fashion statement.

The celebrity attention has prompted a warning from the London's Central Synagogue.

"We feel very strongly that we need to warn people that this is a cult," Rabbi Barry Marcus said. "They are using techniques found in cults to get people sucked in, and either you will become a worker for them or you will become a constant source of revenue."

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