Breaking out of Scientology's iron grip

The Church of Scientology opened its gleaming new center in Jaffa with great fanfare last month. But the notoriously secretive organization does not appreciate when its members ask too many questions, as some have found out.

Haaretz, Israel/September 30, 2012

Last month the controversial Church of Scientology opened its lavish, multimillion-dollar new center in Israel, and some 1,000 members and guests flooded into what used to be the famed Alhambra Cinema in Jaffa to celebrate the occasion.

There were men wearing skullcaps and women wearing traditional Muslim head covering. There were Ethiopians with decorative tattoos on their foreheads, and whole families of Russian speakers. All of them wore little round stickers with the Scientology logo affixed to their clothing, identifying them and granting them entrance to the meticulously restored 1930s Art Deco building on Jerusalem Boulevard.

Two long blocks of Jaffa's busy main thoroughfare were closed off. Private security guards in black jeans and t-shirts kept order outside the building, and gold and silver confetti was blown into the crowds that gathered in the street. Colorful balloons were released into the air, endless welcome speeches were made, and later, mini-pitas were served along with lemonade up on the fourth floor.

One person missing from the celebrations was Dani Lemberger, who headed the Church of Scientology's Haifa mission for the past 20 years. But not attending the festive opening is the least of his problems. Lemberger and his wife Tami - who herself was recognized as one of the worldwide church's top counselors, or "auditors," as they are known in Scientology parlance, in both 2000 and 2002 - are getting stiffed by a lot of people these days. Business associates are abruptly breaking off ties. Former students are crossing to the other side of the street when they see them. Close friends are letting their phone calls go to voice mail.

Spiritual seeker

The reason, says Lemberger, is obvious. The very church to which he and Tami dedicated their adult lives - climbing up its ranks, getting commendations and endlessly defending from those who charged it was nothing but a cult - has, this summer, gone and excommunicated them. The story of how it all went wrong, says Lemberger, (on the day before the Jaffa center's opening,) as he kicks off his shoes and settles back in his Haifa office to recount the long tale, began way back in 1986. That was the year Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard died -- and the year a charismatic young high school dropout and church faithful named David Miscavige took over.

Dani Lemberger was born in Haifa 60 years ago to parents who had fled Nazi Germany. His father, who suffered from bouts of depression, committed suicide when Dani was 10. His was a totally secular home, to the extent that the young Lemberger did not have a bar mitzvah. At Passover, he recalls, his grandfather always joked around and suggested putting a challah on the table. Lemberger remembers his mother telling him the story of how she was singled out in her Berlin middle school by a teacher who was active in the Nazi Party. The teacher told her to stand up, and then informed the rest of the children that they were not to talk or play with her because she was a Jew. The distressed girl ran directly home to her mother: "The teacher said I am Jewish," she cried. "But what does 'Jewish' mean?"

The mythical narrative

After high school in Haifa, a three-year army stint as an officer, and a degree from the University of Haifa in economics and statistics, Lemberger left the country to continue his studies at the prestigious INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, France - as well as to keep on with what he calls his "search." "I was a seeker, trying to understand life. I had done it all. I had been in psychoanalysis. I had tried yoga, meditation and Zen Buddhism. I read Alan Watts and Carlos Castaneda... and followed Timothy Leary, if you know what I mean," he says, referring to the American psychologist known for his advocacy of psychedelic drugs.

But after all his seeking, says Lemberger, he was still left looking for a way to become a better person and to organize his view of himself and the world. "I was never attracted to Judaism, Islam or Christianity, which are all based on a belief in a God," he says. "I cannot bring myself to believe in anything I can't see and sense myself. I can't accept an intermediary, like a rabbi or a priest. And yet I had not found anything else that spoke to me either."

And then he found Scientology.

Lemberger first heard about Scientology, which he does not to refer to as a "religion" but rather as a "philosophy," from an Israeli friend who was living in Los Angeles. The friend gave him a copy of pulp sci-fi writer Hubbard's 1950 self-help book, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health." That famous book, which claimed to be "a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his inventions of the wheel and the arch," has to date sold close to 22 million copies worldwide - and paved the way for Hubbard's eventual founding of the Church of Scientology.

According to church documents that have been leaked to the public over the years and testimony of those who have left the church, Scientology teaches that human beings are inhabited by compositions of spirits called "thetans." The story of these "thetans," which Scientologists are taught only as they reach the upper levels of the religion, begins with a warrior named Xenu who was the ruler of a galactic confederacy 75 million years ago. The overpopulated galaxy consisted of 26 stars and 76 planets including Earth, then known as "Teegeeack." Xenu kidnapped hundreds of billions of his galaxy's citizens, froze them, loaded them into spacecraft and dropped them into volcanoes on Teegeeack, which were then blown up. Psychiatrists - who, according to Scientology, are and always have been "evil" - assisted Xenu in this task.

The souls of these disembodied victims - now called "thetans" - escaped the volcanoes and attached themselves to the remaining living people, adversely affecting them. Peoples' problems today are attributable to "engrams," or the mental memories of painful experiences caused by the presence of these "thetans." Psychiatrists, according to Hubbard, who had a fundamental disdain for the profession, pretend to help, but actually deny human spirituality and peddle fake cures in a deeply unethical manner. In fact, these "engrams," can - according to Scientology - be eliminated only through spiritual "auditing." Several former Scientologists have written and told of being asked to sign a contract when joining the church, promising that they would never listen to any doctor or psychiatrist who might prescribe medication for them.

Scientology "auditing" is basically a one-on-one counseling session, which proceeds with the asking of prescribed questions. The auditing often involves the use of a so-called "E-Meter," a small electrical device that looks like a primitive lie detector. Those being audited hold onto a pair of cylindrical electrodes connected to the meter while answering the questions.

Scientologists claim the meter indicates areas of "charge" caused by the "engrams."

The objective of all the auditing is to progress from level to level on what is called the "bridge to total freedom," until one reaches a condition of "clear," as in clear or free from the influences of the reactive mind. But then, there is more. For once one reaches the level of clearness, there is a whole new ladder to climb. Its rungs are the so-called OT, or "Operating Thetan," levels, in which spiritual awareness is achieved, unknown abilities are unlocked and immortality is ultimately achieved. All auditing sessions are recorded and stored in what are called "preclear folders."

A star-studded membership list

There are no reliable statistics as to how many people in the world practice Scientology today. The church claims worldwide membership of more than 8 million, including 3.5 million in the United States. Critics argue that those numbers include anyone who may have taken a Scientology introductory course or even just stopped by to ask for information and submitted their e-mail address. These critics point to independent surveys that show the numbers to be far, far lower - closer to 100,000 to 200,000 worldwide, with anywhere from 25,000-55,000 in the U.S.

In any case, the religion certainly gets a lot of attention and scrutiny, not least because of the inroads it has made in Hollywood, with adherents ranging from actresses Kirstie Alley, Juliette Lewis and Elisabeth Moss to Nancy Cartwright, the voice of cartoon star Bart Simpson.

Undoubtedly, the church's leading heavyweight celebrities are John Travolta and, even more so, Tom Cruise, who has long and publicly advocated Scientology's teachings and been feted by the church in return. Church leader Miscavige is personally very close to Cruise and served as best man at the actor's 2006 wedding to actress Katie Holmes, a marriage that recently ended in divorce.

Over the years in Israel, there have also been a handful of celebrities, like members of the musical group Hakol Over Habibi, or, reportedly, the TV talk show host Odetta Schwartz, who joined Scientology and brought it some headlines. But overall, the religion, which refrains from publicly calling itself a "church" in Israel, never seems to have caught on here in a big way.

A kindergarten for Scientologist children, a grade school and a summer camp in Israel all ran into problems, as anti-cult organizations mounted campaigns against them and unfavorable media depicted them as dangerous. But a 1993 draft bill in the Knesset seeking to ban Scientology's operations in Israel was thwarted - in part, says Lemberger, because of his own lobbying efforts, for which he received a letter of commendation from church officials.

Lemberger estimates that there are only about 300-400 Scientologists in total in Israel today, most of them associated with the main center in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. This center is what is known as an "org" in Scientology and is managed directly by the church headquarters in the U.S. Alongside this main org, now operating out of the refurbished Alhambra, there are believed to be a few independent auditors in the country and three small "missions": one on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, one near Rehovot and Lemberger's mission in Haifa.

Unlike the org, the smaller missions and independent auditors are not directly run by the U.S., but rather work more like franchises, says Lemberger. They are given permission to operate by the administration in California, to which they are required to pay 10 percent of their income. All Scientology books and videos, as well as the E-Meter, which needs to be re-calibrated every two years, have to be purchased from the main administration.

Contacted for comment, the administration of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa org declined to specify the number of Scientologists in Israel, the number of missions or independent auditors or their working arrangements with headquarters in the U.S. They also declined to comment on how the Scientology kindergarten, school and summer camp are faring. Questions about the pricing of services offered and the organization's hierarchy also went unanswered.

But Hadar Burstein, in an e-mail on behalf of the main org, did stress that the recent opening of the new center drew "over 2,000 Scientologists and their guests" and that the center has "200 loyal staff members working there to give services to thousands of Scientologists around the country."

Burstein dismisses Lemberger as someone who "ran a small group claiming to be a Scientology center, but one that does not even use the word 'Scientology' in its name."

And, while she declined any further comment on Lemberger's many specific complaints and comments about the current state of the organization, she called his claims, in general, "unfounded and twisted."

'Scientology explains life'

Dani and Tami Lemberger got married in a Jewish wedding in Haifa in 1979, the same year they read Hubbard's "Dianetics." After the wedding, they set out to travel the world, and ended up in San Francisco. It was there that they began to practice Scientology seriously. "Scientology explains life," Lemberger says simply, leaning forward, and smiling his somewhat lopsided, friendly smile. The corners of his eyes crinkle. His bushy eyebrows squeeze together. "It improves life and it treats life. It's amazing."

During those years, Lemberger started both receiving auditing and also training to become an auditor. He was quickly "achieving wins," and soon was experiencing "going exterior," or having out-of-body experiences, he says. Yes. He repeats, shrugging, exactly that. "Out-of-body experiences."

"Becoming a Scientologist involves theory, practical applied philosophy and drills," says Lemberger, taking out colored pens and paper and drawing diagrams to try and help illustrate the potentially difficult concepts. "Doing these drills I found 'huge wings' - that is, I felt great about it. It was helping me a lot. I could ask any question and get the answer from Hubbard's writings. I began to understand I was a spirit, not a body."

For the next few years the couple moved between Tel Aviv, where they were active in the local org, and New York/New Jersey, where Lemberger was managing Moishe's Movers, and Tami was finishing law school and preparing for the bar exam. They practiced Scientology throughout.

In 1989, the Lembergers, now with two young children in tow, moved to Clearwater, Florida, for two years of intensive Scientology training. Clearwater is the home of "Flag," which is short for Flagship. This is Scientology's largest teaching facility, where thousands come from all over the world to take courses and get audited every year.

Having spent well over $100,000 on courses and training and having swiftly moved up the ranks of "operating thetan," the couple returned to Israel. Here, with the encouragement of Tami's father, who himself had become a Scientologist ?(even as her brother became an ultra-Orthodox Jew?), they decided to dedicate themselves to spreading Scientology, and opened their own mission. The Dror Center of Scientology, located near the Check Post junction in Haifa, on the site of an old wire factory that had been in Tami's family for decades, opened its doors in 1992. By 2012 it had eight full time staffers and about 50 members, making it, according to Lemberger and others who preferred not to be quoted, the largest of the three missions in Israel.

Introductory courses at Dror can cost as little as NIS 500. But getting audited requires more of a financial commitment. Packages of 25 hours of auditing at Dror cost NIS 10,000. Reaching a state of "clear," which takes anywhere from one to several years, depending on whether it is done full-time, costs about NIS 150,000. Lemberger does not believe such prices, which he says are similar to those found at any other center, are excessively steep.

"What does it cost to buy a car or a small apartment? More," he argues. "And in this case you gain so much improvement, which can lead you to make much more money than you put in."

In fact, he says, becoming a Scientologist will eventually save you money.

How? He rattles off a quick list: "You'll have much happier relations with your wife, so there will be no divorce costs," he says, by way of example. "You'll raise happy and productive children, so you won't need to support them all the time." The list goes on and on. "You won't have illness, sickness or accidents. You'll be better off mentally. And your career will take off," he says. "That's how."

Arduously climbing the ladder

Even once they settled back in Israel, the Lembergers continued to travel to Flag every summer to work their way up the ladder, finally reaching an advanced stage called OT VII - a stage in which both have been, one might say, "stuck" for several years. The Lembergers are among a very small handful of Israelis, perhaps 25, he estimates, who have reached such a high level. But, Dani says, no matter what, he could not get any further. And he knows why. "The people who were handling me," says Lemberger, talking about the auditors and "ethics officers" he would meet with when in Clearwater, "would ask me how I was doing in life. I would say 'my life is perfect,' but tears would come to my eyes, because I was worried about Scientology."

The sort of guy who likes to be involved, Lemberger has been taking his questions and suggestions to leadership for over 30 years. He asked questions in classes, he asked questions during auditing, and he wrote long letters filled with questions to higher-ups at "Gold Base," Scientology's closed headquarters in the California desert near the town of Hemet, southeast of Los Angeles.

Gold Base is where Miscavige, who is now 52 and is known within Scientology as the "C.O.B" - chairman of the board - is said to be based. He lives there along with a few hundred of Scientology's most dedicated members, many of whom belong to the so-called "Sea Org," an elite group of members who devote all their time to Scientology projects in exchange for meals, housing and a token stipend. These Sea Org members sign a contract pledging their loyalty to Scientology for "the next billion years" and promising not to have children.

In any case, Lemberger says he never got any "sensible" responses to his letters - and yet as his concerns mounted, so did his letter writing. One of Lemberger's main gripes had to do with the organization's centralization of power and lack of financial transparency. While he still feels that the initial investment for early auditing to "clear" is worth the price, Lemberger claims that the higher up the levels one goes, the less the pricing makes sense.

Under Miscavige, climbing up the ladder of seniority can easily take years and always costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, Lemberger says. The process is under the main administration's tight control, with members allowed to achieve the last few levels only at the Flag campus in Florida itself. The very final level, which is called OT VIII, can be done only aboard Scientology's cruise ship, the Freewinds, which is staffed by Sea Org members.

Moreover, says Lemberger, in addition to the high cost of training, the organization applies heavy pressure on members to donate additional money. Lemberger, like scores of others who have either left the church completely or become independents in recent years, charges that under Miscavige, Scientology has become "an aggressive fundraising machine," lacking transparency.

According to, Miscavige's personal worth is $50 million. Figures vary for how much money the church, which was granted tax-exempt status in the U.S. in 1993, has under its control.

Despite Lemberger's claims that the lack of financial transparency began under Miscavige, it is difficult to assess whether things worked any differently under Hubbard. The founder of Scientology infamously told his officials in one bulletin: "Make sure that lots of bodies move through the shop... Make money. Make more money. Make others produce so as to make money . . . However you get them in or why, just do it."

Meanwhile, a 1984 U.S. tax court ruling, before the church received its tax- exempt status, found that Scientology "made a business out of selling religion" and that Hubbard and his family had diverted millions of dollars to their personal accounts.

12 hours in 'The Hole'

This past New Year's Day, Lemberger read the widely circulated e-mail sent out by Debbie Cook, a well-known former Scientology executive who once served as the captain of the Flag training center in Clearwater, before her departure in 2007. In the e-mail, she charged Miscavige with mismanaging Scientology and moving it away from Hubbard's precepts.

The church sued her, leading to a court hearing in Texas where Cook went on to detail how wayward executives were "disciplined" by the church - by being sent to a prison-like compound called "The Hole." She herself had a 12-hour ordeal there, she said, in which she was made to stand in a trash can, while fellow executives poured water over her and screamed at her that she was a lesbian. Her descriptions are similar to those made in the international press over the years by other former Scientologists who claimed physical and mental abuse within the organization.

Lemberger forwarded Cook's e-mail to church officials and asked them to comment on it. In response, the church's "Office of Special Affairs," informed him he had been put "in ethics" - a kind of interrogation program within Scientology. He was then called in to the Tel Aviv org, where, he says, he was "interrogated" at length as to whether he had been surfing the Internet, which is forbidden, and whether he was "corresponding with enemies."

Burstein, from the Tel Aviv org, did not corroborate or deny this account. In May, after discussions with the staff and some of the students at their mission in Haifa about their growing dissatisfaction, the frustrated Lembergers, still holding onto their conviction that Hubbard's way was the right way, traveled to Texas. There they met with Marty Rathbun, the most visible member of the unofficial, so-called Scientologist independence movement.

Once one of the church's highest ranking officials, who had been with the church for 27 years and says he personally audited Tom Cruise, Rathbun's relations with Miscavige, to whom he had reported directly, eventually turned sour. Rathbun, who has written and spoken about his experiences extensively, says he escaped from Gold Base on a speeding motorcycle, barely making it through the electric security fence. From the outside, he has been criticizing the church leadership and alleging ongoing abuses at Gold Base ever since. The church has categorically denied many of Rathbun's allegations, including that Miscavige had a commander uniform tailor-made for his pet beagle and insisted on senior church members saluting the animal.

After a week with Rathbun in Texas, the Lembergers headed to Flag, in Florida.

'Loss of faith'

The plan was to see and stay with old friends from the church and meet with senior auditors and officials to inform them that the Haifa mission was going to declare, en masse, their loss of faith in Miscavige and the direction he was taking Scientology. It was, says Lemberger, something of a farewell trip, as he was well aware what the consequences of his actions would be. But, waiting at the luggage carousel at Tampa airport, the couple say they were approached by a stranger who gave them each an envelope. Opening them, the Lembergers found that the church had beaten them to the punch.

The letters informed them that they had both been declared "SP," or "suppressive persons," a term coined by Hubbard to describe any "person or group... who actively seeks to suppress or damage Scientology or a Scientologist by suppressive acts." According to Hubbard's writings, about 2.5 percent of the population can be classified as SPs, including notorious historic figures like Hitler.

From here on out, any other Scientologist who spoke to the Lembergers would run the risk of also being declared a "PTS," or Potential Trouble Source, or worse yet, an SP themselves. According to Hubbard, some 17.5 percent of the population falls into the PTS category.

"There is a whole department called the 'Office of Special Affairs' which runs a heavy-handed campaign of falsehoods against 'subversive persons,'" says Lemberger. According to the Suppressive Person Defense League, a support organization run by two former

Scientologists, this department puts enormous pressure on current church members to cut off any ties with SPs, even if these are their spouses, parents or children. "If Miscavige allowed people to remain friends with those who leave, he would be lost," says Lemberger.

The friends with whom the Lembergers were meant to be staying did not answer the phone. Their meetings were canceled. It was over. The couple checked into a hotel, spent the five days at the beach and shopping and flew home. "We enjoy each other's company, Tami and I. What, we don't know how to occupy ourselves?" asks Lemberger.

After receiving a letter from a lawyer for the Tel Aviv org threatening to sue if the Dror center continued to use their copyrighted names and symbols, the Lembergers decided to change the name from the Dror Center of Scientology to the Dror Center for Self-Improvement. But it will continue operating, says Lemberger, using the "applied philosophies of Ron Hubbard." He will now purchase any materials needed, including the E-Meters, through the Internet from other independent Scientology sources - something he had not realized was possible before.

"Most everyone at Dror had already decided that if this was going to come to pass, they would come with us. We lost maybe 10 people," says Lemberger. "We're pretty much all in this together."

Speaking to the New York weekly the Village Voice, Rathbun called the Dror mission's action "unprecedented" and a "tectonic shift" in the world of Scientology. "As far as I can recall... no mission, certainly no group of this size and productivity, has told management to shove off," he is quoted as saying in the July 6 article.

The Village Voice, in turn, which has been writing extensively about Scientology and its alleged abuses for years, put the Lembergers at the head of its 2012 list of "The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology."

Worshiping the golden calf

On the eve of the inauguration of the Tel Aviv org last month, Lemberger, padding around barefoot in his little Haifa office, far away from all the fanfare at the Alhambra, says he feels like Moses who led the people of Israel to the mountain and came down with the tablets of the Ten Commandments only to find them worshiping the golden calf. "Sure I feel left out," he admits, "but more than that I am disappointed."

"Scientology is not about renovating historic buildings," Lemberger claims. As one of those who donated money to the building, he says he was told the purchase of the building alone had cost $5.8 million dollars. He believes that "easily" another $6-$7 million was spent to refurbish it. The Tel Aviv org would not comment on these sums.

The Alhambra, he says, was registered in the name of Gur Finkelstein, a lawyer who was indicted by the Tel Aviv District Court last May on 11 charges - including attempted murder, sabotage, attempted sabotage, causing damage with explosives, arson, conspiring to commit a crime and aggravated assault. Finkelstein registered the building on behalf of the "Scientology International Reserves Trust" ?(SIRT?).

"Would it not be better to have used all this money to help defray costs of those wanting to learn Hubbard's philosophy?" asks Lemberger. Worldwide, he says, there are hundreds "if not thousands" who are leaving the church completely or joining independent groups now. "The church will not admit to it, and they call those who leave 'criminals,' who have gone astray - but I know it." The website "The Big List that Left Scientology" lists 1,925 former members of the church who have left and have been willing to speak out against it.

Meanwhile, back in Jaffa, the celebration of the new center goes on and on, making Scientology in Israel look far more vibrant than Lemberger makes out. Clean-cut members from Flag and Gold, who have flown in especially from Florida and California for the occasion, introduce themselves to the excited local members. Tours of the 5,500-square-meter building go from the spacious saunas in the basement "purification rooms," to the high-tech auditing rooms on the second floor to an exact replica of Hubbard's study on the third, where visitors are allowed to take photos.

Church reporters do interviews, faithfully transcribing one predictable quote after the next. "This is so wonderful," says a handsome young man from Be'er Sheva. "I can't believe how beautiful everything is," says a female soldier, who has come with her parents.

On the fourth floor, a select group of the country's most senior Scientologists are being led one by one, or by family, into the auditorium. There, surrounded by security and professional church photographers with light meters, is a short, handsome man in fine leather shoes and a spiffy suit, who needs no introduction. It's Miscavige, making his first-ever known visit to the country.

The small crowd trying to peer into the room from outside seems dumbstruck. One woman looks like she might cry. She stares and stares at the man, until she somehow manages to catch his eye. She stiffens up and salutes. Miscavige, from afar, points his finger in her direction, rock-star like, and then salutes in return. Scientology's official response

Requests for an interview made to Scientology's media relations office in Los Angleles were referred to Hadar Burstein from the Tel Aviv organization. This is an edited version of Burstein's response to a list of questions submitted. There was no response to any follow-up questions.

"I am sure you can appreciate my surprise at your questions in light of the fact that only recently 2,000 Scientologists and their guests participated in the opening of our new 5,500-square-meter center in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, which has 200 loyal staff working there to give services to thousands of Scientologists around the country. "Yet I still find myself being asked to react to unfounded and twisted claims of someone who ran a small group claiming to be a Scientology center, but one which does not even use the name 'Scientology,' in its name.

"In any case I would be happy to relate to the matter of the administration of the worldwide Scientology organization. As to how the organization is run, the proof is found in front of our eyes - with the opening of our new organization here. Similar centers are opening in main cities around the world - in London, Johannesburg, New York, Madrid, Berlin, San Francisco - all together 24 such new organizations, 10 of which were opened in the last year. You can see more about this on our website:

"These new organizations have expanded our operations greatly and are very active in their communities...this is the real story of Scientology, the story of its incredible expansion that we are experiencing under its global leadership. But this is only part of the story. On top of the creation of new organizations, as detailed above, we have also expanded our ability to respond to the growing demand for Scientology in the international sphere.

"Millions of people around the world today use the principles of Scientology, joining in the over 10,000 organizations, missions and smaller groups in 167 nations. The incredible growth is the result of people who have seen with their own eyes how the tools of Scientology truly help them improve their lives. Beyond this, our programs to better society are effective and are carried out with a true desire to help, and indeed make the world a better place to live in, as you can see here:"

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