Rabbi Philip Berg’s Kabbalah Center attracts swarms of celebrities, disaffected Jews, and others. But critics call him a cheesy New Age huckster who has distorted and dumbed down an ancient mystical faith.
New Times Los Angeles, April 27 – May 3, 2000
By Denise Hamilton
Marilyn Rothman is a highly educated, white-collar professional in her 30s. She is also a single mother struggling to raise her son and make ends meet. Raised in the Jewish faith, Rothman abandoned organized religion during her early 20s. But several years ago, she found herself yearning to be part of a spiritual community.
One day in the mid-1990s, Rothman saw an ad for the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. The ad talked about how to improve your life through studying the teachings of the Kabbalah (sometimes spelled Cabala and a number of other ways), a series of 13th-century mystical Jewish texts. The center itself was located on Robertson between Pico and Olympic Boulevards, in the heart of an old Jewish neighborhood.
Free introductory class, the ad said. Learn the meaning of life and realize your dreams. It was clear to Rothman that this Kabbalah Center wasn’t just a bunch of learned old men sitting around debating the more esoteric points of religious dogma. Why, you didn’t even need to speak Hebrew or Aramaic, the languages in which the Kabbalah was written. And the Kabbalah Center welcomed people of all ages and denominations who wanted to improve their lives.
After attending a meeting, Rothman came away impressed. These people had a purpose. They strode confidently around. In the words of the Rabbi Philip Berg, who founded the popular Kabbalah Centers, his followers had “the light,” the divine spiritual power that placed the world at their command. “It’s very seductive,” Rothman told New Times. “There’s a sense of comfort to belong, to share, to believe that you know the truth and that it is the ultimate truth in life and you’re the only people who understand it.”
The Kabbalah Center also provided the sense of community Rothman ached for. “They know how to throw a great party, and they make you feel you’re part of a big family, which is something that many of us are lacking,” she says wistfully. “They have singing and dancing and big meals, and that’s fun for people like me, who don’t want to go to bars or clubs to meet people.”
Dazzled, Rothman started taking classes. First the beginning series — 10 classes for $168. Then a second series. She bought the center’s $350 Zohar — the set of 24 books that contains all the kabbalistic teachings. She bought tapes and books, and paid extra to attend holiday celebrations. She found herself leaving her young son with a baby-sitter three or four nights a week and for long stretches on the weekends.
And slowly, the Kabbalah Center’s hold on her grew less benign. “It was my social life, and then it became my whole life,” says Rothman, who didn’t want her real name used for this story because she still feels afraid and intimidated by the Kabbalah Center. “I was searching for some sort of spirituality in my life. I guess you would say I was weak or vulnerable.” Rothman says she often worked all day, then drove to the Kabbalah Center and volunteered to answer phones, work the bookstore counter, and vacuum.
She spent all her discretionary income at the Kabbalah Center. She also forgot she was a mother. “I wasn’t preparing meals; I was neglecting my child. But I was told that by going there and getting the light, my child would get the light, and this was how to be a good mother.”
Lectures and prayer sessions often went past 10 p.m. on weeknights and started at 8 a.m. on Saturdays. Believers regularly meditated for hours. “It was almost as if you felt high. There would be a large group of people and they would tell you that you could all be one soul with Berg and his wife. It was every day and if you said you couldn’t be there, they’d say, ‘You need to be here, this is where you’re going to get the light.'”
Rothman alleges the center pressured her into signing up for expensive retreats she couldn’t afford and urged her and others to fly cross-country for special Seder dinners with the rabbi, who maintains living quarters at centers in L.A. and New York. At meals, leaders made fun of other rabbis in town and gave constant lectures. Believers were taught to do everything differently, even down to passing food only with the right hand. “They reprogrammed you,” she says.
Over several years, Rothman estimates she gave the Kabbalah Center more than $10,000. But the most insidious thing, she alleges, was that center leaders badgered her to make out postdated checks to them for thousands of dollars. “But I don’t have this money,” Rothman had objected.
“Don’t worry, follow the light and Berg’s teachings and by the time the check is due, you will,” the teachers had told her.
Meanwhile, she learned to stand silently when Rabbi Berg and his wife, Karen, walked in. Believers vied to do even the most menial chores for the couple. “We were told that if we cleaned their toilets, that was something special, it was a mitzvah,” Rothman said, referring to the Hebrew word for a “good deed.” The turning point, says Rothman, came one evening when her young son lay sick with a 102-degree fever. Rothman called to say she couldn’t make it to a lecture, and the people at the center exploded. “They told me I had to come. They don’t take excuses.”
Rothman trembled but stood firm. But when her son got better, she resumed her Kabbalah routine.
Then one night, she drove to the center as usual. “I was ready to go in and do my volunteer work, but something happened. I sat there in my car and I knew that if I went in, that would be it; I’d lose myself totally. I drove away and never went back.”
“Southern California is a land of exaggerated religiosity and also of careless skepticism, where old faiths die and new cults are born.” — Carey McWilliams, Southern California, An Island on the Land
The teachings of the Kabbalah are said to date back millennia, to when Moses went up to Mount Sinai and received them directly from God. For thousands of years, the Kabbalah existed only as oral tradition. Then, in the 13th century, a Jewish scholar in Spain claims to have discovered an ancient text called the Zohar, or “Book of Splendor” which laid out the Kabbalah teachings that God had given Moses. This mystical and confounding text drawn loosely from the Bible — is full of numerology, fables, incantations, symbols, spells, and meditations.
Kabbalistic teachings refer to God as light, and are filled with imagery of chariots, angels, and celestial objects that Jewish scholars have studied and debated for centuries. While interest in the mystical teachings has waxed and waned over the years, traditional Judaism has always considered the Kabbalah the most difficult and exalted of religious texts — to be studied only by married men over 40 who have proven their maturity and readiness with years of devoted study of the Talmud and the Torah. Women traditionally couldn’t study it at all. According to the Vaad Harabonim, an orthodox yeshiva, or religious school, in Queens, New York: “Even among those who meet these criteria, only few can be expected to grasp fully the concepts and practices of Kabbalah, and even fewer to endure successfully the intellectual and psychological strains which this discipline engenders.” The genius of Philip Berg was to turn that idea of an elite brotherhood on its head. By knocking the Kabbalah off its ancient pedestal, he flung open the sacred doors and texts to the masses. Why should the Kabbalah be the preserve of only a few old men? So Berg, a former insurance salesman who is now 71, morphed the Kabbalah into a New Age, feel-good mysticism that he peddled to all comers.
Berg opened his first Kabbalah Center back in 1969, and in the following decades sent handpicked followers to launch centers in New York, Toronto, Paris, Mexico City, and Tokyo. The Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles long the organization’s United States headquarters — dates to 1984, when it started in a one-bedroom apartment in West L.A. But the City of Angels has been good to the Kabbalah Center — it moved several years ago to the Robertson Boulevard facility, where 400 people a week take classes, and almost as many attend weekend services.
It’s not surprising that the Kabbalah Center has flourished in Southern California, which historically has been a fertile breeding ground for offbeat religions, cults, and evangelical preachers; think Aimee Semple McPherson, L. Ron Hubbard, EST, and the Self-Realization Fellowship. Some are more innocuous than others, but all claim they have answers and enlightenment.
The Kabbalah Center is part of that continuum. Its adherents don’t have to be Jewish to benefit from the Zohar and the Kabbalah Center says that half of the 3.9 million people worldwide who have taken its classes aren’t. Neither do they need to spend years learning Aramaic or Hebrew so they can decipher ancient texts. Instead, believers are taught to merely run their fingers over the printed words and feel the vibration, tapping into the energy and enlightenment that the Zohar brings.
“We didn’t make this up,” insists Philip Berg’s son Michael, a rabbi who works closely with his father at the L.A. Kabbalah Center. “For thousands of years, there has been a Judaic belief that the eyes have power, that running your eyes over a text, just looking at it, has power.”
From there, things just get loopier. The Kabbalah Center bookstore sells “Kabbalah Mountain Spring Water” touted as “rejuvenating the body and soul.” Drinkers are urged to “put the bottle to your forehead, meditate for a moment on whatever problem you have and drink the water, feeling it fulfill that need with white light.” There are red yarn bracelets to ward off evil that cost $26 for a few cents’ worth of yarn that supposedly has been energized by wrapping it around the Tomb of the Matriarch Rachel outside Bethlehem. You tie it around your wrist after a blessing recited by a Kabbalah staffer. Then there are rows and rows of books interpreting the Kabbalah — most by Philip Berg — and videos on everything from reincarnation to astrology and UFOs. It’s a New Age smorgasbord with a little something for everyone.
Still, the Kabbalah Center might have remained just another quirky spiritual movement if not for the celebrities.
For self-anointed prophets and messiahs alike, hooking a star means hitting the jackpot. Consider famous Scientologists Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and John Travolta. Or Tina Turner and dozens of other chanting Buddhists whose “Nam Yoho Renge Kyo” anthem swept Hollywood a decade ago. Or the Tibetan Zen
Buddhism championed by Richard Gere.
Several years ago, it was the Kabbalah Center’s turn, as luminaries such as Elizabeth Taylor, Gwyneth Paltrow, Courtney Love, Barbra Streisand, Marla Maples, Jeff Goldblum, and Laura Dern began flocking to its classes, with many publicly touting the spiritual merits of Kabbalah.
Roseanne Barr employed a Kabbalah consultant on her former TV show, and once told a newspaper, “Everything I believe has come from Kabbalah.” Madonna credited the Kabbalah Center with “creative guidance” on her Ray of Light album and delivered her daughter by cesarean section on a day recommended by her Kabbalah spiritual advisor. “You are absolutely the master of your destiny,” she told MTV. “You have to take responsibility for your life.”
But mainstream rabbis and Jewish organizations have watched the Kabbalah Center’s blossoming with undisguised dismay. Many dismiss Berg’s brand of Kabbalah as an inaccurate distortion of true teachings, and the leader himself as a buffoonish carnival barker.
Indeed, the idea of selling New Age Judaism to the outside world is anathema to many within the faith. So is the Kabbalah Center’s policy of proselytizing — sending recruits door-to-door à la Jehovah’s Witnesses to pass out literature, sell Torahs, and beg for donations.
“That is not within the mainstream of Judaism,” explains Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, acting director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “We don’t do that.”
Adds Rabbi Ben Tzion Kravitz, who heads up the group Jews for Judaism in Beverly Hills: “They have no credibility in the organized Jewish community.
They’re not as sinister as Scientology, but if you had to find some comparison, it’s the Jewish Scientology. They say, ‘Do this, scan that, and everything will get better in your life.’ It’s pop psychology. You’re not getting real Kabbalah, it’s being packaged in this New Age methodology.” Many are especially irked at the markups involved. A Zohar that retails for about $125 in Fairfax-area religious stores costs $345 at the Kabbalah Center. Ditto on the markup for tefillin (amulets containing biblical passages worn during prayer) that cost up to $1,800 at the center but $300 to $400 down the street.
Some Jewish groups consider the Kabbalah Center such a threat that they have issued proclamations condemning it. “We have become aware of a group of young men promulgating the sale of so-called kabbalistic literature and of their establishment of classes in this topic,” wrote the Rabbis of the Orthodox Community of Toronto. “We categorically state that the group known as the Center for Kabbalah Research is not approved nor endorsed by the undersigned rabbis.”
The Vaad Harabonim congregation of Queens joined in, noting the rise of interest in Kabbalah studies and concluding: “We…emphatically discourage and look with disfavor at such efforts.”
But others swear that studying the Kabbalah has changed their lives. They say it has made the lame walk and led people to their beshert — or predestined soul mate. Adherence to Berg’s brand of Kabbalah worship is said to bring riches to flagging businesses, cure cancer, and reinvigorate relationships. In short, the Kabbalah Center teaches that all is possible for those who have “the light.”
This alarms many mainstream rabbis.
“I think the Kabbalah Center is dangerous,” says Rabbi Chaim Siedler-Felder, head of UCLA Hillel, who earlier this spring organized a conference on kabbalistic teachings through UCLA’s extension program but excluded the biggest purveyors of Kabbalah lore so as not to legitimize their teachings. Goldmark, of the Board of Rabbis, says his organization doesn’t have a position on the Kabbalah Center. However, “There have been accusations,” Goldmark says, choosing his words carefully. “There are enough people who have come to the Board of Rabbis with negative experiences about how they get their members and retain them. If someone came to me and said ‘I want to be a part of this,’ I’d say, ‘Be cautious of any and all the financial burden that may be placed upon you.'”
The devout, however, say it’s worth every penny.
“Kabbalah reconciles everything: science, true religion, and spirituality,” says longtime adherent Billy Phillips, a 42-year-old L.A. businessman and associate editor of the center’s Kabbalah magazine. “You realize that each word is a code and when you understand the code, that knowledge actually turns the prayer on for you and you begin to feel and draw spiritual energy from it.”
What does that mean in practical terms? Kabbalah taught him greater respect and consideration for his employees, which has led to greater business success, he says. It taught him respect and appreciation for his wife, which created a more harmonious relationship. It led him away from superficial friendships based on need.
“It’s given us a new quality of friends, because we connect with these people on a spiritual level,” he says. “We attend services; take classes there all the time. We’ve made it an active part of our lives.”
Like many members of the Kabbalah Center, Phillips tithes, giving 10 percent of his income to the organization. “It says in Kabbalah that when you earn money, you always get 10 percent more than you need, to give you circuitry.
You create that circuitry by tithing, by sharing.”
When told that well-known cultbuster and deprogrammer Rick Ross has listed the Kabbalah Center on his Cultwatch Web site, Phillips replies by attacking Ross’ credibility and suggesting where a New Times reporter can find negative stories about Ross. The Web site includes dramatic anonymous first-person accounts by ex-center members around the world that echo the claims of Marilyn Rothman.
Asked about disaffected ex-members such as Rothman, Phillips insists he has never seen anyone leave the Kabbalah Center after a bad experience. According to him, it just doesn’t happen.
“Some people get what they need out of it, then leave. But I’ve found that people who are the biggest detractors never set foot in the door,” he says.
“For 4,000 years the mystical wisdom of Kabbalah was a tightly guarded secret. Only in this century did the ancient vaults to this mysterious hidden knowledge open up. Discover the oldest, most powerful spiritual system known to man.” — from the video The Power of Kabbalah Groups that monitor cults across America say the Kabbalah Center bears all the hallmarks of one. It encourages submission to a charismatic, supreme leader, promotes dependence on its teachings, makes frequent monetary demands, promises absolute enlightenment, dismisses and bad-mouths critics, creates an “us versus them” mentality, and allegedly urges members to break with family or friends who don’t support their expensive quest for enlightenment.
According to ex-members and cult-watchers, Kabbalah Center initiates are often given new names, told who they should marry, and what to name their children. Some live and work at the Kabbalah Center in dormitory-like housing, earning their keep by going door-to-door. There is also a rigid hierarchy, and Philip Berg is considered a demigod whose every utterance brims with spiritual truth.
Mainstream Jews find this aspect of the Kabbalah Center especially repugnant.
“In Judaism, there’s not any special person who is supposed to have the hot line to spirituality,” says Rachel Bernstein, a therapist and coordinator at the Cult Hotline and Clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York. “Yet Berg holds this uniquely exalted position. It’s not the way Judaism believes — that a person can have those kinds of powers.”
Bernstein began tracking the Kabbalah Center in the 1990s, when she lived in L.A., and kept track of the complaints she received. They included reports from:
- A woman with a missing child who was told by Rabbi Berg that he would helpfind her daughter if she devoted a year of service to the Kabbalah Center. The grief-stricken woman, a dentist, gave up her practice to do so. At the end of the year, Berg denied he could help her.
- A man who wound up in the hospital feeling suicidal and wondered if theKabbalah Center was to blame. Upon joining, he had been told to stop taking his depression medication. Instead, he had been told to buy the Zohar and scan it with his fingers. The energy flowing from the Zohar would protect him from psychological problems. It didn’t.
- A man who was visiting his elderly parents in Boca Raton, Florida, whenKabbalah Center proselytizers came knocking. The man overheard them say,”Oh, I see you’re elderly, do you have any ailments? We have people in our organization who can help.” They urged the couple to donate money to keep them from suffering pain. When the couple declined, the Kabbalah Center people grew abusive and threatening.Bernstein says the Kabbalah Center also makes believers feel there is something wrong with them if they question Berg’s teachings or fall short of promised goals.”There is a tone that’s set in the room so that all critical and logical thinking is dismissed,” says Bernstein, who attended classes at the Kabbalah Center anonymously. “They say that if you’re scanning the Zohar and you’ve still got some kind of disease, then you must not have been truly feeling it in your heart when you were scanning. So it’s always you, and they’re very clever at never taking any responsibility for false promises and false hopes.”But few ex-members are willing to speak out publicly. One couple whose marriage almost broke up declined to speak to New Times because they believed any publicity about the Kabbalah Center would only help the organization. The Kabbalah Center also has a reputation for litigiousness. When Toronto kabbalist Rabbi Dr. J. Immanuel Shochet denounced Berg and his followers, he was sued for $4.5 million.”People are not going to be very forthcoming, and that’s why these groups get as far as they do,” suggests Debbie Pine, former director of the Maynard Bernstein Resource Center on Cults in Los Angeles, who logged 90 complaints about the Kabbalah Center between 1996-98, mostly from concerned family members. “No one is willing to take them on, to challenge them. And celebrities, especially in this town, give the Kabbalah Center all sorts of credibility.”Pine and Bernstein say it’s a shame that so little cult monitoring is done in L.A. today. The Maynard Bernstein Center closed due to lack of funding in 1998, in part due to the chilling effect of lawsuits filed by Scientology against another monitoring group, the Cult Awareness Network. The lawsuits eventually bankrupted CAN, and in a frightening move, its assets were then acquired by Scientology, which now runs the most prominent anticult group. Rabbi Kravitz, who has also received dozens of complaints, say many of his callers object to the Kabbalah Center’s door-to-door fund-raising.”People have been yelled at and told bad things will happen to them if they don’t support the cause and [are] promised good things if they do,” Kravitz says. “That’s very cultlike.”
Rothman says that jibes with her experience. “If someone said anything negative, they would say it’s Satan working, whom they call Say-TAAN. They say that when you’re doing good, Satan works harder to destroy the good and the light.”
There are also darker allegations. In 1992, Rabbi Abraham Union, Rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of California, found a bloody sheep’s head stuffed into a plastic bag hanging on his office doorknob after he distributed the proclamation from Toronto rabbis criticizing the Kabbalah Center. That night, several young men appeared at his home and asked in Hebrew whether he had gotten their message. Fearing for his life, the rabbi filed a police report, but the Kabbalah Center denied making the threat and no evidence connected the center with the incident.
Rabbi Kravitz had his own run-in after counseling a woman who had gone to the Kabbalah Center for advice about postpartum cramping. The woman, says Kravitz, claimed staffers told her she was possessed by a demon and needed to buy all of the Kabbalah Center’s books and scan them to get rid of the demon. She did so, then turned to Kravitz when her cramps didn’t stop.
“I told her she should return the books, get her money back, and give it to a charity; she stopped dealing with them,” Kravitz recalls.
But the rabbi says his advice apparently angered members of the Kabbalah Center, who came up to him one day before the Sabbath at the mikveh, the ritual bath that Orthodox Jews attend.
“There were three guys, and I remember they were screaming at me and saying that what I was doing was evil,” Kravitz recalls. “I told them, ‘Let’s go to the rabbinical court,’ and if they were truly observant Jews, they would have agreed. But instead, they spat on me.”
“Ancient kabbalists believed water to be the source of all healing…Before drinking, the sages would inject the water with special meditations to help activate the powers of rejuvenations. These waters have been imbued with these same meditations.” — Description on Kabbalah Mountain Spring Water sold at the L.A. Kabbalah Center
Michael Berg is more than willing to sit down with a reporter and deny these accounts point by point. He’s heard all the criticism before, and to him it’s just a measure of how hostile the outside world is to his father’s groundbreaking message.
“We believe the teachings of Kabbalah need to be disseminated, and we’re not going to stop this just because there are people who hate us or speak negatively about us,” Berg said. “Our critics — that’s a badge of honor to us.”
In a lengthy interview, Berg painted a picture of a benign and helpful organization that stresses self-reliance, love for family, and community service. He denied that the Kabbalah Center was a cult and rejected the idea that anyone is brainwashed.
“One of the basic teachings of the center is, ‘Don’t accept a word that anyone tells you, you have to come to your own understanding and live with it.’ Unlike many other religious organizations, there’s no coercion. It’s the opposite of that. We’re very open that we need financial support to continue publishing books and running the organization, but there’s no push. It’s more like, ‘If you have a chance, please help us out.'”
Berg denies that anyone from the Kabbalah Center spat at Rabbi Kravitz or put a sheep’s head on Rabbi Union’s doorknob.
“That’s totally against who we are and what we teach, which is compassion and caring. To make accusations is very simple, you just open your mouth. But without proof, I can’t imagine it. For sure that’s nothing the center did.”
As for the possessed-by-a-demon anecdote, “that’s most certainly a lie. If someone has a problem, we send them to a doctor. Demons are not in the forefront of kabbalistic teachings. It’s ‘how can I improve my life,’ not so much the weird stuff.”
Berg also rejects Marilyn Rothman’s account of her experience at the Kabbalah Center. He says center employees or friends who believed she was going through a difficult time might have suggested Rothman take classes because they believed it would aid her spiritually.
“If you think it can help someone, you would suggest they do it, but it’s up to interpretation how strong the suggestion was,” Berg explains. “If she subjectively felt coerced, we’re sorry about it. But the center absolutely does not coerce, it’s not in the teachings.”
When asked about allegations that Kabbalah members asked Rothman to postdate checks, Berg explains that sometimes believers desperately want to take more classes but lack the necessary funds. In some of those instances, the center has allowed believers to enroll in the classes and pay with postdated checks.
“The center is too kind in that respect, because sometimes when people give us postdated checks, we never get paid,” Berg explains.
As for the high price of his Zohars, he says that the Kabbalah Center edition “is unique for its size and clarity. The printing is so bad on some of the others that you wouldn’t be able to read the words on the page.” Berg denies the allegations made by Rachel Bernstein, calling them unsubstantiated rumors. And he deflects all negative accounts this way: “Millions of people have been in contact with the center through the years, so if there are 20 people out there who have negative feelings, that’s a pretty good percentage. It’s not hundreds, certainly. If you go to alumni of Harvard, there are probably more sour grapes out there. So as far as the numbers, we’re pretty comfortable. I would invite even our harshest critics to come spend some time with us and see for themselves.”
Indeed, even detractors concede that the Kabbalah Center is less virulent than some cults. “They’re not as aggressive as some groups that won’t tolerate any criticism,” says Bernstein. “It’s more the contradictions and hypocrisy between the way people live and the way their leader lives.” In any event, the center has clearly tapped into a hunger for spirituality and ancient wisdom in our modern age. Goldmark, acting director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, points out that 50 percent of Jews are not affiliated with any synagogue, so there’s a tremendous market out there within the Jewish community alone.
Philip Berg has also proven himself an excellent businessman and savvy marketer. By repackaging Kabbalah in an appealing New Age fashion, he has forced mainstream Jewish organizations across America to reassess how they address the spiritual needs of young people dissatisfied with traditional congregations and services. For instance, several L.A. synagogues now offer Friday night mixers for singles alongside Shabbat services. Michael Berg says some of the criticism from more traditional Jews stems from jealousy over his father’s success.
“Twenty years ago, you could not get a synagogue or a Jewish organization to mention the word ‘kabbalah,’ and now almost all of them are giving Kabbalah courses. Unfortunately, most of them don’t credit the Kabbalah Center,” Berg says.
But traditional Jews continue to attack the Kabbalah Center for its pop distortions of the real thing.
“They certainly do things that are highly questionable,” says Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, a respected scholar and president of Metivta, a “center for contemplative Judaism.”
How does what Philip Berg teaches relate to the traditional Kabbalah? “It doesn’t,” says Omer-Man.
What about going door-to-door proselytizing or gaining enlightenment from running your fingertips across the Zohar without being able to read Hebrew? “Even less,” he says dryly.
One of the most controversial ideas floated by the Kabbalah Center is that the Ashkenazi, or European Jews, were killed by Hitler during the Holocaust because they failed to study Kabbalah, while the Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean region, who practiced Kabbalah, were saved.
Berg’s promotional video, The Power of Kabbalah, alludes to this when it quotes a famous kabbalist saying that “sword and slaughter come to the world because people fail to study the holy Zohar.” When asked specifically about the Holocaust, Michael Berg explains that he doesn’t want to focus on it because it is such a delicate subject. However, “the reality is that the light could have been a protector. To what extent, we don’t really know.” Jewish scholars say this is nonsense. Hitler killed European Jews because they lived in lands he conquered, while the Sephardic Jews mostly remained out of reach. Still, such ideas suggest a self-hatred that is disturbing. One L.A. journalist who has ghostwritten books for the Kabbalah Center says he was told to downplay the word Jew in his writing because Philip Berg felt it would alienate non-Jews who wanted to join.
“The torch is now passed to a young Orthodox rabbi from America, Philip Berg.” — from The Power of Kabbalah, a promotional video
Philip Berg began life as Feivel Gruberger, a rabbi from Brooklyn who grew wealthy selling insurance and real estate. He visited Israel in 1962 and met Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein, a respected mystic and kabbalist who ran a religious school in Jerusalem called Yeshiva Kol Yehuda. That school had been founded in 1922 by another famous kabbalist named Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag. Berg befriended Brandwein and started studying with him in 1964. Eventually, he became Brandwein’s private pupil, according to Michael Berg, who says this close relationship is documented in handwritten letters between Brandwein and Berg. According to the Kabbalah Center’s promotional video, in one letter Brandwein appointed Berg as president of the center. Berg and Brandwein were also linked by marriage. Years earlier, Berg had married a niece of Brandwein’s and they had seven children. Then, in 1971, Berg divorced her to marry Karen Cohen. Although she came from a nonreligious Jewish family, Karen was interested in spiritual matters and soon became a full partner in the development of the Kabbalah Center; she was also a strong supporter of opening up its teachings to everyone, says Michael Berg. (Philip and Karen Berg’s other son, Yehuda, is also involved in the Kabbalah Center, as are some of the children from Berg’s first marriage.)
Following Brandwein’s death in 1969, Berg, who had by then dropped the name Gruberger, declared himself heir to the kabbalistic dynasty of Brandwein and Ashlag. Indeed, many Kabbalah Center documents bear the inscription: The Kabbalah Learning Center, Established in 1922, Jerusalem, by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi Ashlag.
There is only one problem with that story — Brandwein’s son in Israel says it’s not true. Avraham Brandwein became dean of Yeshiva Kol Yehuda after his father died and continues to run it today.
Reached by telephone, a spokesman in Jerusalem for Avraham Brandwein vigorously denounced Philip Berg for trying to usurp Avraham and Yehuda Brandwein’s legacy. Spokesman Yoel Freiman also denies that Yeshiva Kol Yehuda has any connection to Berg’s Kabbalah Center.
“Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein was a leader of Hasidim, and that is a title that a son inherits from his father,” Freiman explains. “So naturally, when Rabbi Brandwein died, he gave the title to his son Avraham, and not to Berg.” Freiman adds that many people come to his yeshiva looking for Berg. “We tell them that this is not his place, and he has nothing to do with us, and furthermore, we do not want any connection with this man. Our yeshiva is unique in its modesty. We do not seek publicity. We do things the way the Torah commanded us — secretly, privately.”
When told that Berg insists he is Brandwein’s spiritual heir and claims he possesses letters that prove it, Freiman grows agitated. “Berg was a secretary, collecting money for Brandwein, that is all,” the Kol Yehuda spokesman insists.
When asked to explain this apparent discrepancy, Michael Berg refers back to the Berg-Brandwein letters and reiterates that they show “the love, the trust, the bond” between the two men. He hints at sour grapes on Avraham Brandwein’s part. “At that time, Rabbi Brandwein was spending most of his time with Rabbi Berg, so naturally that would cause a lot of major and minor friction,” Berg says.
And so, despite denunciations from the very yeshiva which Philip Berg claims as the fount of his religious doctrine, the Kabbalah Center rolls on, bulldozing all critics in its path.
Berg recently built a $4.5 million headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv. A $2 million headquarters in New York is thriving, as are the branches around the world. U.S. tax records obtained by a Jewish newspaper show the Kabbalah Center had assets of $14.3 million in 1994, and that figure has doubtless grown since then.
The centers all operate on a strict hierarchy. At the top are the Bergs. With his full beard and flowing white robes, Philip resembles an Old Testament prophet. He wears white because he believes it is best for letting in “the light.” Karen dresses in the demure, long-sleeved, knee-covering clothes and ornamental wig of an observant Orthodox Jew. According to Rothman, the couple traveled frequently and always arrived at the L.A. center in a limo. In the women’s quarters (men and women are separated during prayers), there was a special large chair for Karen Berg. No one else was allowed to sit in it, and when she wasn’t there, it remained empty. One step below the Bergs are their grown children. Then there are the teachers. While known as rabbis, critics say few have graduated from recognized rabbinical schools. The center counters that, according to Jewish law, Philip Berg has the authority to ordain rabbis, and that the center does its own intensive rabbi training. Each center has at least one certified rabbi and the other Kabbalah teachers are rabbis-in-training, Michael Berg explains. Below them are the thousands of believers who take classes, attend holiday services, and provide the bread and butter of the organization. At the bottom are the foot soldiers who sell Zohars door-to-door, earn nominal salaries, and live at the center. Philip Berg boasts that his supporters include the King of Morocco and presidents of Fortune 500 companies. He certainly has Hollywood eating out of his hand, and mainstream rabbis can only watch in amazement and envy as he attracts new followers each day. According to the Jewish Journal, the Kabbalah Center may be “the fastest-growing and most far-reaching Jewish institution in Southern California.”
“In 10 classes, you will learn the purpose of LIFE, the source of all suffering and a strategy for personal fulfillment. Thousands of pages of ancient kabbalistic text are organized into an easy-to-understand ‘life manual.'” — from a Kabbalah Center brochure
At a free introductory meeting, a New Times reporter found the Kabbalah Center to be more psychobabble than mind control. The 10 people who filed into a conference room one night included suited professionals, a wild-haired man keenly interested in UFOs, and two young Asian women dressed hip-hop casual who wanted to learn how to make lots of money.
The teacher, Avraham Kalman, had a New York accent by way of Israel. He started out by explaining that Kabbalah was not New Age, it was 4,000 years old. Next, he told the group that Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, lived “before religion.” He explained that love was present in the big bang theory that created the universe. He said that “mind over matter” really works and that illnesses like cancer are in our minds and can be cured with the right attitude. Reincarnation, he said, was key to understanding why bad things happen to good people.
But Rabbi Kalman’s main point was that we could unlock the keys to the universe by connecting to a special energy called “the light.” The Kabbalah Center’s 10-week class would teach us how.
Kelman, who kept adjusting his yarmulke as if he wasn’t used to wearing one, pointed out a chart of Hebrew letters on the wall. “This is how you dial to the light.” He explained it wasn’t necessary to read Hebrew; all we had to do was meditate upon the letters because they were so powerful. As he spoke, people nodded and smiled in agreement and several signed up for the beginner class when the lecture ended. Now a soft but insistent sell began for the undecided.
“Did you like the lecture? What did you think?” Kalman asked. “Are you going to sign up today?” the cashier wanted to know. “Are you interested in Kabbalah? In the lectures?” asked a young woman staffer who suddenly materialized.
Kabbalah defector Rothman says this is no accident. Introductory classes, she says, are often laced with true believers who try to engage new students, make them feel comfortable, and encourage them to buy tapes. How does Rothman know?
“I was one of those people they sent to classes to engage the newcomers,” she says.
Still, a New Times reporter felt no Orwellian pressure to join, and the groupthink didn’t seem too oppressive. Rothman shrugs.
“Some people I know, they go to services now and then, they take classes now and then, but basically the Kabbalah Center can’t get to them. And when they become insistent, these people just say, ‘I’m not going to give you any more money.’ And that’s that”
She pauses. “But if you have a weakness, they’ll try to find it. They’ll play on whatever fear you have. I was very fragile at the time. I was convinced that if I didn’t go to them for Jewish holidays, if I didn’t give, I wasn’t going to receive the light.”
Today, Marilyn Rothman is slowly becoming reacquainted with mainstream Judaism and trying to put the Kabbalah Center behind her. But there is a casualty: her son.
“He has lots of negativity toward Judaism,” she says sadly. “What I understand now is that a rabbi’s job is to help people, not prey on them. I thought Judaism was based on fear, that God was someone who punished,” Rothman says. “I don’t want any other person to go through what I went through.”
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