Against the Stream

It’s 10 a.m. on Shabbat at The Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard and the crowds are starting to converge in anticipation of the Torah reading.

Hundreds are milling about. People are dressed in all white outfits, the place is filling up. There’s a casual, relaxed atmosphere in the place, as the crowd takes their seats at pews adorned with song books, which contain a pamphlet declaring that "Death is an illusion" and promising that "Our enthusiasm, combined with our deep conviction, helps to accelerate the process of ending death, forever."

"If you come Shabbat, there is standing-room only," said Rafi Feig, a board member at the center. "It is literally packed."

The Kabbalah Centre is growing, with more than 1,000 people walking through the doors every week to attend classes and services — making it one of the most popular Jewish institutions in Los Angeles. With an aversion to any publicity, save that generated by itself, the center has managed this growth even while being ostracized from the mainstream Jewish community — or perhaps because of it.

Kabbalah, meaning "that which is received," is the mystical study of the hidden aspects of Judaism that is traditionally only taught to men over the age of 40 who have otherwise mastered the more mainstream Jewish texts, such as the Talmud and the Mishnah. Kabbalah is said to be so powerful, that only those individuals deemed worthy enough are allowed to learn it.

The Kabbalah Centre asserts that it is bringing kabbalah to the masses, a practice that, throughout the ages, has been long derided by rabbis who thought that the teachings of kabbalah were too explosive to be shared with ordinary people, and should be kept in the hands of a select number of mystics.

But the controversy in the community over The Kabbalah Centre’s practices lie not with the problem that the center is teaching a secret discipline to the masses, but that what it’s teaching is anything but kabbalah. Critics say that the center promotes "scanning" the Zohar (the main kabbalistic text written over 4,000 years ago by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) rather than actually learning it, and the new age philosophy they teach has little to do with either Judaism or authentic kabbalah.

"From my own perspective, I think that what they are offering is a lot of nonsense," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "I have taken the time to read some of their materials. I found them to be a mixture of two elements: things that are downright wrong, and things that are right but have nothing to do with kabbalah."

Regardless of whether the center’s teachings conform to traditional definition of kabbalah, they have managed to stake a strong foothold in the community, despite the arms-length distance between mainstream organizations and the center. For example, there is no Kabbalah Centre rabbi on the Southern California Board of Rabbis. The Kabbalah Centre is not currently involved in raising funds for Israel, an activity common in most Jewish institutions in Los Angeles. Neither the center itself nor its affiliate school, the Kabbalah Children’s Academy (KCA), are listed on The Jewish Federation’s community resource Web page,, which lists all the other synagogues, temples, Jewish day schools and community institutions in Los Angeles. (A spokesperson for The Federation had "no comment" when asked why The Kabbalah Centre was not listed.)

"The Kabbalah Centre is not included in the running of the community," Adlerstein said. "I don’t know of any organization in town that includes them in their mailing or their advisories, and I think that The Kabbalah Centre has tried very hard to ensure that it will not become part of the mainstream Jewish community," Adlerstein said. "They tell their people that the only real place that you can get the truth about Judaism and kabbalah is in their own ranks. That is why they set up their own institutions and schools — you won’t find people from The Kabbalah Centre moving to other schools or other synagogues, which is what you will find in any other mainstream Jewish organization," he added.

Billy Phillips, a teacher and director of communications at The Kabbalah Centre, denied that the center has deliberately tried to ostracize itself from the community, insisting that the opposite was true, and that the community tried to distance itself from it. "We made attempts to make inroads into the community, and we have been rebuked every time," he said. "We have been denied access to the community, and it has been going on for 10 years."

Phillips said that he was unaware that the center was not listed on The Federation Web page, but said the center would love to be listed, and he also said he was unaware of any Kabbalah Centre effort to join the Board of Rabbis. And as for Israel, Phillips said that they are not raising money, but they are "trying to raise spiritual light, protection and blessings for the people in Israel through the power of the Zohar."

However, Phillips confirmed one of Adlerstein’s criticism, namely, that the center bills itself as the only place where you can find authentic kabbalah. "No other synagogue teaches Torah to the masses in a way that reveals the kabbalistic light inherent in the text, besides The Kabbalah Centre," Phillips told The Journal.

In an e-mail accompanying a Kabbalah Centre Torah insight, Phillips wrote, "Here is an example of a simple kabbalistic insight into a Torah portion that no synagogue in the world would know, if they did not open up the holy Zohar and spend years studying it."

Rabbi Benzion Kravitz, of Jews For Judaism, said that is simply not true.

"Chabad teaches kabbalah to the masses — the whole Chasidic movement was created to take kabbalah and teach it in a way that the masses can benefit. Nobody taught more spiritual concepts to the masses then the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. But that [the center’s belief that only they teach the truth] is part of a cult mindset, where you discredit all your opposition," he said.

"By saying that they are only place that teaches true kabbalah, they are, in essence, discouraging people from going to other synagogues — and from being part of the rest of the community," Kravitz said.

Phillips countered that The Kabbalah Centre "is not God’s police" and people can go where they want.

Even without the positive press or community endorsements, the center has attracted a celebrity clientele that includes Madonna, Roseanne, Sandra Bernhard and even well-known community philanthropists.

A longtime observer of the center, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that the ostracism of the center actually helps it attract people. "In some ways it adds to their prestige," she said. "It puts them in good company, because they say they are not an organized religion. The Kabbalah Centre will use the fact that they have been denounced as a point to their credit, because they will tell their congregants that they are doing what other groups have refused to do."

In fact, so many people are turning out for doses of Zohar scanning and red-string-around-your-wrist-spirituality, that the center has practically outgrown its current premises on Robertson Boulevard. "Right now, because of the space we have, we are very limited," Feig said. "We need to grow, but it is an issue because growing takes a lot of money."

Calling the center "the only synagogue in town that does not charge membership," Feig told The Journal that it funds itself through donations and the sale of books and tapes published by the center, such as "How the Heavens Heal" by Karen Berg, wife of Rabbi Yehuda Berg, the center’s founder, as well as through courses.

The classes at the center are taught by volunteers, many of whom were students of Rav Phillip Berg, the founder of The Kabbalah Centre. In some cases, in exchange for pedagogy, the center supports the teachers, giving them food and board at The Kabbalah Centre itself.

But the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre is a global presence as well as a local one. As the home of Berg, Los Angeles has become the headquarters for all Kabbalah Centre activities around the world. It is the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre — or more specifically, Berg and his five-member board — who decide whether it is necessary to open up other centers in countries as remote as Australia or Rwanda. Today, there are some 23 Kabbalah Centres around the world and 60 satellite centers.

It is also from Los Angeles that decisions are made to tackle global problems in a kabbalistic way. "A few years ago, the Rav decided that we need to send 3,600 sets of Zohars to Iran for a certain energy," Feig said. "Iran at the time was a very negative place for the whole world, and the Rav believed that if we put a lot of Zohars over there it would make it easier."

The Kabbalah Centre also recently ran ads in Palestinian newspapers, reminding Palestinians that we should all treat each other with human dignity.

"Our mission is to create harmony," Phillips said. "We would love to build bridges and dialogues between those in the community who want to."

On the home front, The Kabbalah Centre last August bought a property on La Cienega Boulevard just south of Olympic Boulevard, the future site of the new building for the Kabbalah Children’s Academy (KCA), its elementary school. Currently the school is adjacent to the center, and has 80 students from preschool to fifth grade. Feig expects that the new building, which he estimates will cost anywhere from $5 million to $10 million, will be able to accommodate 400 students.

According to its administrators, KCA is a yeshiva like any other. "The only difference is on the emphasis," said Rabbi Arye Weiner, KCA’s Torah studies rabbi. "Here we emphasize spiritual concepts. Not lofty concepts, but things like sharing and loving your neighbor as yourself."

Inside the school, pictures of Berg and kabbalists Rabbis Yehuda Zvi Brandwein and Yehuda Ashlag adorn the walls. Alongside the usual ABC and Alef Bet posters are student projects that look at transforming negative qualities into positive ones — from anger to love, and the like.

Like most traditional yeshivot, the school teaches Chumash with Rashi, Mishnah and Gemara (Talmud). Boys are expected to wear kippot and tzizit, girls are expected to wear skirts. Unlike most yeshivot, the KCA starts to teach the Zohar in fourth grade. The school also offers afterschool programs in "Spirituality for Kids" and "Mind Games."

Yet, there are other distinctions between the KCA and the other yeshivot in town. Unlike other yeshivot, KCA will not accept Jewish studies teachers who have only studied at The Kabbalah Centre. "We would not take a [Jewish studies] teacher from The Kabbalah Centre if he didn’t have a yeshiva education," said Weiner, who himself studied in the Lakewood and Mir yeshivot, both ultra-Orthodox institutions.

More controversially, unlike any other Yeshiva or religious school in Los Angeles, KCA accepts non-Jewish children as students. "We are not looking to recruit non-Jewish students," said Solomon, "but if the student comes, it is not for us to turn them away."

So do the non-Jewish students go home and give divrei Torah to their parents?

"Yes," says Weiner. "It is all about sharing the ohr [light]," he said.

From Three to One?

Can one Jewish Community Center (JCC) serve a population as vast as that of the San Fernando Valley?

That is the question facing Jewish communities from Burbank to Calabasas, and so far, the answer is a resounding no — even from some of the people who launched the idea in the first place.

“I don’t think the goal is to have one site for the entire Valley, nor do I think Westside can serve all of the city,” said Nina Lieberman-Giladi, executive director of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). “But we can’t do a good job [anywhere] until we can do so in [a] fiscally responsible manner.”

Granted, the JCC singled out for this honor is not your typical center. Dubbed the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, better known as the West Valley JCC, the facility houses the Ferne Milken Sports and Youth Complex, completed in 1999.

The sports complex includes a teen center (unstaffed because of recent cutbacks), two workout rooms and a 12,000-square-foot auditorium/basketball court. The $4.5 million sports complex was built with separate funds raised by The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance.

The Milken Campus is also home to the offices of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, as well as the Valley offices of the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Family Service and a host of other agencies, thus making it the hub for the organized Jewish community in the Valley.

The idea of one center is supported by some statistics: namely, membership numbers from the centers. The number of household units, which comprises both individual members and family memberships, has declined.

At North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, membership units dropped from 275 to 200. At Valley Cities in Van Nuys, membership dropped from 200 to 170 units. Although the West Valley JCC also experienced a precipitous drop of approximately 500, at 1,000 household units, it still outdistances the other centers.

Yet proponents of keeping the other two Valley centers open argue that there are equally solid reasons why the Milken Campus cannot substitute for locally grown centers.

According to Pini Herman, former Federation planning and allocations research coordinator and currently with Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, a 1997 survey performed for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles revealed that of the 248,000 Jewish families living in the San Fernando Valley area, about half had at least one member who visited or participated in a program at their local Jewish community center in the prior year.

“That’s about 120,000 people … who used the centers. Of course, not everybody uses [the Milken Campus] at the same time, but what if there’s a special event? It’s an inadequate facility when you’re talking about a midsize city showing up for even one day of the year,” Herman said.

Herman noted that the San Fernando Valley area also contains more Jews of middle and lower incomes than elsewhere in Los Angeles.

“What we found in the survey is the Valley was the only area where the median income did not increase but remained stagnant or even below every other area of the city of Los Angeles [compared with prior surveys],” he said.

“Jewish community centers provide middle-income families, the predominant families in the Valley, with affordable Jewish services like camp and preschool they may not be able to afford otherwise,” Herman said. “That’s why the Valley has been disproportionately hit” by the centers’ impending closures, he said.

There is also the simple problem of geography. On the best day with no traffic, it takes 20 minutes to get from Van Nuys (home of Valley Cities JCC) to West Hills, where the Milken Campus is located, and 35-40 minutes from the North Valley JCC in Granada Hills.

Even that assumes people are only driving from center to center. It does not take into account the people already commuting to North Valley or Valley Cities from areas like Santa Clarita.

The situation is especially tough on working parents who rely on the JCC for their preschoolers and to provide after-school care for children of all ages.

“I live in Northridge and work in Studio City, yet they want me to take my kids to [school] in Woodland Hills? It just wouldn’t work,” said Andrea Goodstein, a television news producer and an active North Valley JCC member.

Goodstein is the leader of the movement in the North Valley to retain the site and its services. A mother of two children under the age of 6, she said that the JCC holds a unique position: “Where else would I send my daughter to camp? There are no camps for 2-year-olds.”

A Valley Cities parent, Nelly Neben, echoed Goodstein’s sentiments: “So many Jews and non-Jews come to the center for after-school care because it is safe and wholesome. The children take on a sense of community and belonging, and there are no other places that provide that. For the growth of the children, they need a place like the center.”

Even if the West Valley JCC was conveniently located for the entire Valley, there is the issue of capacity: the preschool is full and the after-school program is close to full, according Ronda Wilkin, outgoing center director.

So what is the solution? According to Marty Jannol, JCCGLA president, the time has come for “thinking outside the box” and looking at alternatives.

“Across the country Jewish community centers have operated from a central location and served the community in ‘centers without walls,'” Jannol said. “Who’s to say we can’t rent space for a preschool and run it so Jewish parents who want to send their children to a Jewish nursery school can do so?

“One of the resistance points in the community is that we’re wedded to a way of doing business that may not be effective. It’s our desire to provide more programming, not less, but if we’ve learned anything it’s that the community doesn’t want to be tied to a facility that is undermanaged and in poor condition,” she said.

Jannol also said that in the future, centers will need to take a different approach in order to attract more members.

“For example, Valley Cities is located in a very stable Jewish population,” she said. “There are large Israeli and Orthodox communities in the area, and neither are being sufficiently served. If research supported it and if we rebuilt the building on that piece of real estate, we could have a very viable center, a two-story building with perhaps separate facilities for men and women.”

Supporters of the two centers facing closure say they will not give up without a fight. North Valley JCC members have formed an advisory board and are discussing their options. Valley Cities’ advisory board will hold a fundraiser Jan. 9. Each group hopes for a reprieve similar to that granted the Westside JCC.

Richard Rosett, a past president of the Valley Cities board, said he hopes the effort does not come too late.

“For years we heard from The Jewish Federation that is was not for the centers to go out and do major fundraising,” Rosett lamented. “I’m not here to go to battle with The Federation; we want to be able to work together.

“For whatever reasons, this difficulty is happening, and now the centers need to go out and start getting the … Michael Eisners to make annual donations to the centers. We have to get the people within our community in Los Angeles to step up and assist.”

Here is what is happening at the four JCCs in the San Fernando and Conejo valleys:

The Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus will remain
open. Teen services at the Milken Campus are suspended indefinitely. Ellen
Glutner, chief operating officer of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los
Angeles, moved her offices to the West Valley JCC on Jan. 2 to help oversee the
Milken site.

The preschool at the Conejo Valley JCC will remain

Supporters of the Valley Cities JCC will hold a “Save
the Center” rally on Wednesday, Jan. 9, from 5:30-7 p.m. at the center, 13164
Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys. Entertainment and child care will be provided. For more
information call (818) 786-6310.

The North Valley JCC has formed an advisory board that
hopes to develop a plan to save the center. For future updates, check the Web

Virtual Schmooze

We all hear rumblings about a global community, but a global schmooze? That’s just what the Jewish Community Centers of North America, in conjunction with the 92nd Street Y in New York City, propose to execute. Starting on Sun., March 11, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles will host an innovative new lecture series through Kallah — a program sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and supported by the Charles and Dora Mesnick Cultural Arts Fund — by bringing such speakers as Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel and Anne Roiphe to you live, via satellite. The lectures will be broadcast from the 92nd Street Y in New York City directly to JCCs across the nation, allowing participants to ask questions to their lecturers in real time for what is being termed a "virtual gathering."

The nation will be linked with the stage in New York via e-mail and fax, so that while the speakers hold the stage in Manhattan, members of the audience, regardless of geographic location, can participate as if they were sitting in the first row. Scheduled during the Hebrew months of Elul and Adar, a traditional time of gathering and Judaic study, the programs are designed to experience and celebrate Jewish learning and create community despite geographic divides. "Jewish education should take advantage of modernity to reconnect the Jewish people with their Jewish heritage," said Jonathan Fass, the Jewish education specialist for the JCCs of Greater Los Angeles.

Radio personality Dennis Prager, who is currently broadcasting on KRLA and who will be participating in the March 11 event, said the format is appealing because "when you have Jews in public life who have very different positions on issues, it’s a good and rare opportunity to hear them confront each publicly." The national format is especially appealing because "none of the issues are geographically specific, so it’s good to give them a national format," he added.

Fass explained the JCCs’ desire to participate as being motivated by a desire to innovate Jewish education. "Kallah is innovative because all of North American Jewry can participate in Jewish learning together, each community can learn from its neighbor community, and the Los Angeles Jewish community can connect with the greater North American Jewish community."

Participating in the event is also a way in which the JCC hopes to redefine itself. "The Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles is redefining itself as an Jewish organization with a renewed commitment to the Jewish growth of Los Angeles," Fass said. "Our agency recognized Jewish education is a fundamental component of Jewish growth. We believe Kallah is an adult Jewish education opportunity with widespread appeal to the entire community, and so we joined other Jewish community centers throughout North America in supporting the program."

Fass added that there are also technical challenges to the broadcast. "In Los Angeles, we will be receiving the broadcasts with the assistance of Globecast, a national communications company. The Jewish community centers have never used technology like this before in community programs, but we are confident that these programs will run smoothly."

"The Future of North American Jewry" will be led by law professor Alan Dershowitz, radio personality Dennis Prager, author Anne Roiphe and Rabbi David Woznica on Sun., March 11, 4:30-6:30 p.m. at the West Valley Jewish Community Center. Additional events will be held at the Museum of Tolerance: Tues., March 20, "Great Jewish Thinkers," 6-8 p.m.; Sun., March 25, "An Evening with Elie Wiesel," 4:30-6:30 p.m. Each event is $6. For tickets or more information, contact the Westside JCC at (323) 938-2531 x 2207 or the Museum of Tolerance at (310) 772-2452.

An Early Face Lift

On the north side of the Skirball Cultural Center, two dozen construction workers shout to each other over the roar of the 405 Freeway. They handle jackhammers and operate bulldozers amid huge piles of building materials. A crane several stories tall towers above the construction site, where steel pilings rise from concrete foundations.

Mammoth changes are afoot at the Skirball, where the current space will be more than doubled, to 325,000 square feet — rendering “the largest Jewish cultural center in North America,” center founder and president Dr. Uri D. Herscher said.

By November 2000, a three-level, subterranean parking structure, designed to add 600 parking spaces to the facility’s existing 200, will occupy the construction site.

Above the parking structure, an airy, domed Great Hall, reminiscent of Lincoln Center and also to be completed by November 2000, will seat some 600 people for plays, lectures and concerts; it will also double as a banquet hall. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows will open out onto a courtyard of pale-gray stone and an informal outdoor stage.

To the south, the tentatively named Winnick Family Heritage Museum, largely funded by a $5 million grant from Gary and Karen Winnick, is slated to be completed within the next three years. The museum will feature two 3,500-square-foot children’s galleries and an 8,000-square-foot changing gallery, which, Herscher said, is larger than the Getty’s. Behind the Winnick Museum will be two children’s archaeological digs and a large outdoor amphitheater that will seat 500 people.

The price tag on the additions, which will be drawn up by renowned Skirball architect Moshe Safdie, is $50 million.

More immediate changes are set to begin Sept. 7 with the extensive redesign and renovation of the Skirball’s museum galleries, which will close to the public for three months. Herscher said the goal is to make the museum more accessible and to further emphasize “how we as Jews intersect with the American democratic tradition.” Funding for these renovations was drawn from a California Arts Council $2 million grant.

During construction, visitors can still attend special events, conferences and programs, such as the Oct. 3 Neil Simon film retrospective and lecture. Audrey’s Museum Store, Zeidler’s Cafe, the Resource Center and the Ruby Changing Gallery (now showing the “Latinos in Hollywood” photograph exhibit through Oct. 18) will remain open.

The galleries will reopen Sunday, Dec. 5, to coincide with the center’s annual Chanukah Festival.

So why is the Skirball redesigning its core galleries just three years after the $65 million center opened in April 1996? It’s part of the Skirball’s strategic plan, Herscher said.

“Prophesy is for fools,” he said. “We started out with specific priorities, and we knew we would have to refine them when we saw who actually showed up to the center.”

While only 60,000 visitors were expected the first year, the center drew 300,000 visitors, one-sixth of them children and up to one-third of them seniors. Thus the redesign includes an improved traffic flow through the galleries as well as more interactive displays for students and oversized print for the elderly.

The first major change will be evident upon entering the holiday gallery, where displays of each festival will emphasize the Jewish values immigrants brought to America. In the center of the space will be a comprehensive work of Jewish ritual art, encased within the form of a shtender — the humble study desk once found in many traditional synagogues. The shtender has been transformed by artist David Moss and woodcarver Noah Greenberg into a compartmentalized treasure chest for Jewish ritual objects, commissioned by the Skirball.

The more than 25,000 students who annually visit the Skirball (the majority of them non-Jewish) will learn about Jewish and American values in two new “gallery classrooms.” One will depict a cheder, a Jewish classroom from Eastern Europe, with wood-clad walls, benches and tables. The other will suggest a turn-of-the-century American public school classroom, complete with period artifacts, presidential portraits and a vintage American flag.

There will be an interactive exhibit of trunks that immigrants brought with them to America; displays on baseball star Hank Greenberg and actress Molly Picon; and a detailed replication of the ark of the 19th-century New Synagogue of Berlin, to be added to the existing replica of the synagogue’s ark pavilion. For the first time, viewers will be able to approach the ark, open its doors and examine the vintage Torahs inside.

The biggest changes will take place in the American galleries, where a large case resembling a turn-of-the-century storefront will house some 200 artifacts that depict the material culture of American Jews. On display will be objects such as canned goods with labels in English and Yiddish, an egg basket once used by Jewish farmers from Petaluma and tools once wielded by immigrant tailors on New York’s Lower East Side.

The exhibits on Presidents Washington and Lincoln, who helped ensure constitutional liberties for Jews, will include impressive artifacts on loan from private collectors: an early copy of the Declaration of Independence, signed by George Washington, and Lincoln’s quill pen and black stovepipe hat (one of only two in existence).

“It’s all part of the story we’re here to tell: The story of the Jews from antiquity, with a special emphasis on Jews in America,” said Dr. Robert Kirschner, the Skirball’s program and core exhibition director.

Ask Herscher about why a Jewish museum should house non-Jewish Americana, and the rabbi’s response is swift. “We wouldn’t have any opportunities to live as Jews in America if it wasn’t for the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “I am devoted to Jewish continuity, but I get concerned when people try to push the Jewish part without the context … What I hope this redesign and renovation will provide is an even better understanding of how important the Jewish moral conscience is to the American community in which we live.”