Israeli arrested in Madonna song leak probe


An Israeli man was arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of hacking into the computers of a number of international singing stars, including Madonna, and selling their songs online, a police source said.

A police spokesman confirmed that a 39-year-old Israeli had been detained, but citing a court-issued gag order declined to name him or his alleged victims.

In December, unfinished tracks were leaked from Madonna's “Rebel Heart” album before its release, an act the singer described as “artistic rape” in a post, later deleted, from her Instagram account.

A private Israeli investigator, Asher Wizman, said Madonna's team had contacted his company several weeks ago to look into the matter after rumours of an Israeli connection to the leak.

Madonna, a devotee of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, has visited Israel several times and kicked off a 2012 world tour in Tel Aviv.

“Our investigator found her computers, at home and at a studio, were broken into from a computer in Israel,” Wizman told Reuters. “We tracked down the computer, and the man behind it. After gathering enough evidence, we turned to the police and he was arrested today.”

Police said its cyber unit had carried out an investigation along with the FBI following a complaint from a Madonna representative in Israel.

Israeli media said the man taken into custody was a former contestant on a popular television singing contest in Israel.

“He is suspected of computer hacking, copyright violation and fraudulent receipt of goods,” a police spokesman said.

“During the investigation it appeared the suspect had broken into the computers of a number of international artists, stole unreleased demos and final tracks and sold them over the internet,” the spokesman said.

No charges have yet been filed against him.

Rabbi Philip Berg, Kabbalah teacher for A-list celebs, dies at 84


Rabbi Philip Berg, who brought the teachings of Kabbalah to a celebrity following that included Madonna and Britney Spears, has died.

Berg, the founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, died Monday at a hospital in that city. He had been ill since suffering a stroke in 2004. Berg was 86.

His followers also included Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. Berg had some 4 million students in Kabbalah centers all over the world, according to reports.

Berg spurred controversy by bringing Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism that is believed to be reserved for top Jewish scholars, to the masses.

His widow, Karen, and two sons, Yehuda and Michael, have led the center since his stroke, according to the Los Angeles Times. Berg founded the center in 1969.

The Internal Revenue Service opened a tax evasion investigation into the center last year, though it is unknown if the probe is still being pursued, according to the newspaper.

The center, which is believed to have assets in the hundreds of millions, emphasized cash donations from its members, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in New York, Berg was ordained as a rabbi in 1951.

“Today we believe the Rav has begun to share with us from above, and we will all happily remain connected to and inspired by the Rav’s soul and his vision,” the center said in a statement.

On Monday, students reportedly gathered outside the center upon hearing the news of Berg’s death.

He was to be buried in the Israeli city of Safed, a center of Jewish mysticism, on Tuesday, according to reports.

Madonna appeals for world peace at Israel concert


Launching her world tour in Israel, Madonna appealed for Middle East and world peace.

“You can’t be a fan of mine and not want peace in the world,” she told 30,000 fans packed into Ramat Gan station.

She said she chose Israel to launch her tour in order to spread her message of peace.

“No matter how many laws we change, no matter how many percentages of land we give back, no matter how many talks, no matter how many wars, if we don’t treat every human being with dignity and respect we will never have peace,” she said, wearing a form-fitting leather dress, a black beret and a fur-like collar. “So start today, start now each and every one of you, OK? You are the future, we are the future, and if there is peace here in the Middle East then there can be peace in the whole world.”

Madonna donated 600 tickets to her concert in Israel to Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, and she recognized them in her remarks.

“There are several very brave and important NGOs that are representing both Palestine and Israel together,” she said. She had met with some of the activists on Wednesday.

Madonna, 54, twice has performed sold-out shows in Israel, including the last performance of her “Sticky and Sweet” tour in 2009. She also has visited Israel with her children as part of her devotion to the study of kabbalah; they are with her now.

She changed costume several times through the show. Her playlist included classics “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer” as well as “Give Me All Your Luvin” from her latest album, MDNA.

Madonna to perform ‘Concert for Peace’ in Israel


International pop star Madonna, who will launch her upcoming world tour in Israel, has added a second concert date in Tel Aviv for a “Concert for Peace.”

Madonna will perform at Ramat Gan Stadium near Tel Aviv on May 29 and May 31. The second date has been announced as a Concert for Peace, to which the star plans to invite organizations in Israel who are working for peace.

“Music is so universal and if there’s any chance that through my performance I can bring further attention and enlightenment to honor the peace efforts in the Middle East and help people come together, it would be an honor for me.”  Madonna said in a statement issued Wednesday. “It is my way of thanking those who are making so much effort toward bringing peace to the Middle East.”

The names of the organizations have not yet been announced.

Madonna, 54, twice has performed sold-out shows in Israel, including the last performance of her “Sticky and Sweet” tour in 2009. She also has visited Israel with her children as part of her devotion to the study of Kabbalah.

Kabbalah blamed for A-Rod marital breakup


JERUSALEM (JTA) – A former trainer for Alex Rodriguez said the star ballplayer’s interest in kabbalah caused the break-up of his marriage.

Cynthia Rodriguez filed for divorce Monday in Miami saying the New York Yankee “emotionally abandoned” her.

Trainer Dodd Romero told the ABC television show “Good Morning America” Monday that the pop singer Madonna “brainwashed” Rodriguez by interesting him in Kabbalah.

“Something has pulled him away from his strong family values and has caused him to search and look for something that really isn’t out there,” Romero said, according to the ABC News Web site.

Celebrity divorce attorney Raoul Felder says Cynthia Rodriguez will challenge her husband’s credibility by bringing up his growing interest in Kabbalah and claiming it is a cult.

Madonna, who is married to film director Guy Ritchie, has denied there are problems in her marriage and that Rodriguez made late-night visits to her New York apartment.

‘’

Sarah Silverman de-mystified kabbalah on stage last year

Annapolis, Chanukah, Jerusalem, Not So Weird


Annapolis and Jerusalem

Last month, Rob Eshman wrote, “Many of us are willing to let half of Jerusalem go so that the idea of Jerusalem can be saved” (“Annapolis and Chanukah,” Nov. 30). I’d like to respond with two points:

First, if, God forbid, East Jerusalem were handed over to the Palestinians, it wouldn’t be “ideas” they’d be firing onto the homes and institutions of West Jerusalem.

Second, no portion of Israel, especially Jerusalem, is the sole possession of the prime minister, to be traded for even a legitimate promise of peace. The state may be sovereign, but the land upon which the Israeli government presides is unique and distinct from any other parcel of land on earth.

Jerusalem belongs to all Jews, everywhere: those of us who pray every day for its safety, teenagers visiting for the first time through Taglit-birthright israel, grandparents who buy Israel Bonds for their grandchildren, Israel Defense Forces soldiers who fought to protect and reunify the city and their families and friends who grieved when they paid the ultimate price.

Although we’ve been scattered around the world for the past 2,000 years, our hearts were always in Jerusalem. Seeing the city divided now would break our hearts.

Daniel Iltis
Los Angeles

I want to thank Rob Eshman for his insightful and honest piece about Annapolis. I am heartened that the parties met and that the Arab world seems ready to move in the direction of making peace with Israel. The hard work is yet to come.

And it is so true that the story of Chanukah, the spiritual side, which the rabbis highlighted through the haftarah of Zecharia, can inform us in how we go forward in this new round of talks. We must all be truthful, hopeful and courageous of spirit in our desire for peace.

Jerusalem can be shared, as it is already, and the holy sites will be open to all people.

The naysayers are out in force, but I am choosing to stand with those who believe in hope and a future of peace. The realities will be hard to swallow, but with a healthy dose of spirituality, a belief that tomorrow can be different from today, we can be the generation that makes peace a reality. Not by might but by spirit.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center,
Brit Tzedek V’Shalom National Secretary

‘New Kind of Mikveh’

There are many beautifully designed mikvehs throughout California (“New Kind of Mikveh Washes Off Ritual’s Negative Image,” Dec. 7). This new trend started some 30 years ago with the Long Beach Mikveh. Its establishment was prompted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Since then, mikvehs have taken on a new approach to design and sensitivity to femininity. For instance, the recently constructed mikveh in Agoura is a prime example of this trend.

In our community of Yorba Linda, the Orange County mikveh is slated to open in just a few weeks. The mikveh was constructed with great attention to detail. It is a haven of holiness and purity. Many in the community will benefit from it.

For more on mikvehs around the community, visit www.mikvah.org.

Rabbi David Eliezrie
North County Chabad Center

‘Wandering Minyan’

I must confess that it was with special delight and pleasure I read David Suissa’s Pearl Harbor Day column titled, “Wandering Minyan” (Dec. 7).

There are three reasons I was thrilled by your explication. First, the dynamic writing style offered a cerebral joy associated with pleasure of experiencing fine craftsmanship. Secondly and more importantly I shared an experience with Young Israel of Santa Monica, and your words were true and familiar. What reverberated deeply was your prophetic call to act as a true guardian and trustee of community assets, to act benevolently and righteously, to act as a brother to a brother.

My encounter with this little congregation was similar to yours. My wife and I sauntered into the Levin Center and encountered an eclectic group, unified in their respect and warmth toward guests and each other.

I wish I could share your optimism that with a new voice in The Federation, there can be exhibited a breath of kindness to engage Young Israel.

I ask all like-minded folk, especially Young Israel congregants, to make a small amendment to their annual gifts to The Federation. Make their checks payable to Young Israel of Santa Monica Rent Trust (Negotiable when Young Israel resumes residency at the Levin Center).

If enough dollars are earmarked for Young Israel of Santa Monica, The Federation will yield to economy, if not brotherhood.

David [Suissa] keep up the good work in keeping our community leaders accountable and humane.

David Stauber
Santa Monica

Kabbalah

If Phillip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, is “trying to keep young Jews from cults,” then why is he discouraging them from taking pride in their Judaism (“Not So Weird,” Dec. 7)?

In his review of Jody Myers’ book and his own visit to the centre, Rob Eshman states that the Kabbalah Centre denies that it is Jewish (except when doing so would benefit its coffers). He also explains how centre regulars abhor the idea of converting to Judaism or even using the term Jewish.

If the centre and its adherents are so ashamed of being Jewish or being associated with something Jewish, then why did they steal the name of an ancient Jewish practice? Is it any wonder that the centre rubs many Jews the wrong way?

Real Jews take pride in their Judaism. They don’t try to appeal to the masses or blend in with non-Jews, and they certainly don’t try to coddle spoiled movie stars and pop singers like Madonna, who are made sick by the very idea of being Jewish.

In defense of Madonna


I interviewed Madonna in the early ’90s. At the time I was the managing editor of “In Jerusalem,” a weekend section of The Jerusalem Post. Madonna was in the ‘hood as part of an influx of A-list pop stars who made a symbolic trek to the Holy Land to show support for the fledgling peace process. Other famous notables included Sting, Neil Young, Pearl Jam and Guns N’ Roses, not to mention a red carpet full of actors, movers and shakers, and wannabes.

Recently, Madonna and her husband, British film director Guy Richie, were in Jerusalem celebrating the Rosh Hashanah holiday and attending a kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) conference. They were joined by celebs Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Rosie O’Donnell and designer Donna Karan. Madonna met with Israeli president Shimon Peres, and the two exchanged gifts. He gave her a copy of the Tanach. She gave him a volume of “The Book of Splendor,” the guiding text of kabbalah. Madonna is not a Jew. Nor is her hubby. Yet she wears the red kabbalah string around her wrist, calls herself Esther as well as an “Ambassador for Judaism.”

But as those of us know, it’s not so easy being Jewish.

The ultra-Orthodox community has cried “Shanda without a sheidel! They proclaim Madonna and her merry band of tinseltown kabbalists an abomination. They say she has turned kabbalah into a three-ring circus, and in response they have engaged in an impassioned we-don’t-want-her-among-us campaign.

Truth be told: Many of those holier-than-thous who are bad-mouthing Madonna were once themselves on the wrong side of the tracks, before they rediscovered Judaisim and 613 new ways to live their lives.

Let’s set the record straight: Madonna is good for the Jews.

In a world chock-full of anti-Semites, the pop icon is displaying her heartfelt connection to Israel and Judaism in klieg lights. She celebrates Jewish pride, and she declares through her words and artistic endeavors that Judaism provides a profound source of meaning and spiritual depth. Unlike many doubters who were born Jewish — the assimilators, the self-haters and the apathetics — Madonna, the Material Shiksa, is proud of her inner Jewishness, and is not afraid to wear it, sing it, shout it, love it.

With one flash of the camera, Madame M does more for the Jews than our Jewish lobbies combined: In short, Madonna has made shul cool.

She inserts kabbalah teachings in her music and even in the context of her best-selling children’s books. And Lord knows, we Jews need to do whatever we can to appeal to our Internet-brainwashed kids. With intermarriage skyrocketing, and Hebrew School “totally boring,” Madonna’s stories, particularly “The English Roses,” is a beautifully recreated modern kabbalah tale. Her protagonist, Binah, is a motherless teenager who embodies the gift of mitzvah. Her difficult life sets a shining example for a group of rich, spoiled “Gossip Girls,” who are insanely jealous of Binah’s physical beauty. Binah teaches the girls how to appreciate what they have, and that being a good friend is much more fulfilling than buying the latest iPod Shuffle.

Madonna is not a liar (she never said she was a virgin, she said she was like a virgin). She is and has always been unapologetic, a woman without regrets. She couldn’t care less what you think, as she abides by her own set of principles. Not to mention that she is a physical wonder to the 40-plus crowd. Nearing 50, Madonna has never looked better. Her body is toned and strong, her face is more beautiful than in her youth. Her eyes now glow with the wisdom of an incessant seeker, who was once lost and is now found.

Make no mistake, we are not talking Saint Madonna here. Everybody knows she has been there, done that to the nth degree, but in her controversial journey, Madonna is an inspiration to those who have lost their way, proving that they, too, can find the light at the end of the tunnel.

And her light happens to shine upon Jewish teachings. How bad is that?

Accept her, embrace her. While the likes of Britney and Lindsay are rehab hopping, and other it girls are spending their days trying to avoid the slammer, Madonna the Goy is busy running around the world being a Good Jew.

So here’s to you, Esther. Bruchim Habaim, as they say in the Old Country. Any time you need a holiday, you are not only welcome in my house, but also at my Sabbath table.

Lisa Frydman Barr is a Chicago-based writer.

Safed banking on Rosh Hashanah visitation by Madonna


Madonna and the Elusive Isaac


Madonna and scandal have been virtually synonymous from the start of the pop star’s career more than 20 years ago. There were songs about being like virgins touched for the very first time and girls getting pregnant and telling their fathers that they wanted to keep the babies. There were music videos of Madonna employing Jesus’ stigmata on her own hands, and everything was augmented by conical bras and crotch-rubbing dances.

But since Madonna’s famous conversion to kabbalah, she has been using Jewish religious iconography to shock — or at least to make her point. In her “Die Another Day” video she wore phylacteries and had Hebrew letters tattooed on body.

Now, on her latest album “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” the track that is receiving the most attention and critical acclaim is one called “Isaac.” About a month before the CD’s release on Nov. 15, rabbis in Israel claimed the song was about Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist better known as the Arizal, and they blasted Madonna for using his holy name for profit.

“One can feel only pity at the punishment that she [Madonna] will receive from Heaven,” Rabbi Rafael Cohen told the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

But Madonna swung back, claiming the song was not about the Arizal at all, but rather was named after Yitzhak Sinwani of the London Kabbalah Centre, who sings the Hebrew incantation on the song and provides the mumbled spoken word explanatory interlude at the end.

So what is “Isaac” about? It is hard to say, although it is clear that on this album it is the song most inclined toward Madonna’s spiritual leanings. The beat throbs to the Hebrew lyrics, sung by Sinwani in a wailing rhythmic chant. The lyrics -“Im In Alo, Daltei Nadivim, Daltei Marom, El Hai, Marumam Al Keruvim Kulam Be-Ruho Ya’alu.”

Translate as “If it is locked, the gates of the giving, the gates of heaven, God is alive, He will elevate the angels, and everyone will rise in His spirit.”

In the verses, Madonna sings earnestly “Wrestle with your darkness…. All of your life has all been a test/ You will find the gate that’s open…,” and at the end, Sinwani intones, in what seems like an unrehearsed and unedited addition “The gates of heaven are always open, and there’s this God in the sky and the angels, how they sit, you know, in front of the light, And that’s what its about.”

Hmm … what exactly does all this mean? An attempt to reach Sinwani in London reached only his secretary, who said he is not talking to the press. The Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles was equally unresponsive and did not return calls for comment.

In the meantime, critics and listeners are praising the song (London’s “The Sun” called it “Stunning”) and Madonna herself has said the song moved her to tears.

“I had tears in my eyes and did not even know what he was singing about,” she told Anthony Kiedis in an interview on AOL. “Then he told me and I cried even more.”

 

Holy Knots


 

Red string. A whole ball of it. That was what a dear relative in Los Angeles asked me to bring her from Israel when I come to visit.

But not just any red string. It has to be the kind that vendors hawk at the Western Wall. That is, it has to be the stuff from which you make a bendel — a wristlet that wards off evil, restores health and makes barren women fertile. It has to be the stuff that Madonna has turned into a fashion item and that sells for $26 a throw. And there has to be lots of it.

My first reaction is incredulity.

“It’s just string!” I bellow at my laptop. “Just red string.”

Then I counsel myself, “Have respect for someone else’s talisman. You, too, have secret ways of cajoling the hostile forces around you.”

My 90-year-old mother-in-law, who was born in Jerusalem, says that when she was a child no one had heard of red string. It was red ribbon then, and a bit was tied around her wrist after she recuperated from typhus.

The string’s sanctity (and hence its efficacy) derives from its having been wrapped seven times around Rachel’s Tomb. Rachel is one of the four biblical matriarchs, and religious women seek her intercession for everything from a good husband to a cure for cancer.

The wrapping should be easy, I think. But Rachel’s Tomb — on the road to Bethlehem just outside Jerusalem, where I live — is in the territories, neighboring the Aida refugee camp. The building is now a fortress shrouded in a concrete casing. No one enters or leaves without the permission of security personnel. The only way to get there is by armored bus.

Egged, the national bus company, has regular service to the tomb, except on special days, like this one. So first I have to get to the roadblock on the road to Bethlehem and then hop an armored bus.

“When do you leave?” I ask the driver.

“When the bus is full,” he replies.

There are only two other passengers: a modestly dressed teenage girl and a bearded young man in a black suit and hat. But there’s hope. “It’s the eve of Elul,” says the black-suited passenger. Elul is the month of penitence that precedes the Jewish New Year, a time when many religious Jews visit holy places to plead for good health and prosperity in the coming year.

“I just got here from the Machpela Cave,” the burial site in Hebron of Abraham and Sarah, he announces with a grin.

Tomb-hopping seems to be a turn-on.

Suddenly a crowd materializes and starts boarding. From the back of the bus comes the call, “There’s another seat here for a man.” (Religious men and women don’t sit side by side.) In the aisle, men and women of all ages have become one sweating mass.

When it seems there’s no oxygen left, the bus sets out on the five-minute run to Rachel’s Tomb. We pass the Lama Bros. shop and the Jewelry Center, once filled with tourists and now shuttered — victims of the intifada.

The scenery ends as the bus enters a concrete womb. The passengers are hurried into the building by nervous security people. Anyone outside makes an easy target for snipers.

Signs direct us to the men’s section and the women’s section, both in a domed room. And there is the tomb: about eight feet tall and eight feet wide, covered by a navy blue velvet cloth embroidered with symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel. An embroidered inscription implores the Lord to bless “the woman who comes to Your house as [You blessed the biblical matriarchs] Rachel and Leah.”

A plastic cover protects the embroidery.

Ahead of me, as I get as close as I can, at least 30 women are jammed together in rows of six. Those in the first row lean against the tomb, their faces and hands pressed against the plastic. They mouth their prayers inaudibly; the only sound is of their weeping. Teenagers and gnarled grannies, all are crying as they beseech Rachel to intercede for them. It’s hard to ignore the intensity of their prayers. It doesn’t seem to matter that it’s only a tradition that marks this spot as Rachel’s Tomb. There is no way to circumnavigate the tomb; partitions separate the men’s section from the women’s. I reduce my ambition to touching the string to the sacred spot.

A short, heavyset woman pushes in front of me. She has iron-spike elbows; in a trice she’s at the tomb. I motion to Iron Elbows to take the string and do the deed for me.

With the now-sanctified treasure back in my hand, I head for the bus. As we board, I ask a middle-aged woman in a blond wig whether it’s always this crowded on the eve of Elul.

“You’re just lucky you didn’t come on the eleventh of Cheshvan, the date of Rachel’s death,” the woman answers. “Then the tomb is really mobbed.”

Yes, I’m lucky. And I have the red string.

Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.

 

Our Madonna


Madonna’s just-completed visit to Israel has been called a lot of things: scandalous, threatening, inspiring, encouraging, cheap.

But what it mustn’t be called is shocking.

If Madonna really wanted to shock us, she wouldn’t have flown to the Holy Land with 2,000 other followers of the Kabbalah Learning Centre (see story, page 28). She would have joined a mainstream American synagogue, shown up in the sixth row on Rosh Hashanah and sat in rapt attention for the whole service, without fidgeting. Now that would be shocking.

Some Jews are stunned and others outraged that the Queen of Pop has been attracted to a newfangled iteration of kabbalah. Never mind that kabbalah itself, according to University of Judaism professor Pinchas Giller, over the centuries often appeared in newfangled iterations. Wouldn’t it be more astounding and inexplicable if Madonna adopted what passes for normative Jewish practice these days: an annual visit to synagogue, a limited donation to Jewish causes, no ongoing study, no Hebrew knowledge and no visit to Israel?

Some Jews can’t believe Madonna can find anything spiritually powerful and meaningful in Judaism because they find nothing spiritually powerful and moving about Judaism. How dare she appear to draw insight and power from a religion that they feel has left them spiritually bereft. Who is Madonna to become Esther when so many Jews have become Buddhist? A lot of the people disparaging Madonna’s Jewish practice have long ago given up their own.

Madonna’s faith is hardly newfound. I’ve had several long conversations with the men Madonna claims as her spiritual teachers, Eitan Yardeni and Michael Berg, both rabbis at the Kabbalah Learning Centre in Los Angeles. These conversations took place in 1998 when I wrote a long investigative piece on the center. At the time, it was a mysterious place on Robertson Boulevard that generated shadowy rumors of cult-like practices, yet drew scores of white-clad believers every Shabbat — including Madonna.

I attended services, interviewed current and former adherents, harsh critics and fervent supporters. I didn’t speak with Madonna, but I did say "Shabbat shalom" to Sandra Bernhard.

Rumors and accusations have long besmirched the center. In my mind there is no question that its claims and practices sometimes cross the line into the absurd and the unethical. In Israel, Madonna and other center adherents made a pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, the kabbalist whom center founder, Rabbi Philip Berg, claims as his spiritual teacher. But my own research found that Ashlag’s yeshiva issued a statement disassociating itself from Berg, as have the descendants of Berg’s other putative teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein.

The center sells water it claims contains special spiritual powers. When The Journal had the water tested by a reputable lab in September 2000, the lab reported that the water was indeed, water.

Perhaps most disturbing were the fervid sales and retention tactics some center adherents used on others.

"There was a constant push to give money," a former member told me. When a teacher at the center suggested the member write a check for $1,571 because it was "a special number" for him, the man’s skeptical wife asked her husband, "Can’t we just give $15.71? Why should God care about a decimal point? I’m sure he wouldn’t care if we gave $15,710."

Reports of center lapses have cooled in recent years. One scholar of religion told me that, like Scientology, whose marketing techniques Berg has emulated, success provides incentives to smooth off any rough edges, or at least keep them far from Madonna.

I don’t know Madonna, but, this being Los Angeles, I know people who know Madonna. They have sat at seder tables with her and found her engaged and curious. Her questions about the Passover story revealed a Jewish foundation built with the limited tools provided by center rabbis. But there are many Jews who take their seders less seriously, and many who don’t ever sit down at one at all.

The center has often served as a way station for people on a Jewish journey. By inserting Jewish spiritual practice into mainstream culture and New Age argot, it presents an appealing if (to the rest of us) bizarre face of Judaism. I know several people for whom the center was the first step to more serious Jewish learning and practice. They tired of the center’s particular approach, but they stayed intrigued enough by the Judaism to which it had exposed them.

These people stand in contrast to those for whom Judaism has remained a static inheritance, who have never strayed from their particular orthodoxy, whether that orthodoxy is one movement, one set of political beliefs, one rebbe or one service per year.

The variety of Jewish religious experience wholly embraces the kind of folk religion Madonna experienced in Israel. The country is filled with reputed graves of ancient mystics whose adherents gather to light candles and leave offerings and amulets in hopes of miracles.

Judaism, in all its various guises over the centuries, offers something lasting and important to those who explore it. It’s not a club, it’s a journey, and Madonna — I mean, Esther — is welcome on the path.

Dude, Where’s My Kabbalah?


It’s official. The Kabbalah Centre has usurped the Church of Scientology’s status as Hollywood’s hottest creed of choice. These days, it seems like every celeb looking to add meaning to his or her glittering but empty life of fame and fortune is joining the red-string-wearing, holy-water-selling, quasi-Jewish group.

Earlier this week, the New York Post reported that Madonna — fresh from French kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the MTV Music Awards — was seen with Rosie O’Donnell and an unnamed "Kabbalah Centre crony" at The Box Tree, New York’s most expensive kosher restaurant. This just after the Material Girl and husband Guy Ritchie reportedly donated about $3.5 million to buy a London house for the controversial organization, of which they have been longtime supporters.

This week, the center got something even more important — a figurative Tiger Beat seal of approval when hunky obsession-of-the-moment Ashton Kutcher ("My Boss’s Daughter," "Dude, Where’s My Car?," "That ’70s Show") went with his much older, recently rejuvenated girlfriend Demi Moore to the Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, where they bought a $78 poster of the names of God.

Billy Phillips, a spokesperson for the center, said that the study of Kabbalah has attracted celebrities for centuries, pointing out that 2,000 years ago philosophers Plato and Pythagoras studied kabbalah.

Phillips wouldn’t give any details of Kutcher’s visit to the center (and a call to the center’s bookstore had the clerk asking "Who is Ashton Kutcher?") but Phillips did say that the most popular course for newcomers like Kutcher is the ten-week "Power of Kabbalah Course," which is taught on Wednesday nights.

"For the first time in history we are seeing people from all walks of life studying Kabbalah, which is the way that it is meant to be," Phillips said. "But it is the celebrities who make the newspapers."

Kabbalah Fashion Statement


David Shamouelian believes he has tapped into what he thinks
is a sure-fire marketing tool: 4,000 years of Jewish mysticism.

“How do you explain this? You walk into the store and want
to buy a blouse for yourself, but you end up buying a dress. Why? Because there
is internal energy in the clothes,” said Shamouelian, whose clothing company, Sharagano,
has signed an exclusive deal with the Los-Angeles-based Kabbalah Center to
market clothes using the once-sacred symbols of the Kabbalah.

“The product is drawing you to it, not the other way
around,” he said. “That is what we learned from the Kabbalah 4,000 years ago at
the time of Abraham.”

Shamouelian, 24, hopes that supernatural forces will draw
shoppers straight to his new clothing line inspired by the 72 names of God and
the teachings of the Kabbalah Center, which offers courses in Jewish mysticism
and spirituality.

He has already released the first of a series of designs:
T-shirts inscribed with the Hebrew letters lamed, alef and vav, one of the 72
divine names in Kabbalistic teachings. The shirts, retailing from $32 to $40,
will be available through SharaganoParis.com and 72namesofGod.com, with all
proceeds going to the Kabbalah Center.

The center teaches that “these three letters give you the
power to conquer your ego…. Simply focus your eyes on the letters, then
visualize destroying your ego,” says an advertisement for a white baby-T tank
top.

The creative spark for the clothing line came from a video
made by the one superstar who in so many ways defines the word ego — Madonna.

The singer has studied at the Kabbalah Centre for six years,
and in the video for “Die Another Day” — the title song for the latest James
Bond movie — she has lamed, alef and vav tattooed on her arm

Rabbi Yehuda Berg, who is author of the book, “The Power of
Kabbalah,” said he hopes that Kabbalah is going to have an even “wider reach”
as a result of the new clothing line.

We want to “bring it out to the masses,” said Shamouelian,
who was born in Iran but moved to New York when he was 2. He became involved
with the Kabbalah Centre 14 years ago. The center’s other famous participants
include Sandra Bernhard, Naomi Campbell and Guy Ritchie.

The center has already done well with another fashion
statement, the Red String, sometimes called Rachel’s String.

A spokeswoman for the center said the string has been
wrapped around Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem and is purportedly imbued with the
biblical matriarch’s energy, protecting the wearer against the negative
influences of the evil eye. The Kabbalah Center sells a packet of six strings
for $26.

Celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Rosie O’Donnell,
Roseanne and, of course, Madonna have been known to wear the bracelet — an
attempt to ward off the evil lens of paparazzi, perhaps? — Mica Rosenberg,
Jewish Telegraphic Agency

A Kabbalistic Material Girl


LMadonna doesn’t like to explain her music videos, but in her newest one, "Die Another Day" (the title track for the soon-to-be-released James Bond movie), while wearing a dirty, white tank top she sneeringly sings to the camera, "Analyze this, Analyze this." So we will.

The video features a defiant and limber Madonna being tortured by nasty-looking interrogators, and a black-suited Madonna fencing with a white-suited Madonna in a glass shop. Throughout the video, Madonna has a prominently displayed tattoo of the Hebrew letters Lamed, Aleph and Vav on her right forearm. At the end of the video, when Madonna has somehow miraculously evaded being fried in an electric chair, her body disappears, but the letters smolder in the chair, much to the bewilderment of those evil interrogators. At another point in the video, Madonna wraps a black leather strap around her left arm, and although there is no phylactery attached to it, it is clear that she is going through the motions of putting on tefillin, because she wraps the strap carefully around her fingers.

It’s well-known that the 44-year-old singer-actress fancies herself a kabbalist, thanks to her involvement with the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles. Billy Phillips, the center’s director of communications, refused to say whether the Kabbalah Centre had any conceptual involvement in the video, but he did confirm that Madonna was learning there. He also sent The Journal a copy of "The 72 Names of God" (Jodere Group, $17.95), a book by Rabbi Yehuda Berg, which Phillips said had been given to Madonna before she made her video.

The book says that the letters Madonna was wearing on her arm actually spell out one of the names of God (which are not meant to be said aloud), and it is a name that refers to "the great escape … escape from ego-based desires, selfish inclinations and the ‘mefirst’ mentality. In their place, you gain life’s true and lasting gifts — family, friendship and fulfillment."

"Tefillin is a tool to help us bind [as Abraham bound Isaac] our negative desires. Tefillin is an antenna that draws down powerful spiritual forces that help us purify our evil inclination," Phillips said.

So in the video, Madonna gets to escape from those interrogators, who, perhaps, represent "ego-based desires." Sometime after Madonna has wrapped the tefillin strap around her arm, the white-suited Madonna kills the black-suited Madonna, which could be analogous to the singer "purifying her evil inclination."

Who knew pop music could be so holy?

Madonna, Motherhood and Judaism


Dear Madonna:

Is it possible that I saw you at Sinai? The Jewish mysticaltradition, which you have been exploring, teaches that the souls ofall Jews for all generations — including converts to Judaism –stood at Mount Sinai when our covenant with God was affirmed. Couldthe Jewish soul of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone be trapped in thebody of a rebellious Catholic?

Inside my Madonna file is a collection of little-known Jewishfacts. You have been a paid member of Hadassah, the Zionist women’sorganization, for nearly a decade, thanks to Sandra Bernhard. Yourdancing debut in New York was “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” anadaptation of children’s Holocaust poetry. You learned to play guitarin a converted, old Bronx synagogue.

Unlike most American Jews, you have been to Israel. And like manyAmerican Jewish women who visit Jerusalem, you were barred frompraying at the Western Wall by the fervently Orthodox. You haveattended several Passover seders where the spirit of freedom andliberation perhaps were the inspiration for you to speak up againstthe despicable living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza. And youhave been regularly attending Sabbath services with your daughter inLos Angeles, including recently for the Jewish New Year.

Beneath these factoids is an even more compelling picture of anintelligent woman who has been on a spiritual journey, muchaccelerated with the birth of your daughter, Lourdes. The miracle ofchildbirth, coupled with the desire to rear a child within a systemof morals and values that makes sense, often leads new parents toreconsider their religious allegiances. You feel attachedsentimentally to the rich rituals of Catholicism, yet you rejectCatholic dogma.

Judaism offers a comprehensive ritual framework for a progressivebelief system that is more in tune with your inner convictions;Judaism could be a natural ally in raising Lourdes to be thesensitive, politically conscious, happy and questioning young womaninto which you hope she blossoms.

According to the Pope, you have not exactly been a model Catholic.Yet you have the elements of being a good Jew and a great Jewishmother.

* Jews are commanded to have our values reflected in what we eat;you have been a vegetarian, keeping, de facto, the laws of kashrut.

* Jews are commanded to give tzedakah (righteous and obligatorygiving); you have championed AIDS, cancer and other causes.

* Jews are commanded to rebuke society when we see failures; youhave been a ceaseless critic of prejudice and censorship.

* Jews are commanded to delight in sex and to satisfy ourpartners; you have rejected Christianity’s puritanical linking of sinand sexuality.

* Jews are commanded not to make or worship images of God; youreject Christianity’s imaging of God as a white male.

A trademark of a Jewish worldview is to look critically at societyand to question, challenge and prod status quo ideas, usually to thechagrin of the powers that be. Our prophets are nonconformists; ourthinkers are trailblazers. Baruch Spinoza was first excommunicatedfor his heretical ideas and then later rehabilitated as a genius. Youhave perfected the art of pushing people’s buttons, partly out of funand partly out of a commitment to free thinking.

And you have done something Jewish in each step of your publiclife: You have reinvented yourself. The Jewish view of creation isthat we are not doomed to suffer our fate, but are empowered tochange the world and to change ourselves. Each year, we pledge torecreate ourselves, rejuvenating our quest to become closer torealizing the evolving Divinity in ourselves.

According to the Kabbalah, God, like the wisdom inherent in theTorah, has many faces. It is time to affirm that yours was one ofthem at Sinai. Make it official. Give Lourdes a new heritage thatwill bring meaning and a spiritual satisfaction for which her motherhas always longed.

L.A.’s Kabbalah Learning Center seems to attract many searching Jews, but criticism of it is widespr


Mike Gold* had a successful small business, a nice home, a wife and two kids when he began to wonder about his soul. Questions about life’s meaning, about God and spirituality and his Jewish heritage would not go away. “I started studying Judaism by myself, and I realized,” he said, “I didn’t know anything.”

That’s when Gold cracked opened a book he had purchased months earlier. Some young men had approached him at his business and convinced him to buy it. They were from the Kabbalah Learning Center.

“It touched me deeply,” said Gold. “It was way above any reading I’d ever done.” He started getting up at 3 in the morning to pore over the book’s teachings. He began attending classes and services at the center’s Los Angeles headquarters on Robertson Boulevard. The center, his new friends told him, had changed their lives, and it would change his. As Gold readily acknowledges, they were right.

The place really wows you,” said Gold, about his first impressions of the Kabbalah Center. Evidently, he is not alone. Located just south of Olympic Boulevard, where the Orthodox Pico-Robertson neighborhood kisses the hem of Beverly Hills, the center is perhaps the fastest-growing and most far-reaching Jewish institution in Southern California.

Thousands of people take its classes, buy its books and tapes, and participate in services. Any Sabbath morning will find the 350-seat sanctuary of the handsome Mission-style building filled to capacity by mid-morning. A great many of the congregants are Israeli, Iranian and unaffiliated young American Jews such as Gold—the kind of Jews more established congregations have tried to attract but with little success.

Celebrities have raised the center’s cachet even more. Comedian Sandra Bernhard is a regular, Madonna takes classes—and personal advice—there, and Roseanne takes a whole row for herself and her entourage during Yom Kippur services. Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Merv Adelson and Evelyn Ostin, the wife of entertainment mogul Mo Ostin, have also taken classes.

While many Jewish organizations are barely scraping by, the Kabbalah Center, which is based in New York, has flourished financially. The Los Angeles branch was founded 13 years ago in a one-bedroom Westwood apartment. Two years ago, it purchased the Robertson building, a former youth center, for about $2 million. The center’s 1994 federal tax returns, provided to The Jewish Journal by Jerusalem Report correspondent Vince Beiser, show current net assets of $14.3 million. Last month, the center began a search for larger Los Angeles headquarters.

The Los Angeles center’s success is matched worldwide. The Kabbalah Center recently moved into $4.5 million headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv, from where it oversees branches in four Israeli cities that serve some 10,000 people, according to Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, a teacher at the KLC there and a center trustee. In New York, South America, Canada, France and Mexico, the center is constantly expanding, attracting thousands of young Jews.

That a Jewish institution has met with such success would—or should—normally be the cause of much rejoicing in the Jewish community. But if a golden touch blesses the center, a cloud of rumors, investigations, lawsuits and exposés shadows it. “What they’ve done is taken Kabbalah and twisted it out of shape for their own purposes, and it’s very destructive,” said Congregation Neve Shalom’s Rabbi Steven Robbins, founder of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles’ Cult Task Force. “This is not Judaism. This is not kabbalah. This is narshkeit [nonsense].”

But supporters hail the KLC as a salve for all the ills of the modern soul. The center survives on and solicits contributions like any synagogue, they say. And adherents are no more loyal than Chassids are to their rebbes. Said Michael Berg, the son of the center’s founder, Rabbi Philip Berg: “We teach kabbalah; we wear white on Shabbat. Is it a cult or is it a group that is different from what you’re used to?”

Men in White

For Mike Gold, who was raised in a nonobservant Fairfax-district Jewish home, the experience was different, and powerful.

On Sabbath, the synagogue fills with men and women, almost all dressed in symbolic white clothes. The service follows Orthodox tradition, with the sexes separated, a sermon in English and the prayers—along with additional phrases unique to the center—chanted in Hebrew. There is a level of intensity and participation rarely found in most congregations.

Gold began spending Sabbaths away from his family in order to attend. He also drove back and forth from the San Fernando Valley twice a week for the 6:30 a.m. minyan. Like most adherents, he took several of the classes that were available on such topics as “The Judaic Process of Reincarnation” and “Meditation I.” He bought 250 of the center’s tapes and books.

Gold’s home, business and bank account had been ravaged by the Northridge earthquake. He and his wife, Ellen, argued constantly about the amount of time and money he was spending at the center. Eventually, though, she joined him there “for the sake of saving my marriage,” she told The Journal. “I got swept up. These people had the answer, and no one else did.”

The couple flew to New York to attend huge holiday services. “It was like a rock concert,” Gold said. ““Neilah” [the concluding Yom Kippur service] was so powerful, you’d think John Lennon rose from the dead.”

But Ellen Gold’s full exposure to the center only confirmed her suspicions. When her husband refused to decrease the money or time he spent there, Ellen Gold thought she had no choice. “I kicked him out of the house,” she said.

Out of the Corners

Long shunted into the corners of Jewish life, kabbalah is resurfacing as the way into Judaism for a generation of seekers who are uninspired by more standard Jewish teachings and who are eager for the Jewish take on New Age concerns such as astrology, meditation and past lives. Of the many synagogues and institutions offering courses on kabbalah, the center, despite the controversy that surrounds it, is packing in the biggest crowds.

“I felt like I wasn’t getting spiritually what I needed from Conservative or Orthodox Judaism,” said a middle-aged woman who became involved in the center several years ago. Like this woman, who declined to be identified, several of the people interviewed for this article had followed other so-called New Age practices. The center, they said, was answering a similar need, but Jewishly. “It was the first time I’d seen Judaism from a more spiritual point of view,” said one activist.

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of the Chai Center doesn’t doubt that the KLC’s numerous Jewish celebrity supporters have had similar paths. “They’ve gone the Deepak Chopra-Shirley MacLaine route, and now they’ve come full circle,” he said.

Haifa-born Rafi Feig, the owner of Closets-By-Design, said that Israelis like him are attracted to the center because many “are looking for answers. It’s not about being a religion. It’s about the spiritual side.”

Rabbi Philip Berg’s take on kabbalah stresses submerging the ego to bring “the light of the Creator” into one’s life, said Michael Berg.

For people such as Feig, the teachings have deeply enriched their lives. Milt S. (not his real name), a Simi Valley businessman who prefers anonymity, said that he was raised Conservative and had gone to synagogue “maybe 15 times in the last 20 years.” Berg’s teachings, he said, provided “the first time I’d seen Judaism from a more spiritual point of view. It helped me understand how to commune with God. He’s given modern language to kabbalah.”

The question that critics have is whether Berg, who has greatly succeeded in channeling this new awakening to kabbalah, is kabbalah’s most authentic teacher.

An Inferior Product?

Dr. Rabbi Philip Berg was born Feivel Gruberger in New York in 1928. Ordained in an Orthodox seminary in Queens, he was a successful insurance salesman before a 1962 visit to Israel brought him in contact with kabbalist Rabbi Yehudah Zvi Brandwein. Berg, who Hebraized his name upon moving to Israel, drew close to Brandwein, married the rabbi’s niece, and began distributing Brandwein’s books in the United States.

After Brandwein’s death in 1969, Berg declared himself the heir to the kabbalistic dynasty of Brandwein and Brandwein’s teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, and he founded the Kabbalah Learning Center. Sometime later, he divorced his wife, with whom he had 10 children, and married Karen Berg, who leads the KLC with Rabbi Berg.(Over the years, he has refused to divulge to journalists the source or the field of his doctorate.) The yeshiva of the late Rabbi Ashlag has issued a statement, disassociating itself from Berg. According to Tel Aviv magazine, Baruch Horenchick, the late Rabbi Brandwein’s aide, said that, “the rabbi never acknowledged [Berg].”

In reply, Michael Berg told The Journal that he is editing a book of correspondence between Brandwein and his father, which will prove their close relationship. Journalist inquiries about the center are directed to the Berg’s two sons, Rabbis Michael and Yehuda Berg, who, with their parents, travel the world to teach and manage the KLC’s affairs.

An activist core of about 75 people make up the Los Angeles center’s teaching and support staff. Many live together in KLC-provided housing around Pico-Robertson and volunteer at the center, selling books door-to-door, answering phones, even staffing an information and book-selling table on the Venice Boardwalk.

But critics contend that what Berg teaches, and what these hevrei spread, is not kabbalah at all. “It’s an inferior product,” said Rabbi Jonathan Omer- man, who teaches kabbalah at the Metivta Center for Jewish Wisdom, which he founded.

Many of the center’s harshest local critics, such as Robbins, Schwartz and Omer-man, teach their own kabbalah classes, none of which draws the crowds of the KLC. But, said Robbins, their criticisms are “not sour grapes. If they, in fact, were doing what I believe to be beneficial, I would ask to be a part of it.”

In any case, the local rabbis are not alone. The KLC has been denounced in documents circulated by the Orthodox rabbinical councils of Queens and Toronto, by Jerusalem’s highest rabbinical court, and by Sephardic Rabbi Itzhak Kadouri of Jerusalem, widely considered the world’s greatest living kabbalist. In a statement issued by his yeshiva, Kadouri maintained that kabbalah can only be taught to “Jewish men who have completed full study of the Talmud.” Anyone who supports Berg, he stated, “is endangering his soul.”

“Politics,” said Michael Berg, claiming these same rabbis supported Berg until his popularity increased. In any case, said Michael Berg, “worse things were said about the Baal Shem Tov than about the center.”

Sore points for the critics include:

* “Scanning,” a KLC practice that means looking over the pages of the Zohar, the five-volume central kabbalah text, even though some can’t read the Hebrew it’s written in. “The Hebrew words are channels through which light is transmitted,” said Michael Berg.

“It’s like an Evelyn Wood thing,” said the Chai Center’s Rabbi Schwartz. “This is so anti-intellectual, and we are the People of the Book.”

* Teaching that the victims of the Nazi Holocaust chose or provoked their fate. Inflammatory as this subject may be, the conclusion is inevitable considering the center’s approach to kabbalah. “We should all remember this,” wrote Karen Berg in a recent issue of Kabbalah, the KLC’s magazine. “If it happens to me, I must deserve it.”

“If you look at it in the big picture, the Jews were, in some way, the cause,” said Michael Berg. The KLC’s promotional video, “The Power of Kabbalah,” states that Ashkenazic Jews were slaughtered and Sephardic Jews were saved because only the latter studied kabbalah. “That’s ridiculous,” said Dr. Alex Grobman, national director of the American Society of Yad Vashem. “The Sephardim were simply not in the Nazi’s line of fire.”

* The lack of traditional Jewish instruction. “Real kabbalists were also Talmudic scholars,” said a local Orthodox rabbi. “People can’t have a full spiritual experience without putting in the work.”

The Orthodox particularly abhor the KLC’s non-halachic approach to Jewish learning. “They’ll sell you a Zohar before they sell you a mezuzah,” said Schwartz.

But most KLC participants, said Eitan Yardeni, a senior teacher at the Los Angeles center, have “never been involved” in Jewish learning. For them, learning observance is secondary to learning spirituality and kabbalah.

* Teaching love, preaching intolerance. Rabbi Berg emphasizes the importance of “causeless love” among Jews. But at least one public utterance seems to fall short of that. At one Shabbat service, which The Jewish Journal attended, Berg, who was in town, sermonized that rabbis who oppose the center “don’t want you to know the truth. They want you to live in chaos. They are the enemies of enlightenment.”

Kicked out of his home, Michael Gold moved in with some hevrei in a townhouse near the center. He stayed there four months. During that time, he claims, an activist repeatedly tried to convince him to divorce his wife, Ellen. The activist, now in Israel, denied this.

One evening, while Gold was home visiting his children, Ellen asked him if he wanted to see documents originally compiled in 1993 by Rachel Bernstein, then coordinator of the Cult Clinic of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. The documents—newspaper articles, rabbinical decrees and tax returns, all shared with The Journal—paint a highly critical portrait of Berg and his center. Gold agreed to look through them. “I’m not sure you’re ready for it,” his wife said. “Yes, I am,” he answered.

$1,571 and a Sheep’s Head

Most former KLC activists say that the constant pressure to give money is what finally drove them out. “At first, we had fun; we were getting into it,” said one Israeli woman formerly involved with the center. “After that, we felt everything changed. I felt they were after our money. They said, ‘As much as you give, God will give you a better income.’” Two years ago, the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, donated $1,200 to have a Zohar printed in memory of her father. She has yet to see it, she said. KLC staffers told her—and several others with similar stories—that when the personalized Zohars are printed, she would have to purchase a copy. Michael Berg said that a copy is given free to those who pay for their dedication.

The center, points out Feig, charges no dues. Services, including those during the High Holidays, are free. Its sole means of support is through the sale of books (the KLC charges $350 for a set of Zohar with commentary, which retails at religious bookstores for about $130), ritual objects and tapes, class tuition, and donations. Donations are its lifeblood, said Feig, as they are at any other congregation. “They’re not asking; they’re suggesting,” said KLC supporter Milton S. “It’s a good cause. People who aren’t giving are not going to get good things in life.”

Gold estimates that he gave close to $11,000 over a period of four years. “There was a constant push to give money,” he said. What grated, he said, was not the giving. Mainstream synagogues often solicit and receive much larger amounts from their members. What upset Gold, he said, was the center’s implication that talismanic powers were attached to his contributions. When a teacher at the center suggested Gold write a check for $1,571 because it was “a special number” for him, Ellen asked her husband, “Can’t we just give $15.71? Why should God care about a decimal point? I’m sure He wouldn’t care if we gave $15,710.”

When Gold wondered why their donations hadn’t protected them from bad things, as he was led to believe they would, the intense, Israeli-born Yardeni, 33, provided a rationale: The devastation wrought by the Northridge quake provided Gold an opportunity for growth. “You can stick Eitan out in the middle of the forest, and the next morning, he’ll have a minyan,” said Gold. “He can explain anything in terms of kabbalah.”

But Gold had another question.

“I went back to the townhouse and asked the hevrei I was living with, ‘If Rabbi Berg asked you to jump off a building, would you?’ They said, ‘If Rabbi Berg promised I’d be safe, then I would.’”

That was it for Gold. He returned home, leaving the center for good. “Most of the people there I like a lot, but I’m just pissed off,” he said. “When you divide families, what kind of spiritual thing is that?”

A KLC congregant close to Gold said that his friend just overreacted to some misunderstandings and that Gold’s wife unduly influenced him. “She’s one of the most negative people I’ve ever met,” said the congregant.

Like many of the people contacted for this article, Gold is worried about speaking publicly against the center. In fact, of the half dozen former activists interviewed by The Journal, only the Golds agreed to let their full stories—though not their names—be used. “I was told terrible things have happened to people who leave the center,” he said.

Several rabbis and leaders of Los Angeles’ major Jewish organizations also refused to speak on the record.

Michael Berg and Yardeni call such fears absurd. Rabbi Abraham Union disagrees. His story, whether it implicates the KLC or not, carries the force of myth in the community. When rabbis and Jewish leaders refused to speak about the center to The Journal, they often pointed to Union’s story as reason enough.

During Passover 1992, Union, the Rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of California, telefaxed some colleagues a letter circulated by Toronto rabbis criticizing the KLC. In his fax, Union suggested the RCC send the letter out to all Southern California rabbis. When Union arrived at the RCC offices at 1230 S. Bedford the following day, he found a severed sheep’s head at his doorstep. Several young men appeared at his home that evening and asked, in Hebrew, “Did you get our message?”

Union said that he was certain the men were from the center. He filed a police report, and detectives visited the KLC. They found no evidence of wrongdoing. Union interpreted the incident as a threat to his life. “Of course, [Rabbi Philip] Berg didn’t put it there,” he said. “There’s no proof anybody from the Kabbalah Center put it there. But we never sent out the letter.”

Michael Berg and Yardeni deny that the KLC had any involvement in the incident.

Critics of the center cite the experience of Rabbi Dr. J. Immanuel Shochet of Toronto as a reason for keeping their opinions to themselves. In 1993, when Shochet, a world-renowned kabbalist, denounced Berg and his followers, the KLC sued him for $4.5 million. The case has yet to be settled.

In any case, Rabbis Robbins, Omer-man and Schwartz, who contend that, each year, they counsel dozens of people with problems about the center, say they feel compelled to speak out. “It needs to be an issue in the community,” said Robbins.

Meanwhile, the KLC seems only to grow. Yardeni said that they plan to open centers in the San Fernando Valley and San Diego. The Los Angeles center plans to open a full day school.

Celebrities still flock, mostly for private classes. “There’s a big awakening among stars,” said Michael Berg. Madonna, he said, sought advice from Yardeni on when to deliver her child. Yardeni suggested on the day of the New Moon, which was when she delivered, said Berg.

“There have been bad articles about us for 20 years,” said Rosenberg. “People come even if it’s negative publicity. Any publicity is good publicity. If you knew the place and knew the people, you’d see the truth.” A highly critical exposé in a Tel Aviv newspaper, said Rosenberg, served only to attract dozens of curious newcomers.

But Mike Gold won’t return. “When I joined the center, my life fell apart,” he said. He’s slowly dipping his feet back into religious life, hoping to find a synagogue with the fervor of KLC. So far, he hasn’t.

Indeed, the inability of more mainstream Jewish institutions to address the spiritual needs of a new generation will continue to strengthen groups such as the KLC, said Robbins. On that, he and Michael Berg agree. “The Orthodox community and the Reform can have the 5 percent [of Jews] who are still committed,” said Berg, “and we’ll go after the 95 percent who aren’t.” *

*Not his real name

[SIDEBARS]

The Kabbalah Comeback

Dating back to the 12th century, the Jewish mystical tradition known as kabbalah combines elements of astrology and numerology with speculation about the creation of the Universe, God and the soul.

In a world where people feel increasingly insignificant and irrelevant, said Rabbi Yitzhak Adlerstein, director of the Orthodox Jewish Studies Institute, the study of kabbalah offers the promise of insight into the immutable order of the universe.

In Los Angeles, mainstream yeshivas, synagogues and the University of Judaism have found their courses on kabbalah among their most popular offerings. “There’s absolutely more interest,” said Adlerstein. “They’ve chipped away at Talmud courses and added kabbalah.” *

The Rabbi’s Critics

Much of the controversy surrounding KLC focuses on Dr. Rabbi Philip Berg himself.

Among the most persistent allegations:

* Several former activists told The Journal of incidents where the rabbi disapproved of an impending marriage. When one couple decided to marry anyway, an activist told them to boycott the wedding. “People come to him for marriage advice like they go to any rabbi,” said Michael Berg. KLC trustee Moshe Rosenberg said: “In general, Rabbi Berg doesn’t tell people to get married or not to get married. He likes to give people a choice.”

* Why, his critics want to know, has Berg invested at least $3 million of KLC funds in Artra Group Inc., a struggling Chicago-based holding company for costume jewelry and packaging? Michael Berg said that investment on behalf of the center is legitimate.

* In documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, several former congregants have challenged the KLC version of its IRS statements. Michael Berg said that his father lives a frugal, peripatetic existence, drawing only a $60,000 annual salary. With tired familiarity, the polite and engaging 24-year-old rejects his father’s critics. “How can they be so negative if they haven’t met Rabbi Berg?”