The Kabbalah Centre and its network of businesses, both nonprofit and commercial, are closely controlled by an intimate coterie that includes founders Philip and Karen Berg, their sons Yehuda and Michael, and a handful of consiglieri of unimpeachable loyalty.
The leading light of the latter group, the most effective in the care and feeding of the Centre’s growing roster of celebrity members—and its biggest donors—is Madonna’s personal Kabbalah teacher, Eitan Yardeni. When she appeared on Dateline NBC in 2003, Yardeni was by her side spouting the Bergs’ credo that Kabbalah helps everyone to the limit of his or her potential to embrace its wisdom. Yardeni told Matt Lauer, with a straight face, that Madonna just happened to be among the one percent who really “gets it.”
Yardeni’s wife Sarah runs Madonna’s pet charitable project, Spirituality for Kids, a Kabbalah Centre subsidiary. Eitan, who has been with the Centre since he was a teenager (“He’s a rabbi now?” one member from the old days says. “Oh my God, he was a lackey for the Bergs. He was a shlepper.”), doesn’t confine his pastoral oversight to the actresses, agents, and realtors-to-the-stars to whom he ministers in the privacy of their homes. One former student from the Los Angeles Centre remembers Yardeni’s telling her to “let us know anyone who spends more than $100. Make a list and give it to the girl who coordinates the volunteers, so we can focus on them.”
The Centre denies giving celebrities preferential treatment. But someone observing Centre gatherings in L.A. and elsewhere around the world might find that hard to believe. Another student, who worked as a volunteer at the L.A. Centre, remembers being charged with helping Marla Maples find her place in the prayer book during services. On shabbat, after the traditional sabbath meal, a circle of men, all of them dressed in white, forms around a table, their arms linked. A group of women then forms a circle around the men, and they all sing and sway in tribute to the people seated at the table. The people at table, when they’re all in town at the same time, include Madonna, Guy Ritchie, Ashton Kutcher, and Demi Moore—and their hosts, Philip and Karen Berg. Sometimes Madonna, in a transport of spiritual ecstasy, will close her eyes and bang her fists on the table in time with the music.
For all the talk of Madonna, it was Sandra Bernhard who became the first star in the Bergs’ celebrity collection. Bernhard, who first wandered into the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre around 10 years ago, was what you might call the Patient Zero of celebrity Kabbalah patronage. At the time, the Kabbalah Centre was already a steadily growing business, but it wasn’t yet an internationally known brand. In fact, it didn’t even have a meeting place of its own in Manhattan; when in New York, the Bergs’ followers still had to haul themselves out to Queens. And so might things have remained forever. Instead, enchanted by the power of Kabbalah, within a couple of years Bernhard had brought in her friends Roseanne Barr and Madonna, who were soon followed into the fold by Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Jeff Goldblum, Britney Spears, Marla Maples, Sarah Ferguson, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Monica Lewinsky, Paris Hilton, and the former Posh Spice. Some, like Maples and Spears, became devoted students of the Centre’s watered-down, one-size-fits-all version of the mystical Jewish philosophy. Others, like Jagger and his ex-wife, quickly extracted themselves from its tentacles.
Of course, one star sets the gold standard in her ability to garner press and to influence—or contribute—millions. Within the Kabbalah Centre, Madonna is still what she was to the world at large in the decade prior to her first encounter with Kabbalah in 1997: a woman whose every move is followed as if the fate of humanity depended on it. In addition their relationship with the Yardenis, the singer and her husband are also close friends with Michael Berg and his wife Monica—Michael hung out and gave advice on the set of Guy Ritchie’s most recent movie, Revolver, which has had trouble finding a distributor. (Rumor has it that the screenplay was originally too Kabbalistic and had to be rewritten. A copy obtained by Radar does feature Centre-istic profundities—“Just ’cause you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” muses one character—strewn throughout, but it is not significantly less coherent than Ritchie’s previous work.)
There were plans to use Madonna’s Reinvention tour to launch Kabbalah Water as a supermarket product, like Aquafina and Dasani. “Get that feeling / Of Kabbalah healing,” went one proposed jingle.
Those close to Mrs. Ritchie are at a loss to explain or even describe the extent of her willing dependence on the Bergs. The family was not at her 2000 wedding, but starting in 2001 people who knew her began to see a change. “She basically stopped having her normal friendships with people who didn’t study,” according to one. Sources say the Ritchies have been encouraged to give their son Rocco a little brother or sister for the sake of their marriage. At the afterparty following the first show of Madonna’s Reinvention tour, one witness recalls, “Christina Aguilera and all these other people were walking around and, you know, partying, and there’s Madonna, sitting with these elderly Jews worshiping her while she’s worshiping them.” In the 2003 interview with Lauer, the singer attributed the failure of her and Ritchie’s film Swept Away to there having been “a lot of evil eye” on her family—Kabbalahspeak for envy. She also told Lauer that any reservations her previously agnostic husband had had about Kabbalah had been overcome by its scientific aspects. (The website for the Oroz Research Centre (oroz.org), registered to Kabbalah Centre International, boasts that its “23rd century” products do everything from enabling “better drug penetration” to eliminating radioactive waste, and has to be seen to be believed.)
At services, Madonna is protected from the potential envy of other Kabbalists by a screen behind which she sits in a special chair next to Karen Berg. All these blessings come at a price. As an internal Centre marketing memo states, “the source of money is God.” And it’s clear that for the Bergs God frequently takes a detour through Madonna. So far, according to an insider, she has in the last four years given the Centre approximately $18 million.
Until 2001 the singer’s private charitable foundation, Ray of Light, made numerous small donations to a range of charities, from the Helen Keller Services for the Blind to St. Michael Catholic Church in Pontiac, Michigan. Then something changed. Perhaps it was the trauma of 9/11: In 2001, for the first time Ray of Light made a single donation larger than $26,000. One, for $600,000, was to the New York Police and Fire Widows & Children’s Benefit Fund. Another, for $500,000, was to Kabbalah Centre International. In 2002, Ray of Light gave $2,101,657 to 14 worthy institutions—$1,994,157 of it to the Kabbalah Centre. Similarly, in 2003, of the $1,269,529 the foundation dispersed to 13 charities, $1,171,230 went to the Kabbalah Centre.
Another way Madonna has helped the Centre increase its legitimacy and appeal is through the Spirituality for Kids Foundation, her pet project. SFK emphasizes its outreach program: free self-improvement classes for what the tax documents refer to as the “millions of children…being raised in high-crime, poverty-stricken communities.” In fact, SFK also pays for the Centre’s private elementary school and a variety of other services. (Like Philip Berg—who was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger—Spirituality for Kids began life with a more ethnic name: the Kabbalah Children’s Academy.) All the proceeds of Madonna’s children’s books, with their Kabbalah-centric narratives—go to SFK as well. (Sales and merchandising of English Roses, the first of them, sent an estimated $5 million into Centre coffers. The fifth in the series, the appropriately named Lotsa de Casha, was published this month.)
The Centre, through its crisis management PR firm, Sitrick and Company, first told Radar that since SFK’s inception approximately 10,000 children had participated in one of the SFK outreach programs. After Radar pointed out that SFK’s 2003 tax filings had reported only about 150 participants in Los Angeles in that year, terms and figures got fuzzier. Carnivals and other special events attracted as many as 500 children at a time, the Centre said; in another e-mail the Centre said that it had only started keeping records recently. Whatever the case, outreach kids are provided with free transportation and a nutritious meal as well as lessons in life skills. In 2003 (the last year for which figures are available), SFK spent $813,092 on program services: $440,332 of it on salaries and wages, and a scandalously low $1,985 on its scholarship fund.
“If the damn FDA would just let me put on the label that the water cures cancer, like it does, I wouldn’t need marketing,” Philip Berg complained.
According to reports, the millions Madonna has given the Centre include a $5 million donation to build the London Centre and a house for Eitan Yardeni. (Through her publicist, Liz Rosenberg, Madonna has denied giving money to Kabbalah Centre International for any specific purpose.) At each stop of the Reinvention tour, Kabbalah merchandise was sold alongside concert T-shirts. And the business ties may go even deeper. There were plans to use the tour as a launching pad for the marketing of Kabbalah Water, repackaged for the mass-market consumer, alongside Aquafina and Dasani (“Kabbalah: Fused Water for Body and Soul”) on supermarket shelves. One proposed marketing mock-up, the “Madonna” model, even includes a jingle (“Get that feeling/Of Kabbalah healing…”). The singer, along with Rocawear’s Alex Bize, were to be equity partners in this project, which dead-ended before the tour, much to Philip Berg’s frustration. “If the damn FDA would just let me put that the water cures cancer on the label, I wouldn’t need marketing,” he told one source. (Berg told another student Radar interviewed that Kabbalah Water had cured AIDS. A third was present at a shabbat lecture in New York during which a scientist from the Miami Centre told the congregation that drinking it had cured the case of SARS she had contracted during her recent travels in Asia.)
Once one of the most outspoken and independent-minded women in the world, Madonna now goes on television mouthing the Bergs’ simplistic creed, part of which is that you have to be outspoken and independent-minded to grasp it. According to one student, the Bergs have told their most precious acolyte that she is the reincarnation of the biblical Queen Esther, who saved the Jews from the evil vizier Haman. And if the Bergs can work this kind of transformation, how surprising is it that they can turn water into gold?