Inside Hollywood's Hottest Cult (Kabbalah)
Part Two: In the Beginning
Radar’s investigation of the Kabbalah Centre continues, focusing on founder Philip Berg, insurance salesman-turned- guru, and his second wife, who conceived the idea of dumbing down Jewish mysticism and selling it to the masses.
Radar Magazine/June 16, 2005 | By Mim Udovitch
For an outer-borough New York City couple of uncertain background and qualifications, Kabbalah Centre founders Philip and Karen Berg have done quite well for themselves. An elderly man in a white overdress and a woman in an ill-fitting wig, they secretively rule over a tax-exempt organization the true value of which can only be imagined. Tax documents filed between 2000 and 2003 show assets of approximately $60 million for five of the nonprofit entities controlled by the Bergs. (The Centre did not answer questions about its current assets; furthermore, it has sources of revenue it apparently doesn’t want to publicly acknowledge. Darin Ezra, national brand manager for Kabbalah Energy Drink, told a number of media outlets that his product has no connection to the Centre—which owns the company that was, at the time, distributing it. Kabbalah Energy Drink was launched in February; Ezra told Radar he expects $20 million in sales during the first year.)
The Bergs fly in chartered jets and the private planes of their major donors. They recently built three neighboring minimansions in Beverly Hills, which, like their deluxe New York dwellings, were paid for by the Centre. The world headquarters of the religion the family all but built from scratch, now occupies half a block of Beverly Hills real estate, including a Kabbalah bookstore and a private day school, with more building projects underway. According to its website, the Centre has locations in nine American cities and 51 more across the world, stretching from Iran to Japan to the Côte d’Ivoire, including “satellite” locations in such unlikely bastions of new age Jewish mysticism as Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín, Colombia.
In its literature the Centre claims astronomical numbers of students—3.4 million, a figure for which there is little support. More than 1 million study online or over the phone, according to answers provided by Sitrick and Company, the crisis management firm the Centre retained last winter. When addressing the federal government, the Centre tells a more credible tale: In a 2002 application for tax-exempt status, the number of active members nationwide is given as 5,000. Whatever the true number, the Bergs have shown a special genius for getting the most out of each of them. In addition to asking its members to tithe 10 percent of their income, the Centre strongly encourages students to buy a set of the Zohar—Kabbalah’s sacred and inscrutable text—for each of their homes, as well as gallons of Kabbalah Water for hydrotherapy as well as drinking. (One former member says she was urged to drink four to 10 bottles a day.) There is a host of additional expenses, from classes and books to retreats and other special events. According to former students the Centre’s teachers charge for special blessings and meditations intended to bring happiness and to ward off the evil eye.
By channeling the mystical power of Kabbalah, Philip Berg says, he and his mentor influenced Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.
Asked about the high-priced merchandise and pressure for donations, Philip and Karen Berg’s son Michael responded that many activities are free and that the Centre has a “generous” scholarship fund.
“We do not use aggressive or manipulative methods to raise money…. Those who give to the Centre do so freely,” he added, in a document entitled “Kabbalah Centre responses to ‘controversial questions’ from Radar magazine.” In February and March of this year the Centre provided 72 “generous” scholarships averaging $124.06 per applicant. Courses at the Centre cost as much as $270. Sitrick and Company justified the use of the word generous on the grounds that financial assistance is available to all who ask for it. And no doubt many need it: One former member told Radar that when she worked at the bookstore in the Los Angeles Centre, teachers encouraged students who could not afford the literature to pay with post-dated checks. Another student was asked to give $5,500 out of her savings of $6,000. She did. “I wanted so badly to belong,” she says.
The man behind this entrepreneurial enterprise is known within the Centre simply as “the Rav.” Born to an Orthodox Jewish family, Philip Berg began his life in Depression-era Brooklyn as Shraga Feivel Gruberger. After completing a traditional yeshiva education, he was ordained as a rabbi in 1951. Two years later he started working as an insurance salesman at New York Life. Along the way he married his first wife, Rivkah, with whom he fathered eight children, one of whom died in early childhood (a second has since passed away). Other than these broad-stroke facts, details of Berg’s early life are sparse. Suspicious of the press, the Centre refuses to confirm Berg’s exact age or Karen’s maiden name. Rivkah and her children are expunged from Kabbalah’s official history, in which Berg’s personal life begins with his historic partnership with Karen.
Karen is credited by all—including herself—with being the driving force behind the Kabbalah Centre empire and its explosive growth. In fact it was Rivkah who provided Berg the critical introduction to Kabbalah. In 1962, during a trip to Israel, he met Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, whom he calls his master. A respected Kabbalist and dean of the prestigious Yeshiva Kol Yehuda, Brandwein also happened to be Rivkah’s uncle. In his autobiography, Education of a Kabbalist, Philip Berg describes Rabbi Brandwein as “a distant relative.” Asked about the relationship, Alison Cohen, the Centre’s publicist, responded by e-mail that “because of his health concerns, the Rav is not able to respond to this question.”
Soon after they met, according to the Centre’s official lore, Berg became Brandwein’s special disciple and subsequently his anointed spiritual heir. For seven years Berg shuttled between the U.S. and Israel, working as a fundraiser for the yeshiva and, he says, spending every spare moment at Brandwein’s side. “I did not leave my teacher…even for a second; we were together 24 hours a day,” he writes in one account of this period, adding that in 1967, by channeling the forces of Kabbalah, he and Brandwein controlled the events that led to Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.
Berg says he replaced his mentor as dean of Yeshiva Kol Yehuda after Brandwein died in 1969. But Brandwein’s son Avraham, the yeshiva’s current dean, has angrily disputed the claim.
To bolster its case the Kabbalah Centre sent Radar an anthology of Brandwein’s letters to Berg. According to the Centre the letters, written in Hebrew, prove that Brandwein declared Berg his legitimate heir and blessed his plan to teach Kabbalah to all who wanted to learn it. But a close examination suggests that relations between the two men were less intimate than the Centre suggests. A translation of the letter in which Brandwein supposedly passes Berg the torch is ambiguous at best; the position he blesses Berg for accepting is most likely an administrative post in America. Moreover, far from endorsing the popular dissemination of Kabbalah, Brandwein clearly states in one letter the traditional view that only Jews can receive its wisdom.
Certainly Brandwein’s death in 1969 was a turning point. It was then that Philip and Karen Berg joined forces. In an account Karen Berg wrote for Radar, this occurred four days after Brandwein’s death. The two had not seen each other since Karen had worked as Berg’s secretary eight years earlier. After a mutual colleague mentioned her name, Berg inexplicably called Karen. Karen’s recollection of their conversation reads like a Hasidic Harlequin romance. She writes that she felt “strangely flustered” at the sound of his voice. “What are you doing these days?” she asked, “a little breathlessly.” Berg replied that he had returned to the U.S. after devoting years to the study of Kabbalah. Intrigued, Karen offered to work for him for free if he agreed to teach her Kabbalah. They got together that very night to work out the details. “We knew instantly,” she writes, “that we were meant for each other.”
Since women are traditionally prohibited from the study of Kabbalah, Karen’s request put Berg in a bind. This minor stumbling block was conveniently removed when Brandwein suddenly appeared to Karen in a dream. His mentor’s ectoplasmic intercession convinced Berg an exception could be made in Karen’s case. In 1971 Berg married his former secretary; they set out for Israel determined to promote their new, all-inclusive vision of Kabbalah.
In her responses to Radar, Karen takes credit for what she calls Kabbalah’s next revolutionary step. The mystical study of Jewish laws and practices traditionally is reserved for scholars, following an extensive Talmudic education. But Karen felt that she had to bring what she saw as the miracle of Kabbalah to the masses. “At the time I met the Rav,” she says, “Kabbalah was still a hushed topic, relegated to secretive rooms occupied by dour-looking men in black hats and long beards…. The obvious question to ask was, Why?… Why not spread this world-saving wisdom?” Spread it, that is to say, to Jew and non-Jew alike.
In Israel the couple attracted a small but fervent following. Then, in 1973, for reasons that remain unclear, the Bergs returned to Queens. People came to them seeking a closer relationship with God; some ended up abandoning all their non-Kabbalah relationships. One woman told British journalist Elena Lappin, whose 10-month investigation of the Centre was published last December in the Guardian of London, that she left her husband and children in Israel in exchange for the “honor” of cooking for the Rav. The family—which now included Yehuda, born in 1972, and Michael, born a year later—spent the next 12 years traveling between Israel and America, tending their proliferating flock. By the 1980s this included volunteers known as chevre—Hebrew for friends—who worked 12-hour days for the Bergs selling books door-to-door and keeping house for them, like members of a mom-and-pop Hare Krishna–style cult. By 1989 the Centre’s still relatively primitive business model—selling the Zohar, aggressively soliciting donations, and relying on a largely unpaid labor force—was worth at least $8.9 million, according to tax documents. Around the same time, Berg sold a 10-year copyright to his written works for more than $2.5 million—to his own organization.
At the start of their crusade the Bergs had lived in near poverty, in keeping with the true mystic’s indifference to money. But as the years went by and cash began rolling in, their followers noted a dramatic change in the couple, a shift from humble servants of God to His chosen messengers. Karen indulged her taste for expensive clothing, and the Bergs lived an increasingly extravagant lifestyle. “Their lectures meant nothing to them at all,” one member told the BBC. “They behaved as demigods. Everything was done for money.” By the time Yehuda and Michael were ready to take their places as royal heirs in the kingdom of Kabbalah, it seemed natural for Yehuda to leave his clothes lying on the floor in the knowledge that one of the chevre would pick them up.
In the mid-’80s the Bergs returned to New York full-time and established their headquarters in Queens. Not long afterward, mainstream Jewish groups and anticult activists began to get calls from the families complaining about their children’s involvement with the Centre. “They had people who were giving them their last dollar because they had a relative with a sickness,” recalls one student from that era. “They made every promise.” The occult aspect of Kabbalah—something traditional Kabbalists reject—was more pronounced than it is today. On the last night of Sukkot everyone gathered in Queens so that the rabbi could read their destinies by looking at their shadows on a sheet in the moonlight, a predictor of one’s fortune for the coming year. One year, at another Centre, recalls someone who was present, the shadow cast by one student didn’t appear to include her hand, no matter how she was repositioned. Panic and many calls ensued. Finally, the word came back: It means give more money.
Not surprisingly, the Centre’s embrace of secularism outraged Orthodox Jews. Philip Berg returned their animosity. In a 1992 interview with the Canadian Jewish News he told a reporter who asked why he’d changed his name from Gruberger that the question was “ugly, resentful, and Jewish.” Around the same time he also advised a student who had decided to become Orthodox to avoid fully observant Jews. “Stay away from the frum”—the Yiddish word for Orthodox—“they will chew you up for breakfast and spit you out for dinner,” Berg warned.
Despite his disdain for his Orthodox brethren, on at least one occasion Berg allegedly couldn’t help himself from borrowing from their work. In the mid-’90s he settled a plagiarism and copyright infringement suit filed against him in New York City by the estate of a serious Kabbalist named Levi Krakovsky, which accused “Berg and/or persons acting under his direction” of, among other things, entering the impoverished scholar’s home after his death and taking his original manuscripts. Berg insisted he had written the passages in question himself. Elliot Wolfson, an eminent professor of Hebrew studies and Kabbalah expert at New York University, who testified in support of the plagiarism charge, remembers Berg as “incredibly arrogant.”
“I recall that the judge actually interrupted the proceedings at some point when Berg was trying to translate a passage from the Zohar,” Wolfson says. “It was slow, laborious, and unclear. It was coming out in sentences that made no sense.” A few days after the judge’s admonition, Berg settled the case for an undisclosed sum.
And there is another accusation of plagiarism against Berg. According to Rabbi Immanuel Schochet of Toronto, Berg lifted most of his preface to a Centre-published book from a book by Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag. The preface, signed by Berg, was reproduced—complete with printer’s errors from Ashlag’s original—in two different publications. Asked about this, Centre spokesperson Alison Cohen again responded that the Rav’s health prevents the Centre from addressing the issue. In 1993 the Centre filed a $4.5 million defamation suit against Schochet for charging, among other things, that Karen Berg was a gentile. While the Centre has not actively pursued the case, it has had the effect of intimidating some of its critics into remaining silent.
The Bergs haven’t relied just on rabbis for help. The Centre sometimes hires ghostwriters to produce its books. The Centre has advertised for writers on the website Craigslist. In keeping with the Centre’s increasingly aggressive plan to expand, according to sources, the writers are urged to study spiritual best-sellers and mimic them using Kabbalah Centre lingo. Many of the Centre’s new books are stripped of Jewish context. Karen Berg’s debut book, last winter’s God Wears Lipstick, is full of vague parables, personal anecdotes, and commentary on the lessons that can be divined from the movie Groundhog Day. The tendency to link Kabbalah to pop culture was apparent early—as noted by the lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of Krakovsky’s estate. Berg’s commentary on the mystical properties of the Hebrew alphabet, the lawyer wrote, was done in a “science fiction” style, “using George Lucas–like allusions to the ‘Death Star Fleet’ and ‘the Dark Lord.’” Chevre at the L.A. Centre were told that the movies The Matrix and What Lies Beneath were “full of Kabbalah.” Not that the Centre is indifferent to the needs of the traditionally devout. According to an internal marketing memo obtained by Radar, the target audience for True Prosperity, by Yehuda Berg, is “Christian, Bible Belt.” (Alison Cohen says that if such a memo exists “it would have been put together without the knowledge or authorization of the Bergs or the Kabbalah Centre.”)
From the very beginning the Bergs’ new-agey message had a pronounced mercantile streak, but as they collected more and more of the rich and famous, they got more and more creative. In 1999 the Centre began selling Kabbalah Water, the molecular structure of which, the Centre claims, is changed by the Rav’s blessing, which endows it with curative and other beneficial properties that make it a bargain at $2.65 per one-liter bottle. Visitors to the Kabbalah Centre can now choose from an ever growing list of expensive products deemed essential for true enlightenment, from a $415 authorized edition of the Zohar to the ubiquitous $26 red string bracelets the Centre recommends for warding off evil. (The Centre claims the bracelets are blessed in a special ceremony in Israel at Rachel’s Tomb, on the West Bank, under extremely dangerous conditions. But the Guardian reported that rabbis who have a permanent presence at the Tomb had never observed any ritual remotely like the ones described by the Centre.)
Once the Bergs arrived in L.A., it didn’t take long for the Hollywood glitterati—always eager to fall into bed with the latest spiritual gurus—to take notice. For their part, the Bergs were more than happy to gratify the desire. Before the taking of L.A., Karen Berg went to Toronto for a facelift and complete cosmetic dental overhaul, according to a source. After years of wandering in the new-age desert, Kabbalah had finally reached the promised land.