Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

24 Shevat 5766 - February 22, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Kabbalah, Inc. — It's Not About Spirituality; It's About Money

by Betzalel Kahn

Reports about four months ago on the arrest of Shaul Youdkevitch, director of the Kabbalah Learning Center in Tel Aviv, dealt a harsh blow to the city's Bohemians and "spiritual seekers." Youdkevitch was arrested on suspicions of fraud and exploitation, when a couple filed a complaint alleging that his Kabbalah Learning Center had demanded a large financial contribution in exchange for the wife's recovery from a severe illness.

This is not the image the Kabbalah Learning Center imparted over the years. And they are not alone. Under the disguise of "spiritual" aid for the wayward, and through false, distorted and deceitful use of sifrei Kabboloh, thousands of Jews — and non-Jews — have come streaming into the Kabbalah Learning Center and similar places around the world.

Numerous warnings have been issued against this dangerous fad, particularly since we are exhorted not to engage in Kabboloh studies until having mastered Shas and poskim.

Yet these so-called kabbalists, who really understand nothing of what is written in sifrei Kabboloh, take advantage of those who want something more than today's Western materialism to make easy money by offering mental, physical and spiritual healing "based on kabbalistic teachings." And these various kabbalah centers around the world are raking in millions of dollars every year. In Israel, experts define the kabbalah centers as mystic cults in every sense.

$60,000 to Drive Off the Disease

Boris and Leah Zunis of Rishon Letzion paid the Kabbalah Learning Center $60,000 to cure her of cancer. Searching for any possible remedy, the two arrived at the Kabbalah Learning Center and registered for a series of classes, believing that the study of kabbalistic teachings would deliver her from her sickness. Yet as they continued studying and the disease continued to take hold of her body, the Kabbalah Learning Center managed to extract enormous sums from them.

"My wife heard all of the lectures about driving off cancer, and asked to have emphasis placed on her to receive strength in healing," her husband told Yediot Achronot. Moshe Rosenberg, then director of the Center, told the couple that they would have to make a donation to get cured. They met Rosenberg in his office. "He told me we would have to donate money. I asked him how much. Five thousands shekels? Ten thousand? Then he told me it would have to be a `painful' donation, an amount that would leave us feeling a shortage of money—the whole family."

Boris says Rosenberg was not satisfied with the sums he suggested and then he proposed an amount: $36,000. "I was shocked and told him I didn't have that kind of money. I said maybe I could come in after work to work there in the evenings as a volunteer. But he suggested I quit my job as a computer programmer and work at the Kabbalah Center on a volunteer basis. I told him I have three children, a home, a mortgage. Leah had stopped working and begun new treatments. I told him I could not stop working because there was nobody to pay for all this. There was nobody to support the family."

Boris' wife was "deep in kabbalah," he says. "She came to me in tears, saying, `This is about my health and my life.' She pleaded and her crying broke me. I could already feel how he was reaching his hand into my pocket. He promised me health and a full recovery if we paid him the money. I really felt that if I didn't pay the money I would be playing a part in her death. I took all of our savings and sold everything we had, and together with loans from friends we managed to pay the money."

Of course, Mrs. Zunis showed no signs of improvement as a result. When the disease worsened she spoke with the current director of the Kabbalah Learning Center, Shaul Youdkevitch, who said she must pay another $25,000. They took the money from her mother's pension plan.

At the beginning of Tishrei, Mrs. Zunis passed away. A short time earlier she had begun to realize she had been swindled, but by then it was too late. The money had already been swallowed up into the millions the Center rolls in every year. But before her petiroh the couple filed a police report and an investigation was opened.

Boris Zunis also filed a civil lawsuit through Atty. Chaim Cohen. The Center could not understand why Boris was upset with them. "The Center's members prayed for her well-being every day and it's well known that `Tzedokoh tatzil mimoves,' " the Center replied.

Kabbalah Water from the Tap

The police took the investigation seriously, and Shaul Youdkevitch was placed in custody for 24 hours, followed by five days of house arrest. During questioning, he was asked about the "holy water" (an idea borrowed from the Christians) recommended to Leah Zunis at a price of NIS 26 per liter (about $6 per quart). Youdkevitch claimed it is "special water prepared by a biochemist in Canada. It comes from Niagara Falls in Ontario." Police investigators believe it to be regular water.

Obviously, this was at best regular mineral water (if not regular tap water), yet Zeev Shtiglitz of Lev L'Achim, head of the Anti-Cult Forum, hired Professor Rafi Semiat, head of the Desalination Laboratory and the Institute for Water Research at the Technion, to analyze the water. "These claims are a bunch of nonsense, cleverly designed to convince innocent people to be swindled," he writes. "Anyone who buys this water is throwing away his money."

The Anti-Cult Forum is a general organization that was started ten years ago by Rabbi Zeev Shtiglitz to combat cults in Israel, including kabbalah centers. Not surprisingly, Shtiglitz is also one of the heads of Lev L'Achim's anti- missionary department. He came to the conclusion that secular people should be recruited to form an umbrella organization. Together with groups like Worried Parents, an organization for parents whose children have been taken in by various cult groups, field work got underway.

Even before the Forum began to fight against known cults in Israel, it was decided to launch a battle against the Kabbalah Learning Center. At a conference, testimonials were given by young people who had been pulled in to the cult, enslaved to the directors and one woman who even said she had been so enthralled that she donated her home to the Kabbalah Center.

"I was in a bubble," recalls one victim. "I felt a special light that gave me a feeling of calm." But this young woman, just like hundreds of other young people who were sucked into the Kabbalah Center's activities, said that the volunteer staff there submitted totally to the directors' every want and whim.

(As a side note, in order to win over these wayward youths the Kabbalah Center would point to the fact that the chareidim were combating their work, which they claimed served as a clear sign that it was a worthwhile cause. "In a place where there is a revelation of light the Satan seeks a foothold, therefore the chareidim are working against the Center," one of the directors told the volunteers. The Bnei Baruch Institute in Petach Tikva, another organization that began by selling kabbalah, printed a pamphlet that says in black and white, "Clearly the wisdom of kabbalah, as a science that directs the individual solely toward introspection and inner change, distances the individual from all external rituals and commandments of any religious stream. Therefore all religions—and Judaism in particular— object to the science of kabbalah." Today it has been transformed into a wholly Christian cult with various pronouncements against Judaism.)

The Hidden Light: Money

The world's leading kabbalah cult figure is Dr. Philip Berg, who casts himself as an observant Jew, although those who know him define him as Reform, at best, in practice. He is not the only one. The Kabbalah Centers that Berg opened in Tel Aviv and other locations (50 branches worldwide) are being imitated by competitors trying to seize hold of "the hidden light," including places like Bnei Baruch, a kabbalistic group headed by Michael Leitman of Petach Tikva.

The Anti-Cult Forum is gathering a growing number of testimonials indicating that the various kabbalah centers are posing a ever greater threat. Presumably the Zunises are not the only people to be swindled and Youdkevitch is not the only "kabbalist" swindler.

"The Tassia-Glazer Report, published nearly 20 years ago, described the nature of cults in Israel," says Rabbi Shtiglitz. "Kabbalah cults were not yet operating at the time, but according to the characteristics listed in the government report on cults in Israel, clearly the Kabbalah Center would fall under the category of a cult.

"A cult is the word given to a group of people who believe in ideas that are not a part of the central ideological streams in society. What distinguishes a cult from a religion or an organization is generally the number of cult members and the distinctiveness of its ideas — how different they are from the mainstream. As long as the people who join the cult have full access to the cult's teachings and tradition and can elect to leave the cult without fear of retribution the cult is not considered dangerous or destructive."

Massive Blackmailing

How can you tell if a kabbalah center is a cult? Very simple.

A BBC investigation described the World Kabbalah Center as a cult that has turned into an enormous blackmailing operation, demanding that members contribute 10 percent of their income.

A long feature on kabbalah cults that appeared in Yediot Achronot included testimonials by parents of kabbalah cult victims. One mother describes how her twin sons became "addicted to kabbalah." One of them is still receiving constant psychiatric treatment. It all began when one of them decided to study kabbalah.

"His eyes began to shine," she recalls. "Until then he had been socially isolated. He didn't have friends. When he went there, people took care of him. Gradually he began to spend Shabbatot and holidays there with his new friends. And every meal costs money, tens of shekels. He severed himself from my family and cleared out his bank account. All of his savings — thousands of shekels — went. Later he convinced his twin brother to come to the center. He began to volunteer there, too. They began to grow beards because at the center they were told that light comes into one's life through hair shafts and this fills the body with positive energy."

The two brothers began spending all their time at the center. One of them entered deeper into the cult's innermost circle — until it was decided to send him to the world center in Los Angeles.

He spent a year there, totally severed from his family. One day he called his mother. "Ima, I can't stay here any more. I'm coming home."

He returned to Israel and went insane. He was so used to washing the floors of the office from morning to night that when he came back to Tel Aviv he would roam the streets and clean them out of habit.

"Our lives have been destroyed. Our other son is still studying at the Center, even though he saw what happened to his brother. I don't know how to get him out of there. He keeps spending money left and right and is wasting his life."

Baited Trap

"The moment you step into [the Kabbalah Center] everyone is nice and courteous to you," says Rabbi Shtiglitz. "There are people to hang out with, really the veteran volunteers, whose job is to market the Zohar and kabbalah. They cling to whoever enters the center, start talking to him and smiling at him. The goal is to get his name and address. Then they start sending him written materials, inviting him to lectures and group Shabbatot."

Former Kabbalah Center workers recall receiving clear instructions to set their eyes and hands on the money of new enthusiasts. Ruth Brunstatt, who spent eight years as a member of the center and lost all of her assets, says workers were instructed "by the cadre and the more veteran [staffers] to identify the crisis of the person who came to visit the center and stood before us. We developed sensors to detect people in crisis."

Shtiglitz says that a dangerous cult is an authoritarian organization built like a pyramid, with one person or a group of people at the top who have dictatorial control over the organization. "A dangerous cult uses methods based on fraud and deceit to recruit new members. A dangerous cult makes use of psychological techniques to create dependence on the group and to maintain members' obedience to it. Dangerous cults generally try to shape their members according to the personality of the leader or the cult's ideal by suppressing thinking, through criticism and self- criticism — rather than fostering individuality, creativity and the personal freedom and will of each and every individual."

This matches precisely Philip Berg's modus operandi. "When someone goes inside, there are hierarchies. There are ranks. Everyone wants to be part of the in-group. Everyone wants to be close to the director and at the highest level the head of the cult — guru Philip Berg." Kabbalah centers make money not just by exploiting people who submit themselves to the directors, but also by selling kabbalah courses. For example, a ten-part course called "Principles of Kabbalah" costs NIS 1,100 ($235).

The Name of the Game: Money

"Arriving at a lecture in Haifa I was told that two of the participants were members of the Scientology cult and I was asked to speak with them," recalls HaRav Aharon Levy, a lecturer at Arachim. "It's very hard to speak with people held hostage in a cult, because they lock themselves up and defend the place from which they derive gratification. But at the end of the lecture they approached me.

"I sat down with them and explained to them that I had no intention of explaining to them what was not good or dangerous in Scientology. But I asked the woman how long she had been a member of the cult. `Eight months,' she said. `And how much has it cost you?' `NIS 8,000 [$1,700]' she replied. I said, `Have you thought about why they are asking you for so much money when their only intention, according to what you are saying, is to help you? And, by the way, did anyone here ask you for money when you came in? Think about it . . . '

"Two weeks ago, she called to thank me for `saving her life.' She said my remarks made her stop and think. Today she is a baalas teshuvoh."

Money is the name of the game. Few are the people who were saved from cults — including kabbalah cults — by the skin of their teeth without having had to part with some of their money. Sometimes it means wiping out years of savings or the sale of assets to fund the avarice of the head of the cult, who is already wealthy, or total submission and enslavement to the cult's values and principles — and most of all to the head guru.

Why Do They Go?

The large number of young people streaming into kabbalah cults in recent years begs the question: Why are they drawn to this? What leads young, educated professionals and Tel Aviv bohemians to go to a kabbalah cult in search of the spirituality they sorely lack? What is lacking at teshuvoh seminars, which provide it for free in a far more genuine and persuasive way?

Every secular Jew is wary of a course on Judaism. Only persuasion or a deep desire by the individual to take part in a seminar could lead one to overcome his apprehension and reluctance to come to a Torah lecture series. Others are simply afraid to confront the implications of knowing the truth, but still they are looking for spirituality.

Spirituality is a fundamental human need. They don't find it in India, because there it has become commercialized, but there are other alternatives. Kabbalah has the perfect formula: in Hebrew, spiritual and with no obligations.

The Emptiness of Materialism

"Today there is great emptiness and disappointment from materialism throughout the world," says HaRav Aharon Levy of Arachim, who is very familiar with this yearning for something spiritual. "Materialism has exhausted itself as an ideal. The young and secular —- both Jews and non-Jews — realize that to make materialistic hedonism into an ideal will not succeed. This rupture was created following the breach in moral boundaries on one hand and the tremendous material abundance on the other.

"This is apparent abroad, especially in wealthy nations. People begin to adopt ideals such as environmentalism or animal rights. People are looking for gratification or meaning in life, beyond the materialistic lives they lead. There is also a real identity crisis among Israeli youth, who do not even consider looking into Orthodox Judaism. Therefore the sterile Jewish alternative is the modern kabbalah institute. No beards, no payos, no black — Judaism Lite."

HaRav Levy says that these youths are not driven by a search for truth. "They do not particularly want to subject their materialistic and hedonistic needs to truth. Their search stems from the need for peace of mind. Therefore, they prefer to find meaning that is convenient and without obligation. It's far more attractive, less nagging and this makes it much more alluring."

Yated Ne'eman: And what exactly do the kabbalah institutes sell them?

HaRav Levy: It's a very big temptation because kabbalah teachings are not as mystical as people generally think. They are very logical and even scientific. Kabbalah teachings have rules, processes, etc. Therefore, people who are accustomed to academic thinking find it very easy to connect to the kabbalistic way of thinking. It is very orderly, nothing disappears, everything is built hierarchically. The Kabbalah Institute and places like it provide people with courses in kabbalah, without any obligation to change their ways. Really, they are selling spiritual pleasure at a very cheap price.

In Orthodox Jewry, when a person comes and wants to partake in a spiritual experience, he is told there are no shortcuts. One has to start from the beginning. There are obligations, there are changes in one's conduct, in observing mitzvas. But these people come in search of "truth" to enjoy life. These are the people who come to study kabbalah.

The meaning the Torah brings to life requires changes that not everyone is prepared to make, in exchange for spiritual peace of mind, so this deters people. Instead they go to kabbalah cults.

YN: And how is the man-in-the-street persuaded to come to the kabbalah institutes?

HaRav Levy: The direct and indirect message to the secular public is simple and readily absorbed: that need you want to fill and are afraid to pay the price — here it is relatively cheap. You don't have to wear a yarmulke, you don't have to change, and you don't have to keep Shabbos. Just come and study and pay money. The only cost is money and what is money in exchange for spiritual meaning? You give us the money, we'll give you the meaning.

Note that the various kabbalah institutes portray the chareidi public to new members in a very negative light. Kabbalah institutes sneer at Orthodoxy, both tactically and strategically. Tactically, in order to avoid suspicions of being religious, although they define themselves as such, and strategically, to keep members from recognizing the lie.

YN: So all of this "kabbalah" activity is divorced from Judaism?

HaRav Levy: Just this week someone told me about a person who studied at a certain kabbalah institute and asked to lay tefillin. When he asked the guide, he was told, "I don't think you have reached this level. Wait a bit." This provides an indication that the eagerness for kabbalah derives from people's search for gratification and the understanding that it is not to be found in wanton materialism. They are not willing to pay a high price for it. Therefore the kabbalah institutes pop up like mushrooms after the rain and offer a sense of connectedness to spirituality at a low price.

YN: Like Christianity?

HaRav Levy: Indeed. That was the Christian technique precisely. It sold idol worshipers a spiritual connection without any obligation beyond being a "good" person.


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