Anat (not her real name) is currently staying at the closed ward of a psychiatric hospital in Israel. For more than a week she has been lying in bed, suffering from depression, and surviving by taking pills.
After six months at the Kabbalah Center, she had a mental breakdown.
“Anat is not feeling well these days,” her mother says. “She apparently couldn’t withstand their pressure anymore…we hope she recovers.”
Leah, a family friend, says Anat is weaker than ever these days. At first she thought Kabbalah studies were good for her, but her parents quickly realized she was drawing large sums of money from her account to buy Kabbalah books.
Those interviewed for this story wanted to use their real names, tell their stories, and share their difficult feelings with the readers. They are particularly interested in seeing the Kabbalah Center close its doors. However, some of them still have family members at the center and are worried they would sever all ties if real names are used.
Those who were members of the Center and left are ashamed. During the interviews for this story, they revealed details they never shared before, even with their parents or best friends.
So how did it happen? How did the center for Jewish mysticism become such a global empire, with branches in the United States, Europe, and South America? How does this apparatus work, the one that makes people complete give themselves, both in body and soul – as well as financially – to the Kabbalah Center?
Savings are gone
The global Kabbalah Center prides itself on being the largest organization in the world for spreading Kabbalah studies. The organization has 50 branches worldwide, including five in Israel. About 3.5 million people across the globe attended courses at the Center in recent years.
Leah, a woman in her 50s, is closely familiar with the Kabbalah Center on 14 Ben Ami street in Tel Aviv. She herself attended several classes there and left years ago. Not a day goes by where she does not lament the moment her twin sons decided to join courses and were captivated by the mystical world opened to them. Indeed, not a day goes by where she does not pray for the worst nightmare of her life to end.
Leah says both her sons became “Kabbalah addicts”. One of them requires close psychiatric care to this day as fears that he may harm himself persist.
“Everything started six years ago, when my twins turned 21,” Leah says. “One of them decided to study at the Kabbalah Center. He took one course and then another one, and another one. At first he was filled with energy.”
“Until this time he was largely isolated socially. He didn’t have that many friends and was prone to depression…this was an outlet of hope for him, everyone loved him there,” she says.
“Gradually he began spending Saturdays and holidays with his friends there, and had to pay for every meal, dozens of shekels,” Leah says. “He detached himself from the family and didn’t want to tell us what was going on with him, and his bank account was emptied out. He bought Kabbalah books for me, my husband, and his brothers for thousands of shekels. I saw with my own eyes the receipts with the irrational amounts and I couldn’t believe it.”
Leah’s son eventually convinced his twin brother to join the Center as well, she says. The two grew beards and would wash dishes at the center the whole day, she adds.
“Their spiritual teachers convinced them to leave their jobs and invest the whole of themselves in this center,” she says.
Eating leftovers off the floor
Yaron (not his real name,) the brother who first became drawn to Kabbalah-mania, received a tempting offer from his friends at the Center to join them. The “followers” live in small, crowded communes in the center of the country.
“Later, because he was good, and apparently he worked there for 24 hours without a break,” said Leah, “they decided to send him to the major center in Los Angeles. He was there for a year. At this point he also stopped answering calls and cut off ties with the family. Suddenly, after months of no contact, I got a call from him. He said: ‘Mom, I can’t stay here anymore, I’m coming back.’”
“When he got off the plane, I saw a burned out person, depressive, with an unkempt beard in these rag-like clothes. He only had Kabbalah books in his suitcase. I asked him, ‘where are your cloths’? And he said that he donated them. I didn’t recognize him, he was so weak. I informed him that he was not returning to the Center and I took him home with me.”
It was difficult for Yaron to adjust to conditions outside the commune. “He really went crazy. He would go out to the streets of Tel Aviv and sweep them, like a street sweeper. He would dress up in nice clothes and go out to the street to clean. Then there was a stage where he was filled with rage. He would have outbursts and he started to be violent at home. He hit us.”
The path to psychiatric treatment was short. “Only afterwards I realized that in Los Angeles he cleaned the Kabbalah Center all day there, for 23 hours a day without stopping, until something was disrupted in his brain.” Leah says. He had to do everything his older ‘friends’ told him. He could not refuse. At a certain stage he began to eat other people’s leftovers off the floor.”
“When he opened up to me, he told me one day that the councilors at the Center hit him frequently. Since then our lives have been wrecked. My second son is still in the Center, despite seeing what happened to his brother. I don’t know how to get him out of there. It doesn’t matter what I tell him, he is still trying to get as much money out as he can, and to waste his life.”
Story first appeared in Israel’s leading newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth
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