Last Tuesday, at eight thirty in the evening, the Kabbalah Center in Tel Aviv held a “guest’s evening” to explain its “practices” and doctrine.
The manager, Shaul Youdkevitch, was absent. A day earlier, he was arrested on suspicion of exploiting Leah and Boris Zunis, who donated more than NIS 60,000 to the Center in the hopes that Leah would overcome cancer. Boris said he was asked to make a “painful contributions” of tens of thousands of dollars and to use the “holy water” that is sold at the Center.
Leah died about two months ago, and Youdkevitch is currently under house arrest.
In the meantime, volunteers at the Center continue to act as if everything is as usual. The lecturer, a young, bearded, and elegantly dressed man, wearing glasses and a beret, first addressed the latest negative publicity about the Center.
“I’m sure you heard from the papers about Shaul’s arrest,” he told guests. “It’s important for me to clarify unequivocally that the Zunis couple were not promised anything. The only thing that the people of the Center want from life is light. Certainly not to harm anyone. We can’t influence what is written above.”
Sitting and listening were sixteen people on plastic chairs, thirsty for knowledge. From time to time, the lecturer would drink “special” Kabbalah water. Outside of the room, in the Center’s store, the transparent liquid, which looks exactly like every bottle of mineral water, can be bought for a whopping 27 shekels (About 6 dollars.)
A BBC investigation uncovered a London Kabbalah Center selling “holy water” it claimed would help cure cancer, and recommending “healing” packages for sick people, costing hundreds of British pounds. The program found that the water, “enriched by positive energy,” came from a factory in Canada which has come under investigated by local health authorities.
The same water is on sale in central Tel Aviv.
‘A bunch of nonsense’
Sam (not his real name,) 27, who volunteered for a year at the Center, recounts: “I got to the Kabbalah Center, and nothing worked, so I tried courses. When that didn’t help, an advisor at the Center told me to buy a lot of ‘special Kabbalah water.’ I really spent an astronomical amount on it.’”
“He said the water would help heal my headache, but nothing happened. In reality, I continued to suffer despite drinking their water, and I contributed NIS 13,000 (about USD 4,000) so I receive a dedication in a Kabbalah book. I didn’t believe they could cheat me like that. For a year they exploited me, and deceitfully got more and more money out of me.”
“I was a student at the start of the road, I didn’t have money, and today I am into debts of thousands of shekels,” Sam says. “Today I am embarrassed that I even thought the water would help, or that it is pure. I feel cheated.”
Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s leading newspaper, has obtained a document on the matter from Professor Rafi Semiat, head of the Israel Institute of Technology’s (Technion) Desalination Laboratory, and head of the Institute for Water Research. He completely dismisses any possibility that the “Kabalistic” water bottle has special properties.
“These claims are a bunch of nonsense,” he says. “It is a bunch of nonsense cleverly designed to convince innocent people to be cheated out of their money. Anyone who buys this water is investing their money in a dubious scheme.”
The man who initiated an analysis of the water is Ze’ev Shtiglitz, who leads the Anti-Cult Forum. For 10 years, he has sat in his modest Netanya office, collecting hundreds of complaints of victims of the Kabbalah Center. In recent years, Shtiglitz has held two large conferences to support those same victims and their family members. He says the Kabbalah Center is not a “learning center,” but is in fact a cult in every way.
Power of celebrity
The real aim of the Center, says Shtiglitz, is to make a fortune out of hapless people. “People in the country today are looking for mysticism, for spirituality. This Center recognized this new Israeli trend and started using it,” he explains.
“They attract people to them, like every religion, through promotion. Their marketing strategy is based on celebrities. Whoever enters the institute and recognizes the celebrities wants to be close to them. They know this well, and they use celebrities.”
The names of many celebrities are indeed linked to the Tel Aviv Center. For instance, the visit of Madonna and Rosanne Bar, as well as Israeli celebrities Adam, Orna Banai, and Orna Fitosi, and (actor) Zvulun Moshiashvili.
“I was a member of the Center until four years ago, and I left to study Hassidism,” says Zvulon.
“I felt like I was turning into Harry Potter there. I learned how to be a magician. There is a very special place there, with powerful energy, so that on Shabbat everyone comes in white,” he says.
“I once met with Shaul Youdkevitch, but he didn’t strike me as someone who would take profits home with him. I am sure that he overcame his desire for materialism. I myself donated thousands of shekels to the Center. I personally am not there, partly because the costliness didn’t suit me. On the other hand, I don’t have a problem with them making use of celebrities. Rabbi Ovadia Yossef also uses celebrities. It’s acceptable.”
For his part, Shtiglitz describes the entry process into the Center as a “honey trap.”
He explains: “From the moment you go in, everyone is nice and obliging. There is a group of friends, who are actually veteran volunteers, whose job it is to market Kabbalah.”
“They attach themselves to whoever enters the Center. They start talking to the new person and smiling at them, and their aim is to obtain a name and address. Then they start sending material, inviting the person to lectures and to weekends. At times, they also arrive at centers for terror victims, and to hospitals. They tell those people that if they buy Kabbalah books they will make a complete recovery.”
Story first appeared in Israel’s leading newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth
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