Ruth Bronshtat (48) of Carmiel was a member of the Kabbalah Center for eight years, where she says she lost all of her belongings.
“ We were taught by senior staff and the more experienced members to recognize the problems of the person who came to visit the Center and who stood in front of us. For example, if they were single or sick, we would pass that information on to the lecturers. That way they could take money from them and promise them a good life. There was a very good chance that such people would bring money with them to the Center to donate. Of course, in addition, we would distribute leaflets and sign people up for money on the street. Once I got someone to donate NIS 5,000 (close to USD 1,000), another time NIS 3,000 (about USD 850). Those kinds of sums,” she said.
Ze’ev Shtiglitz, who leads the Anti-Cult Forum and has been collecting hundreds of complaints from Kabbalah Center victims, explains the modus operandi: “Slowly, they pull you in, and when you are inside, they counsel you. There are ranks. Everyone wants to be one of the insiders’ group, everyone wants to be close to the manager and his wife, and in the top rank is the head of the cult – the guru, Rabbi Philip Berg.”
Berg, a former insurance salesman from Brooklyn, changed his name from Feivel Gruberger and left his first wife and seven children to become the spiritual leader and pyramid head of the Kabbalah business. Berg, who refers to himself as Dr., enjoys a millionaire’s lifestyle in Los Angeles. He and his current wife, Karen, set up their first center in Tel Aviv, and created a worldwide empire.
Vivienne Marco, wife of the deceased Binyamin Marco, former head of the Center, echoed Shtiglitz’s analysis. “I was head of accounting at that place many years ago,” she said. “And always, but always, there were echelons. Everyone, including myself, wanted to be close to Rabbi Berg. He was like a god for me. I shook when I was next to him. I worked for free for years, and when they wanted to change my position, I insisted on staying.”
“I remember how I once got to a hotel in the United States, after one of the conferences, and Karen Berg, the rabbi’s wife, didn’t event let me sit at their table. It was the table for the ‘esteemed’ and I was supposed to serve them. It’s as if the more you are unwanted or rebuked, the more you want,” she says.
“When my husband was appointed head of the Center, I suddenly assumed an important standing. I was ‘the wife of,’ but I was completely insecure. Once we were invited to eat with Berg, but I couldn’t even stand next to him. I preferred sitting far away from him, beneath him. Please understand, Berg’s table, or his room, was something unbelievable for me. I once went to him and told him I was prepared to die for him. I was willing to die for him. Do you understand?”
Although the Kabbalah Center is a nonprofit organization, its courses cost money. The basic course, “the principles of the Kabbalah,” which consists of 10 lessons, costs NIS 1,100 (990 for those who register via the Internet site), or about USD 225. The next course, consisting of six meetings of an hour to an hour and a half, costs NIS 660 (about 150 USD.)
The official aim of the Center is to “instill the spiritual tools in those searching for a way to improve their personal, spiritual, and professional life.”
The Center claims it does not address any specific audience, but that it can instill spiritual tools in every person – and for every family.
Today, the Center offers five classes, aimed at a range of young children, from infants to first graders, in a kind of alternative educational system.
The Center’s Internet site allows interested parties to purchase lectures, books, and of course, accompanying products. The site recommends packages of books – branded as the “spiritual book package” – costing hundreds of shekels. Tailored jewelry (NIS 1,300, or about USD 277, for a gold necklace with ‘special letters’), a candle matching the astrological star sign of the buyer (NIS 53, or about USD 11), a set of bedclothes for babies (NIS 780, or about 166)), or simply a red string (NIS 36, USD 8).
My girlfriend is Satan
The life story of Ben (25), an officer in the Navy, who joined the Center and “served” in it for a year, may best expose the rise in the ladder of ranks within the organization, and the price that such a rise exacts.
After completing his military service, Ben felt frustrated and unsatisfied. When he proposed marriage to his girlfriend after going out with her for three months, she opted to wait a little more, and he was wounded by the refusal.
“The people in the center immediately caught on that I was weak. They constantly drummed in the message that only the Center could bring the light and the messiah. The lecturers said that psychologists were not okay. All the rabbis were crap. Only rabbi Berg could do it. They told me I should buy recordings of the lectures. I sat with the disc and listened until it penetrated me – the words, what they were saying. In short, it was brainwashing.”
A year after arriving at the Center, he joined the ‘inner circle’ and slept with eight of them in a one room apartment in central Tel Aviv, on blowup mattresses placed on a highly crowded floor.
“They called me and suggested I come only for three days, to see how it is. I knew it was considered the best to be with the inner circle. So I agreed to come. And those three days turned into a week and a half, which turned into a few months.”
During that time, he says, he was subject to intensive pressure from his new friends, who “convinced me to immediately give up on my girlfriend because she’s Satan – all my friends were Satan, my family is Satan. And everyone there loves you terribly. You go around the cult of a central figure like the teacher, Shaul (Youdkevitch) – he was in the center and we were around him. Everyone wants to serve him. And he says that to serve is the best thing. Everyone tries to serve him because that’s how you get more energy. Not from learning but from serving.”
“I didn’t have a moment’s rest. I worked all the time. Everyone there was like me: Working all the time, 24 hours without stop, until the eyes close on their own accord; until there are hallucinations at night. They promised me that if I break up with my girlfriend, they would find me a match. I stopped calling her because of their pressures.”
After 10 days, Ben split up with his girlfriend, Keren, telling her he was moving in with the inner circle permanently. “When he came to end the relationship, I asked him if someone else told him to do that,” recounted Keren. “He told me that nobody told him what to do. Only later did I find out that everyone in the Center cut themselves off from their families, which are presented as evil agents which bring negative energies.”
“We were a couple in the peak of love. I was broken into a thousand pieces because when I spoke to Ben, his answers suddenly became mechanical, they repeated themselves. After a while I was able to predict them. It wasn’t him anymore, not the person I knew. He spoke differently and acted differently. It all was happening because of the same reason: The light, the light, the light. He came to me in the same way that all their people go around: With a beard and a hat; and carrying a book of Zohar in his belt.
“After we split up I cried,” said Ben. “I went to the Center to feel better and they told me it was for the best. At first I wanted to study for the psychometric exam, but they told me that wasn’t possible because they would constantly ask me to help and work for them. I turned into a slave. And then they began telling me that it was important for me to contribute money. I accumulated savings of NIS 90,000, (about USD 19,000); that was all my money. They convinced me to give it all to them because that’s what would give me energy. They told me that that there is a need for materials, and although my parents objected – I decided to invest all my money in the Kabbalah. And that’s not including the NIS 13,000 (about USD 2,800) that I had already paid them for the dedication in the book of Zohar. By the way, the workers get about NIS 100 (about USD 21) a week, which is supposed to be living wages. Not more than that.”
Ben received a role in the inner circle – to be the driver of Rabbi Berg’s children when he visits the country, as well as the children of Shaul Youdkevitch. “I had a license, so they asked me to take the rabbi’s children and entertain them. Once we were at the safari, and another time we did a group activity. I didn’t even spoil my nephew like that. We had duty calls, and each one would drive Shaul’s and Rabbi Berg’s children.”
Meanwhile, at home, Keren and Ben’s parents planned to take him back. “I collected material on cults, and read books on how to get people out of there, on what has to be done,” said Keren. “We reached a joint conclusion that we must be with him, support him, and to bombard him with telephone calls. I tried to talk to him on the phone and I didn’t leave him alone at any time. His parents did the same; so that he would feel that he had a place to fall to.”
“In one of our conversations I forced him to meet me at a cafe. He was scared to leave the Center because they told him that there were negative energies outside and only good energies inside. Despite that, he sat with me, and I asked him to come back with me for a week so that I could prove to him that he was dealing with a cult. He said he would think about it and we agreed that if I couldn’t convince him within a week while he would stay at his parents’ house – I would come with him and sleep in the Kabbalah Center for a week.”
Ben arrived at his parents’ house, and within two days “felt as if I was an addict trying to come off something; but suddenly I opened my eyes. I realized they tried to squeeze me. Finally, I slept properly, for the first time. I gradually got back together with Keren. And today we are very happy together.”
‘Claims being checked’
Once in a while, family members would attempt to take their loved ones out of the Kabbalah Center. “We completely lost my sister,” said R from central Israel. “At the moment she is inside, and has gone totally crazy. She is sure she is going to save the world and save the universe. She doesn’t spend weekends or holidays with us, and she’s quit her job for the Center.”
“She was supposed to marry her boyfriend after seven years of being together. But they got it into her head that she must not marry him because he is her brother from a previous life. They had invitations ready to send out, and a bride’s dress picked out, everything. Her entire life was ahead of her and now she has nothing. She cleans for them, works for them; she has turned into a slave. One day she will realize that they exploited her. I hope that when it happens, it won’t be too late.”
Shaul Youdkevitch’s lawyer, Lior Epstein, said: “These claims touch on faith and emotions, and to the best of our knowledge the criminal field is not the right place to deal with them. The collection of claims in the article is being checked by the relevant authorities and we are sure that in the end they will not find a shade of illegality within them. Tens and hundreds of thousands of students arrive at the Center for activities.
“This fact is one of the best testimonies for the goals being reached by the organization, to strengthen personal faith. Due to the nature of such wide-ranging subjects dealing with the heart and faith, those who judge that injustice was committed against them will believe that to be the case.”
Story first appeared in Israel’s leading newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth
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