Part One: Red String Theory A four-month Radar investigation reveals how a renegade rabbi and his striver wife ended up atop a multi-
million-dollar empire built on bracelets, bottled water, and Madonna.
On a clear spring night in April 2004, Madonna, Guy Ritchie, Ashton Kutcher, and a gum-snapping Demi Moore stood on the dais in a banquet room at the Westin Diplomat hotel in Hollywood, Florida, facing the 2,500 Kabbalah Centre congregants who had paid as much as $4,000 each for the “Pesach Experience,” the Centre’s Passover retreat. Lesser Kabbalah lights Marla Maples and Sandra Bernhard were also in the house.
Madonna, looking, in the words of one observer, “fierce,” wore a holiday dress and a jaunty newsboy cap. Moore, a more recent recruit, was decidedly casual in pants. In keeping with the Centre’s traditions, Ritchie and Kutcher, like the rest of the men in the room, were dressed head-to-toe in white. On this particular evening Kutcher had even personalized his outfit with a white skullcap featuring a black Nike swoosh.
The celebrity couples had been summoned to the dais by the Centre’s founder and spiritual leader, Philip Berg, to share their wisdom with the crowd. But according to one attendee, none of the four said anything very memorable. Moore didn’t speak at all.
Those unfamiliar with the ways of the Centre might have seen this as a strange way to celebrate Passover, a holiday that commemorates the deliverance of Jews from slavery in Egypt. Traditionally the seder ends with a toast and the words next year in Jerusalem. This one ended with a blessing from Madonna, the Catholic pop star from Michigan; the star of Dude, Where’s My Car?; and the director of Snatch. But to the congregants assembled that evening the bizarre conclusion was just business as usual. Furthermore, to them the celebrities were not the only stars onstage, or even the biggest. That distinction belongs to the Berg family: Philip Berg, his wife Karen, and their sons, Michael and Yehuda. The Bergs have come a long way since 1971, when Philip, then known as Shraga Feivel Gruberger, began preaching his version of Jewish mystical enlightenment to a small group of students in Israel. A onetime insurance salesman who left his wife and seven kids to marry Karen, his former secretary, Berg has become a man so revered that some of his followers believe he has the power to resurrect the dead. In the process he has created a multimillion-dollar brand out of a bastardization of an arcane branch of Judaism, larding it with pricey accessories and bold-faced names. His followers have been promised that Kabbalah can find their lost children, cure their illnesses, replenish their pocketbooks, and bring them true love. Berg himself is so above it all that even his wife refers to him, at least to the press, only by an honorific. He is “the Rav.”
Under the Bergs’ leadership the Kabbalah Centre has become both enormously wealthy and world famous. Its products—the red strings, the scented candles, the holy water—are on display everywhere from the counters at Sephora to the pages of Us Weekly. The Centre’s website does a lucrative business selling $280 crib sheet sets featuring protective Hebrew lettering; the diamond necklaces bearing symbols for healing, happiness, love, and prosperity are so popular they’ve sold out. No less a luminary than Britney Spears has been photographed toting a volume of the Zohar, the Kabbalists’ bible, which sells at prices up to $415 for a set. The star-studded seder in Florida shows how far the Bergs have come, from the outer boroughs of New York City to the global stage. But the Kabbalah Centre is at a turning point. When the books of ecclesiastical history are closed, those few minutes at the Westin Diplomat may end up being seen as the apex of an institution shrouded in secrecy and shielded from the public eye by the glare of celebrity. But a close look reveals an organization more committed to questionable financial deals and celebrity wrangling than to advancing an ancient Jewish mystical approach to life.
In the past several months the organization has been beset by a barrage of bad publicity. In December the Guardian of London published a 10-month investigation that revealed the dubious nature of the Rav’s qualifications as a religious leader, as well as the Centre’s avaricious ways. Then, in January 2005, a BBC documentary caught high-ranking Kabbalah Centre officer Rabbi Eliyahu Yardeni on undercover camera saying that the Jews who died in the Holocaust perished because they weren’t studying Kabbalah. The same documentary showed an employee at the Centre’s London office selling a man with cancer more than $1,500 worth of merchandise, including Aramaic books he could not read and bottled water with no proven health benefits. This Friday, ABC’s 20/20 is airing a story featuring an interview with Karen, Yehuda, and Michael Berg in which the family was asked to answer some discomfiting questions about the legitimacy of their practices. For the Bergs this increased scrutiny comes at a particularly unfortunate time. The Rav suffered a debilitating stroke last fall and has largely been out of sight ever since. Though his family has managed to keep the Kabbalah show up and running, none of his three heirs has the religious authority to fully shelter the Centre from the gathering storm.
In a bid to counter these mounting challenges, the Bergs have called in the big guns. Last winter they hired Sitrick and Company, a powerful crisis management firm that has represented such beleaguered clients as the Major League Baseball Players Association and Halle Berry. “Life coach” Shore Slocum, who has worked with Tony Robbins and Norman Schwarzkopf, was also recently brought in to help the Bergs with their communications skills. Last month notoriously intimidating Hollywood attorney Bert Fields also joined the team. One of his first actions was to send a letter to Radar warning that he was keeping a close eye on its reporting about the Kabbalah Centre and the Bergs. Finally, of course, there’s Madonna, whose ever-deepening ties to the Bergs have led her to underwrite the Centre’s activities to the tune of $18 million since 2001, according to one insider. Us Weekly reported last week that the diva was threatening to boycott ABC if the network proceeded with the 20/20 segment. (Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s straight-shooting publicist, denied the allegation, pointing out that Madonna appeared on ABC’s The View the same week the Us report appeared.)
In the coming days Radar Online will present an in-depth investigation into the history, teachings, and practices of both the Bergs and the Centre that raises troubling new questions about Hollywood’s most fashionable cult. Radar’s findings include:
• The false claims the Centre has made about its distinguished origins.
• The Centre’s solicitation of freelance ghostwriters on the website Craigslist, to help the Bergs write “scholarly” books on Kabbalah, some of which the writers are encouraged to model on new-age best-sellers.
• The previously unreported lawsuit that charged Philip Berg with copyright infringement and plagiarism.
• The Centre’s penchant for lending money to companies owned by close friends and associates of the Bergs, including more than $2 million in loans to a company with a P.O. Box address that flips investment properties in such Los Angeles neighborhoods as Compton and Watts.
• The Bergs’ luxurious lifestyle, in stark contrast to the bleak four-to-a-bedroom conditions and $35-a-month stipend they offer the full-time volunteers who cook and clean for them.
• The Centre’s use of cultlike techniques to control members, including sleep deprivation, alienation from friends and family, and Kabbalah-dictated matchmaking.
• The bizarre scientific claims made by the Centre’s leaders on behalf of Kabbalah Water, ranging from its ability to cleanse the lakes of Chernobyl of radiation to its power to cure cancer, AIDS, and SARS.
• The Centre’s sponsorship of the Oroz Research Centre, a “23rd century” scientific institution that markets a “liquid compound for the treatment of nuclear waste” that also cures gynecological problems in cows, sheep, and other farm animals.
• The Bergs’ plan to leverage celebrity congregants to expand the scope of their merchandising, and their failed attempt to lure Madonna to partner with them in a venture to repackage Kabbalah Water for the mass market.
• The Bergs’ explicit strategy of steering Kabbalah away from its Jewish roots in order to appeal to a wider global market, and their plans to brand both the Centre and family members for maximum popular appeal.
In the course of reporting this story Radar spoke to scholars of Judaica and Kabbalah, cult experts, and government officials. In addition Radar interviewed current and former students, employees, and business partners of the Centre, almost all of whom asked for confidentiality, citing fear of reprisal.