Dec 29, 2011

Estate fight continues between Yogi Bhajan's widow, female assistants

Tom Sharpe
New Mexican
December 29, 2011

More than seven years after his death, Yogi Bhajan's widow and his younger female assistants disagree over how to divide his multimillion-dollar estate — which now includes the trademark rights to Yogi Tea.

Less than a year before his death in 2004, Yogi Bhajan, founder of a religious community near Española, signed a codicil to his 1987 will that called for a portion of his estate to go to a living trust to support 15 of his assistants.

His widow, Inderjit Kaur Puri, also known as Bibiji, did not immediately move to open a probate on his estate or to challenge the codicil assigning at least $4 million to the trust.

But in October 2007, the three trustees of the living trust sued Puri, claiming she was delaying distribution of funds to the trust by claiming she knew nothing about it.

In a counterclaim, Puri asked that the trustees be removed because, as three of the 15 assistants benefiting from the trust, they are in breach of their fiduciary duties.

Noting that Yogi Bhajan was suffering from physical and mental ailments at the time the codicil was signed, the counterclaim says the "assistants to Yogi Bhajan signed his name to the documents."

In April 2009, state District Judge James Hall dismissed the trustees' complaint but left the counterclaim intact. Hall retired at the end of 2009, and the case was transferred to District Judge Sarah Singleton, who waited until Nov. 7 to hold her first meeting on the case. She set a trial date for March 19.

Neither the trustees' lawyer, J. Katherine Girard, nor the trustees themselves, Sopurkh Kaur Khalsa, Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa and Ek Ong Kar Kaur Khalsa, have been available for comment.

Puri's attorney, Surjit Soni of Pasadena, Calif., agreed that the former assistants are due income from the trust. But he said that because Yogi Bhajan had handled his family's financial affairs, "like most guys tend to do," Puri was unaware of his donations to the living trust.

Soni, who is also Puri's nephew, said he is asking the judge to apply community-property rules to the case, so that the "marital estate" is divided in half and payments to the 15 assistants come out of Yogi Bhajan's portion, not Puri's.

Not until 2009, five years after Yogi Bhajan's death, did Puri move to open Yogi Bhajan's will to probate proceedings in state District Court in Santa Fe. Judge Barbara Vigil assigned Christopher Cullen, a Santa Fe lawyer, as the personal representative of the estate, but "gave him very specific but very limited instructions about what he could investigate and how he could investigate," Soni said.

As a result, Cullen was unable to identify all of the assets of the estate, and Vigil ordered the probate closed, "saying no other assets have been discovered," Soni said. "We disagree with that because we don't think the investigation was complete." He said he is appealing that closure.

This year, the estate became significantly more valuable because of a federal trademark case over Yogi Tea — a blend of black tea, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger and peppercorns that Yogi Bhajan used to serve at his kundalini yoga classes and went on to sell at his restaurants and health-food stores.

In 2004, a Eugene, Ore., company called Golden Temple of Oregon began marketing Yogi Tea, using Yogi Bhajan's name and likeness, under an agreement with him. This continued for four years after his death, with royalties split between Puri, the assistants' trust and a religious trust. In 2008, Golden Temple quit paying royalties and using Yogi Bhajan's name and likeness, but continued to use the name Yogi Tea to begin selling another tea called just Yogi.

Puri sued, and this fall an arbiter ordered Golden Temple to cease using the trademark by Jan. 1 and pay $822,302 to Yogi Bhajan's estate, based on sales in recent years. With Yogi Tea sales of $27 million in 2009 in the United States and Europe, the Eugene Register-Guard estimated the heirs might be owed another $485,905 by the end of 2012 — plus what they might gain from selling the trademark to others.

A separate but related case was brought in Oregon state court by the ministers of the religious trust, Unto Infinity, against Golden Temple. This month, a Portland, Ore., judge ruled that Golden Temple's CEO, Kartar Singh Khalsa, unjustly enriched himself and other company executives at the expense of Unto Infinity. Monetary damages have yet to be determined, but Unto Infinity is seeking $50 million. Several other trademarks used by Golden Temple, in addition to Yogi Tea, remain in contention.

Soni, Puri's attorney, said these rulings prove that not all the assets of the estate were identified — partly because the trustees for the assistants did not thoroughly investigate. "We demonstrated there are trademarks that the trustees did not appreciate, recognize, pursue, claim — that we, at great personal expense, have been able to secure," he said.

The litigation over Yogi Tea has been covered closely by the Sikh News Network ( A November article there pointed out that the assistants are "Caucasians" who converted to Sikhism and assumed their Sikh surnames, posting photographs of the former assistants who were not wearing the turbans or dress worn by traditional Sikhs.

"Peraim Kaur, one of his personal staff members, in her testimony for another lawsuit in Oregon, described how she worked long hours for little pay," says the article. "She told the court she had no vacations and was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also is common knowledge that his personal staff was discouraged from having outside relationships."

The Sikh News Network's correspondent on those stories, Kamalia Kaur, described herself as a "survivor of the YB [Yogi Bhajan] cult." Kaur, now 58 and living in Bellingham, Wash., said she joined Yogi Bhajan's Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization, or 3HO, 40 years ago after taking a kundalini yoga class with her husband at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Years later, while living in the Bay Area of California, she began questioning the "organization's dysfunctional side," she wrote in an email. "Soon I was shunned — and former students started calling me and telling me their horrible stories. Then I got a threatening phone call."

Kaur eventually divorced her husband, who remained with Yogi Bhajan's organization. She gave up custody of her three children, turned over her money to her ex-husband, "and hit the streets. But I couldn't stop studying the story of my life," she wrote. "When you lose the years 18-37, your prime, to ... serving a sociopath, you might as well dedicate a few years to warning and educating others about authoritarian groups."

She now moderates an online forum called "The Wacko World of Yogi Bhajan" on which both Kaur and others have referred repeatedly to Yogi Bhajan's assistants as his harem. But that may be the least of the charges on the website, where Yogi Bhajan is accused of a variety of illegal activities, including fraudulent marketing schemes, drug dealing and corruption.

Recently, Kaur has pointed out that one of Yogi Bhajan's former assistants was an aide to former Gov. Bill Richardson. "Siri Trang Kaur is one of the younger women listed among the fifteen 'personal assistants' in Bhajan's trust," she wrote. "She's cut in for six percent of the distribution in the trust that's part of Bibiji's continuing legal dispute with the harem."

Siri Trang Kaur, who sometimes uses the last name Khalsa, is listed as an associate of Albuquerque political and public relations specialist Doug Turner in a firm called Policy and Positions. The company's website says she was the director of marketing for the firm that first brought Yogi Tea and other Golden Temple products to the market, worked as a foreign policy adviser in Richardson's 2008 presidential campaign, and that she is now "on assignment with the U.S. State Department in Afghanistan." She did not return an email seeking comment on this story.

Soni dismissed Kamalia Kaur's allegations: "We have resisted getting involved in that kind of silly debate. If she's got an ax to grind, she's got an ax to grind. If her experience is less than optimal, that's fine. ...

"What exactly is a cult? Every born-again community, whether it's Baptist, Anglican, Buddhist, every one of them is a cult. Cult, unfortunately, has a negative suggestion and implication."

Kaur is hardly the only former Yogi Bhajan disciple to break with 3HO. Guru Sant Singh Khalsa, who in 1982 unsuccessfully challenged the U.S. Department of Defense's rule banning servicemembers from wearing traditional Sikh garb, said he became disillusioned after visiting India and realizing that real Sikh culture was different than Yogi Bhajan had led him to believe.

Now living in Yuba City, Calif., Gura Sant said Yogi Bhajan's devotion to tantric yoga, astrology and other "new age" practices would be forbidden by traditional Sikhs, who also would abhor the "cult of personality" that sprung up around him. He recalled that Yogi Bhajan collected art that traditional Sikhs would consider pornographic and regularly slept in his room with one of his "secretaries" while his wife slept in another room.

As early as 1977, Time magazine took notice of rumors about Yogi Bhajan's assistants. "Bhajan has repeatedly been accused of being a womanizer," it said in a story about 3HO. "Colleen Hoskins, who worked seven months at his New Mexico residence, reports that men are scarcely seen there. He is served, she says, by a coterie of as many as 14 women, some of whom attend his baths, give him group massages, and take turns spending the night in his room while his wife sleeps elsewhere."

Dec 16, 2011

Alas poor Craniosacral. A SCAM of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

Mark Crislip
Science Based Medicine
December 16, 2011
It is hard to Sokalize alternative medicine. The closest has been buttock reflexology/acupuncture, but that is a tame example.  Given the propensity for projections of the human body to appear on the iris, hand, foot, tongue, and ear, postulating a similar pattern on the buttocks are simple variations on a common SCAM (Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine) theme. The buttocks?  Not really different from any of the other focal acupunctures.  Most of SCAM does not concern itself with application of reality  and physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, etc can all be expected to be ignored with virtually all SCAM modalities.

Every time I think the heights (or depths) of absurdity has been reached, I discover a Braco the Starer or Himalayan Salt Inhalers. This blog is not affiliated with the British Medical Journal in any way, and although this is being published near Christmas, I want no one think that what follows is a hoax.  I am not, I repeat not,  making up what follows. It is not fiction. Well, it is fiction, but not written by me and believed and practiced by some who really should know better.

Craniosacral Therapy

Like many SCAM modalities, from Reiki to Chiropractic,  Craniosacral Therapy (CST) was invented? discovered? fabricated? pulled out of the a..,  well, er, Drs Novella and Gorski want this to be a professional blog *, so lets say, a three letter word that starts with ‘a’. Air. It was pulled out of the air by William Garner Sutherland.

While a student at the American School of Osteopathy in 1899, Dr. Sutherland pondered the fine details of a separated or “disarticulated” skull. He wondered about the function of this complex architecture. Dr. Still taught that every structure exists because it performs a particular function. While looking at a temporal bone, a flash of inspiration struck Dr. Sutherland: “Beveled like the gills of a fish, indicating respiratory motion for an articular mechanism.

I guess  drug use was more popular than I thought back in the day. Maybe I am not able to get the right photograph of gills to see the connection. You? Do you see the connection, or do you lack the “unique genius” of  Dr. Sutherland ? Because the temporal bones are beveled like fish gills (!), the bones of the head are supposed to move relative to each other (!) with respiration (!).  That is the insight that lead to CST. I wonder if the abstract announcing his discovery would have been accepted at the  International Conference on Integrative Medicine.  It makes gluteal reflexology appear reasonable in comparison.

Dr. Sutherlands’ insight did not stop there.  He synthesized his observations into “The Primary Respiratory Mechanism”:

This Primary Respiratory Mechanism has five basic components:

1) The inherent rhythmic motion of the brain and spinal cord.
2) The fluctuation of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that bathes and nourishes the brain and spina l cord.
3) The shifting tensions of the membranous envelope (dura mater) surrounding the brain and spinal cord. This entire membranous structure acts as a unit and is called a “Reciprocal Tension Membrane.”
4) The inherent rhythmic motion of the cranial bones.
5) The involuntary motion of the sacrum (tailbone) between the ilia (hip bones).

I don’t know that means.  I read the words, I think about what I understand about anatomy and physiology, I reread the above and I got nothing. A word salad, it appears to be all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Repeat.  It is not meant to be fiction.

To make it more mysterious, or fanciful, the CSF has tides:

“1) the cranial rhythmic impulse; a more superficial rhythm expressed at an average rate of 8-12 cycles per minute,
2) the mid-tide; a tidal rhythm that carries ordering forces into the body expressed at a slower rate of approximately 2.5 cycles per minute and
3) the long tide; a deep and slow rhythmic impulse expressed about once every 100 seconds. The long tide is considered to be the first stirring of life and motion as the Breath of Life emerges from a deeper ground of stillness at the center of our being.”

I know topic was the death of MacBeth’s wife but Act 5, Scene 5, lines 26-28 keeps running in my head. It is an explanation of physiology that would be right at home on Dr. Oz’s site, but has no relationship to any known anatomy or physiology. Other explanations of the tides make no sense to me, containing nothing I can recognize as content amongst what appears to be a word salad.  Although I suspect CST would appeal to Bloodline aliens.

I do not think there is a SCAM where the practitioners deny the evidence in their hands.  There are videos of CST therapists saying that, unlike what is taught in medical school, the bones of the skull are not fused and articulate.  They say this with Yorick in their hands, a skull evidently never contemplated.  If you have ever held a skull in your hands, or been in a neurosurgical case,  it is evident that the cranium is notable for the rock solid joinings of bones.  The metaphor is thick skulled, is it not?  It is not fish-gilled skulled.

Acupuncturists may blather about meridians and homeopathists drivel on about the memory of water, but at least they do not hold the dis-confirming evidence in their hands, denying its existence.  I have seen patients deny an obvious tumor or the symptoms of advanced AIDS.  Look at that skull in your hands.  The bones do not move. To have a whole field of SCAM based on the denial of palpable reality is most curious.  As Marx said, sort of,  “Who are you going to believe, Sutherland or your lying eyes?”

What does a practitioner do with the insight that the CSF flows incorrectly and the cranial bones are out of wack? CST

“involves the practitioner “listening through the hands” to the body’s subtle rhythms and any patterns of inertia or congestion. Through the development of subtle palpatory skills the practitioner can read the story of the body, identify places where issues are held and then follow the natural priorities for healing as directed by the patient’s own physiology.”

As I gather from the gibberish of the YouTubes and CST sites, they push the bones of your skull back into place, alter and optimize the flow of CSF and make you better. I think.  Because nothing they say really makes any anatomic or physiologic sense:

The trained practitioner palpates for the sensation of resistance on the skin surface overlying the spine and cranium. Resistance is thought to be indicative of underlying CSF stasis, and following treatment, the absence of drag may indicate that the CSF stasis has been reduced.”

as one of a tedious series of examples.  They can feel the tides and CSF rhythms and alter them. They can change the tides, at least the CSF tides.  I am old school when it comes to altering tides: And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet.  But that is obvious, which is why it is an aphorism.

The cranial rhythmic impulse is an oscillation recognized by many bodywork practitioners, but the functional origin of this impulse remains uncertain. We propose that the cranial rhythmic impulse is the palpable perception of entrainment, a harmonic frequency that incorporates the rhythms of multiple biological oscillators. It is derived primarily from signals between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Entrainment also arises between organisms. The harmonizing of coupled oscillators into a single, dominant frequency is called frequency-selective entrainment. We propose that this phenomenon is the modus operandi of practitioners who use the cranial rhythmic impulse in craniosacral treatment.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously indeed.   Take an anatomy and physiology that does not exist, then postualte a mechanism of action.  At least in that respect there is not a difference between CST and acupuncture or homeopathy. Except quantum. Where is the quantum. We need quantum.

Practical Uses of Quantum Physics Concepts in CranioSacral Therapy

Adding a few new intentions to your hands-on work is quite simple. All you need to do is incorporate a few principles of quantum physics.
First, we direct our energy into hard, stiff or restricted areas of the client’s body.

Of course, I giggle like the immature person I am. I know. What an infant.  But I giggled a lot writing this entry; truly a field of infinite jest.  Of course, the only real parallel between CST and quantum of any kind are N-Rays, sharing identical reality.

Similar to other SCAMs, there is zero consistency in the ability of CST practitioners to feel the same tides in the same patients.

Two registered osteopaths, both with postgraduate training in diagnosis and treatment, using cranial techniques, palpated 11 normal healthy subjects.
Examiners simultaneously palpated for the CRI at the head and the sacrum of each subject. Examiners indicated the “full flexion” phase of the CRI by activating silent foot switches that were interfaced with a computer. Subject arousal was monitored using heart rate. Examiners were blind to each other’s results and could not communicate during data collection.
Reliability was estimated from calculation of intraclass correlation coefficients (2,1). Intrarater reliability for examiners at either the head or the sacrum was fair to good, significant intraclass correlation coefficients ranging from +0.52 to +0.73. Interexaminer reliability for simultaneous palpation at the head and the sacrum was poor to nonexistent, ICCs ranging from -0.09 to +0.31. There were significant differences between rates of CRI palpated simultaneously at the head and the sacrum.
The results fail to support the construct validity of the “core-link” hypothesis as it is traditionally held by proponents of craniosacral therapy and osteopathy in the cranial field.

Reproductively and the ability to consistently feel the tides has been refuted in more than one trial. King Canute they aren’t.

In reality what do CST practitioners do?  They lightly massage your head.  To treat everything from Downs to headache to PMS.  It is an all purpose diagnostic and therapeutic intervention, like all SCAMs.

There are no shortage of videos demonstrating the techniques of CST, one practitioner states she pushes the bones back into alignment with a 5 gram pressure, the weight of a nickel.  I do not think a nickles worth of pressure would move a skull bone a quantum amount,  not even if dropped off the Empire State Building.

Once I had a colleague (really, a colleague. Not me) who commented he liked to have hair cuts because the scalp massage with the wash and condition was very relaxing, and I will admit that lying on ones back while you head is massaged looks very pleasant, especially if it occurred in the middle of a busy work day and was paid for by Blue Cross.  If you had a process that was due, in part, from stress, I can see where a CST session would be most beneficial. I always return to the example of the relaxing effect of apes mutual grooming, although “in deference to one million years of human evolution, the therapist won’t try to pick fleas off his patient.” Or so one hopes.

I wrote the last paragraph before I did a Pubmed search on the topic.  Lets see if CST helps headaches independent of the incomprehensible blather that underpins the field.  I bet it will be helpful  for anything with a subjective endpoint and I bet that for hard endpoints, CST will do nothing.

There are 56 hits on the Pubmeds using Craniosacral therapy, and there are no even remotely well done studies using CST.  The most interesting predates the NEJM asthma article discussed at length at SBM.

In it:

Subjects were randomly assignment to one of five groups: acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture and craniosacral, attention control, and waiting list control.

Subjects received 12 sessions of equal length with pretreatment and posttreatment assessment of pulmonary function, asthma quality of life, depression, and anxiety. Medication use was also assessed.

Can you predict the results?  Yep.  Patients were subjectively improved, but their objective asthma was not better.

When treatment was compared with the control group, statistically treatment was significantly better than the control group in improving asthma quality of life, whereas reducing medication use with pulmonary function test results remained the same.

As one would expect from a relaxing head massage. Others are also less than enthusiastic about CST

Despite the structural integrity of the skull, CRT proponents insist “Eppur si muove“. And there is one time where the bones of the skull are moveable: after head trauma.  Then, perhaps, pushing on the skull, even 5 grams worth, may not he such a good idea.  I have seen enough trauma over the years to be cautious around breaks in human structural integrity.  Not so much with CST:

Although craniosacral manipulation has been found empirically useful in patients with traumatic brain injury, three cases of iatrogenesis occurred. The incidence rate is low (5%), but the practitioner must be prepared to deal with the possibility of adverse reactions.

Why do I think of the word “squelch” when I read the abstract; too much Joe Aberrcombie of late?  It turns out that the adverse reactions from CST are every bit as fanciful as beneficial effects:

These three cases represent a diversity of adverse reactions following craniosacral manipulation. The first patient had exacerbation of vertiginous symptoms during diagnostic evaluation alone. After sphenobasilar decompression, visceral symptoms involving cardiac, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems arose. This feature suggests either brain stem or vagal effects as a possible source of the symptom complex. The second patient had exacerbation of headache complaint, but, more important, a disturbing psychologic/psychiatric problem, necessitating psychiatric institutional care. The severe total body spastic reaction seen in the third patient continues to defy explanation. The possibility of a brain stem seizure triggered by stimulation of the upper cervical spine and cranial base or posttraumatic cervical dystonian remains plausible. Extensive evaluation failed to demonstrate a specific cause.

It is a tough economy, and jobs are scarce.  For 5 to 12 thousand dollars and 700 hours (150 if you are already a licensed massage therapist) you can be a CST provider.  That’s 88 days of education, about a semesters worth.  And then maybe you can practice at a University Medical Center. Like Ohio. Or Duke. And of course, Dr Oz  has offered CST, so you know it must be nonsense.

There are probably other institutions that offer the raging nonsense that is CRT, but I grow weary of the searching. But it should not be part of any University, since

…we believe that craniosacral therapy bears approximately the same relationship to real medicine that astrology bears to astronomy. That is, this approach to “health care” is medical fiction, and it is not appropriate to teach fiction as part of medical or allied health curricula.

I wonder if Duke or Ohio are going to offer astrological readings or have John Edwards as a Visiting Lecturer.  It would only be a lateral step, not a step backwards.  Seriously.  If your local Hospital or University offers CST, go elsewhere.  They have a demonstrated commitment to the irreparably goofy.

To sum up: CST now beats Braco the starer.  I don’t think The Onion could do better.


*I remain uncertain as to why the editors let these posts through.

Dec 4, 2011

The money I poured into a religious sect

Heather Siegel
December 4, 2011

My sister said Kabbalah helped her cope with our mother's death. Would it work for me?

Twelve years ago, in staccato breaths, my sister came home to our bachelorette apartment and told me she'd had a breakthrough at a Kabbalah establishment in Manhattan over the loss of our mother. She'd been taking courses for a few months and, in a private meeting with the rabbi, at his suggestion, Jas simultaneously screamed and tapped her heart chakra when she heard a crack and felt a gush of pain. In that instant all her buried emotions erupted forth  things she'd never allowed herself to feel. Then she felt forgiveness, acceptance and finally peace.

It all sounded so hokey, and yet I couldn't help feeling envious. I wanted to experience that gush of emotions. I signed up for the course, along with my brother, Greg and his soon to be wife, Lauren. Tuesday nights, we carpooled into Manhattan together, and scribbled furiously in our notebooks as Rabbi Jehudi, with his thick beard and tailored suit, explained to us  and the 60 other emotionally stunted people who'd paid a few hundred dollars for the class  that we couldn't play the game of life well until we'd learned the rules.

Rabbi Jehudi instructed us to 'scan' the 72 Names of God by running our finger from right to left over a photocopied chart of Hebrew letters. These letters, we were told, included all the 'sequences of DNA consciousness' that provide healing, success, protection and fulfillment in every aspect of our lives.

It took yogic concentration to keep a straight face, but I somehow managed, even with Greg's elbow jabbing at my side. With the rest of the class I ran my finger over the laminated page from right to left, blocking from my mind that I did not read Hebrew, and focusing on the idea that the physical connection was enough. Whether it was because Id skipped dinner, or because I was less cynical than I'd thought, I cant say, but in that instant what I can only describe as a zap of electricity coursed through me, and I was all but sold.

After a few months of taking courses, I started going to Shabbat at the rabbis house in Queens. The room was split in half with folding partitions. Thirty women sat on one side, 40 men on the other. The men wore all white. The women wore wigs and skirts. I was told that the separation wasnt anti-feminist; if anything, women were thought to be on a higher spiritual plane, and men were the lowly beings who sorely needed to hear the prayers  without the distraction of looking at women.

My 28th birthday I spent dipping myself into a Mikveh tub at the Manhattan complex. The room was a sort of spa, with lockers, showers and a small round pool. Jas stood at the edge with me, and scanned the prayer that was taped to the wall. We dropped our towels and immersed ourselves in the magical water, dunking our heads 20-something times, and letting the water absorb all of our negative energy. Afterward, I felt lighter, and lightheaded. I also couldnt stop laughing. What the hell were we doing?

And yet, except for the occasional head-rearing of self-awareness, I had grown as superstitious as my fellow practitioners. The basic premises of the classes  that I needed to take responsibility for my life, and that everything is cause and effect  weighed heavily on me. What had I done to warrant locking my keys in my car during a snowstorm? What did it mean that Id cut my finger while chopping onions? Was this rash on my arm really due to gossiping (apparently all skin conditions were)? What could I do to rid my life of chaos?

I wanted to balance my tikkun, or souls correction that Id inherited from my parents and from my past lives.

For $2,000, I booked a room and meal package at the Marriot Marquis for Rosh Hashanah Event 2000. Thousands of people from all over the world attended, including, of course, Madonna (as well as Marla Maples, and Monica Lewinsky). As the Shofar mooed, I leaned my head back and saw a speck of blue light. It grew to the size of a nickel and began to pulse like a very large heart. Later, the Hevrahs, full-time Kabbalah volunteers, congratulated me. Blue was healing light, and I must be on a high spiritual plane to see such light.

But was I actually feeling better? To be honest, I wasnt sure. To know if Kabbalah was working, the rabbi had told us, just take stock of your life. Have you changed your movie? My movie was pretty much the same since Id started Kabbalah. I was still far too susceptible to outside influences, although I fancied myself wiser. And that unpredictable sadness still crept in from time to time, and left me stunned. At the beach, watching a mother and daughter walk along the shore together  seeing the way their hips and calves were shaped the same, the younger and the older versions of the same woman  I lost it.

Driving to the cafe I owned one afternoon, I decided to give it my best shot. I rolled up my windows, screamed and tapped my chest. Nothing happened. Nothing cracked open. Deciding that my technique was lacking, I called the establishment and arranged a private meeting with the rabbi; he wasnt available but his wife, Rebecca, also a teacher there, offered to see me later in the week.

Sitting at her desk, littered with picture frames of her five children, Rebecca played with a strand of her brown wig, and listened to my complaints about my mild depression with a scowl on her face. When I mentioned how I was struggling to come to terms with my mothers death, she asked why I chose to come down to a mother who would die. She also told me I needed to stop worrying so much about myself, and start thinking about other people.

I began tithing. I offered my cafe as an additional place to hold classes. The place was primarily a night spot, and so in the mornings, Rebecca ran a womens group on Tuesdays, and Rabbi Jehudi used the place for an office on the other days. I gave him the key, and the alarm code, and when he told me he really needed a laptop, I gave him my computer. A few weeks later, when he told me that the PC didnt really have the functionality he needed, I gave him $1,100 towards a Mac.

At the establishment, I took more classes: the study of irises, auras, palms and faces. The rabbi showed photocopied faces of strangers. Could we tell which faces were humanitarians, and which were SS officers? The humanitarians had perfect symmetry to their faces. The SS officers had asymmetrical faces, and too much sclarel show  too much white showing in the eyes  a telltale sign of a murderer.

From there, I squinted and stared at unsuspecting people, at the bank  the movies, the diner  and tried to get a glimpse of their auras. (The most effective way to do this was to stare at a person as he stood against a white wall, since auras have many colors.) On dates, I studied lines on mens faces  as well as my own (my forehead lines showed sexual issues)  and tried to discern who would be a spiritual mate, even though Rebecca had told me that women were the spiritual pioneers in the relationship, the vessels to receive the channels.

I volunteered for Meal on Wheels, Big Brother Big Sisters and Fish, a senior citizen driving program. I mailed money orders to people anonymously, planted trees, mailed checks to any organization that asked for a donation  it was, after all an opportunity to give  and never walked through Manhattan without spare change and singles in my coat pockets.

One afternoon, Jas called to apologize for forgetting to leave her half of the mortgage, and told me to write the check myself from her checkbook. It was then that I realized how many, many thousands and thousands of dollars she had been giving. Seeing all those numbers back to back did not sit right with me. I called Greg and told him that I was starting to suspect that the three of us might be brainwashed.

Starting to suspect? He laughed, and mimicked a robot, I Am Not Brainwashed. Must Give More Money Or My Soul Will Melt.

The first of the three of us, he had no choice but to disentangle himself; as a struggling musician back then, he simply couldnt afford to keep up.

I went next. The money issue was certainly a huge part of my reluctance to continue, though I have since learned that not all Kabbalah institutions charge; in fact, there are many ways to study Kabbalah for free. I just so happened to pick a place that put a great deal of emphasis on money. The bigger problem was that I had somehow lost my own voice in the process.

Sept. 11 would shake me loose. On that morning as I was waiting for the Tuesday womens group to start, Rose, one of the group members, walked in and told me to turn on the radio. I did. Then I rushed to Gregs apartment, the nearest place, to turn on the television. Dumbfounded, we sat together watching the news that afternoon, like the rest of the country.

The following week, Rebecca showed up at the cafe, and gave the womens group her take on 9/11. She told us that for some time now, New York City had been a vortex of selfishness, self-absorption and intolerance, and that everyone who died called their death into their lives. I looked around the room, and saw faces that were having a hard time accepting that interpretation. I definitely was. While I still had respect for the core principles of the study, it was time to stop deifying others and trust my own thoughts  however selfish they may be.

Oct 26, 2011

Kabbalah Centre: Marketing Superstition as Spirituality?

Rabbi Arthur Green
Huffington Post
October 26, 2011

The Los Angeles Times this week published a thorough and well-researched expose of the Kabbalah Centre.

As a student and teacher of Kabbalah and Hasidism for more than 50 years, I have been watching this travesty unfold. It now apparently is reaching its denouement. Along with many others who study Kabbalah, both within the academic world and beyond it, I have been hesitant to speak out publicly against the Bergs' empire because of their reputation for suing anyone who rises up against them. Unfortunately, some of my academic colleagues, fascinated by the numbers attracted to the Kabbalah Centre, have lent to them a certain legitimatizing cachet.

The truth is that the Kabbalah Centres are a bizarre combination of well-intentioned religious outreach and sheer hucksterism. Philip Berg, whom I met back before he became famous, was indeed a student of authentic Jerusalem Kabbalists of the Ashlag school. He decided in the 1980s to proclaim himself a rebbe or spiritual master. I do not think this was a cynical move from the beginning. Berg probably thought he was doing good by bringing Kabbalah to the masses. He looked around and saw the popularity of all sorts of eastern spirituality, attracting many Jewish followers among others, and decided that the turn of Kabbalah had come. He would simplify the abstruse teachings and make them accessible to those without his learning, allowing for a broad following.

The problem is that Berg went for the worst rather than the best within the Kabbalistic tradition. His own teachers had been interested in an otherworldly meditational system, one focused on restoring energies directed toward cosmic tikkun, or repair, leading toward messianic redemption. One may believe in this or not, but it is surely high-minded. But Kabbalah had always had a more popular and practical side, one that leaned close to magic. It was this part of the system that Berg peddled. His promises of success in love, business and other realms to those who drank his "holy" water, or stared, even without comprehension, at his highly priced books, were sheer nonsense. This is the worst of Kabbalah, preying on people's fantasies and fears. These claims would have horrified Berg's teachers, and he must have known that.

What Berg figured out is that superstition and the insecurities that attract people to it did not disappear with modernity. They exist in Hollywood just as much as in poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem. You just need to know how to market them. At this he became a genius. He took his outrageous promises and bundled them together with the sort of self-help advice one can readily find in many books sold in airport bookstores. To these he joined some light bits of true Kabbalistic learning. He wrapped them all up in bundles of red string, making an old Eastern European talisman, used mostly for keeping witches away from babies' cribs, a new identifying symbol for his "Kabbalists," most of whom had no real idea of what the Jewish mystical tradition was all about.

He did two more things that were revolutionary from his teachers' point of view. He opened study of Kabbalah and participation in its rites both to women and to non-Jews. One might think this to be praiseworthy. Many of us would like to see Kabbalah brought "out of the closet" and made accessible. Some of my own writings seek to do exactly that. But in Berg's case one has the sense that this was largely a commercial decision. There were more women than men wanting to learn what he had to teach and willing to pay for it. This is true of all the self-help literature and the following of many gurus in that field. But once he was willing to cross the bigger line of welcoming non-Jews to his fold, he really had struck gold. Thousands of seekers, many of them confused or disillusioned Christians, ex-Mormons and so forth, swelled his ranks. They were undoubtedly more awed than some of his Jewish followers, and more willing to pay.

The sad part of this story is that it represents a thorough mixing of goodness and cynicism. Many people testify that their lives were set straight by loyalty to the Kabbalah Centre, that they were freed from addictions, brought back from depression, or even just redeemed from the triviality of Hollywood and its values. Who could not thank the Bergs for the positive effect they have had on the lives of so many? But in the end, hucksterism seems to have won out. The "evil urge" is a pretty slippery character, especially when big money becomes involved. The Kabbalah Centre's founders and leaders, especially in creating a dynasty, have taken the reputation of an ancient and noble tradition and have sullied it for their own gain. Kabbalah deserves better.

Oct 18, 2011

Celebrities gave Kabbalah Centre cachet, and spurred its growth

Harriet Ryan and Kim Christensen
Los Angeles Times
October 18, 2011

The heightened profile of the L.A.-based Kabbalah Centre popularizing previously secret Jewish mysticism came with a continued emphasis on soliciting donations, sometimes in ways some found offensive. Then the IRS stepped in.

When Philip Berg decided in the early 1970s to teach kabbalah to the masses, he predicted that orthodox rabbis would stone him and his wife, Karen. For a long time, that seemed a pompous overstatement. Few people had even heard of the kabbalah school they ran out of their living room in Jerusalem and later in Queens.

But Philip knew that revealing the secrets of the Torah to any Jew who wanted to learn them -- spiritual teachings once open only to elite rabbinical scholars -- would be controversial. It also proved wildly popular.

Two decades later, the Kabbalah Centre had become an empire with branches in major cities, a publishing arm and scores of passionate young volunteers. Then in March 1990, the center caught the attention of a council of rabbis in Toronto. They didn't stone the Bergs, but they publicly disputed the validity of Philip's teachings of ancient Jewish mysticism and took exception to the center's aggressive fundraising.

"We have become aware of a group of young men promulgating the sale of so-called kabbalistic literature and of their establishment of classes in this topic," the rabbis wrote to the city's orthodox community. "We categorically state that the group known as the Centre for Kabbalah Research is not approved nor endorsed by the undersigned rabbis."

The letter was circulated among Jewish groups around the world. In Jewish enclaves where the center had long gone door-to-door soliciting donations, there was sudden hostility. People ordered members off their front porches and sometimes out of their neighborhoods. The repercussions reached the Bergs' two sons, who were students at an orthodox yeshiva in New York. Their teachers told them to abandon their father, according to a former member who at the time was close to the family.

The rabbis' denunciation might have been fatal to a more traditional Jewish organization. But the Kabbalah Centre taught that the closer a person drew to the light -- God -- the more the forces of darkness would target him. Followers saw the criticism as proof that the Bergs were on the right spiritual path. They hailed them as prophets.

Members of the chevre, the center's religious order, discussed the intense level of spiritual development one would need just to be Karen's assistant and lined up to eat Philip's leftovers as a way to show their devotion, former members said. The center's synagogues around the world had special chairs for the Bergs' exclusive use, even though they might visit only once a year.

It became standard practice to address the Bergs in the third person. "Does Karen want water?" followers would ask her. "How is the rav today?" they would inquire of Philip.

A large painting at the Toronto branch showed Philip in what struck one visitor as a classic Christian pose: Jesus leaning against a rock.

"It was the very same picture, except it was the rav's face," recalled Dorothy Clark, whose husband, Kenneth, helped Philip write books that sought to popularize kabbalah.

An inner circle of very wealthy donors -- the "close people" as they were known at the center -- gave hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars in tax-deductible tithes and donations. Big donors were rewarded with seats at the Bergs' table at Sabbath meal, invitations to intimate prayer services and personal conversations. Those who grumbled were chastised by officials or other students.

"When you brought up something about the family, they would tell you it clearly shows you have an opening in your consciousness for Satan," said a former longtime member who grew disillusioned and left the center but did not want to be named because relatives are still members. "Clearly you are not doing enough to get the light."

Adored inside their organization, the Bergs continued to be vilified outside. Rabbis in Israel, Philadelphia and Queens condemned them publicly. At a religious conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, an orthodox rabbi gave a speech criticizing the center's practices and Philip's "scandalous" personal life, an allusion to the breakup of his first marriage. The center responded with a defamation suit, which it later dropped.

L.A. headquarters

The Bergs were spending more time in Los Angeles, running the center from a converted 100-year-old Spanish-style church on Robertson Boulevard. The location, which became the center's world headquarters in 1998, was near the heart of the city's orthodox community, but more significant was its proximity to Westside neighborhoods the entertainment industry calls home.

The first celebrity drawn to the Kabbalah Centre was Sandra Bernhard, who began studying in 1995. Bernhard was a raunchy stand-up comic who'd posed nude for Playboy. She dove into kabbalah classes with a charismatic Israeli teacher, Eitan Yardeni. She was effusive in the media about kabbalah, which she said had eliminated "at least 80% of the chaos in my life." In her Hollywood circle, she was a one-woman marketing campaign for Yardeni and the center.

"Sandra told me that I would love him, and that he was for real, and righteous," Roseanne Barr wrote in her memoir "Roseannearchy." Both comedians are Jewish, but other people Bernhard recruited were not.

In the Bergs' decades of challenging tradition, the center had remained fundamentally Jewish. The conflict with the orthodox establishment had always turned on whether kabbalah study was permissible for certain Jews -- women and men without yeshiva training. Gentiles were never even a consideration, and were a rare and generally unwelcome presence, according to former members. Gentiles at Sabbath services were expected to stay in the back and not participate.

"We had to be careful to avoid contamination," said former student Michel Obadia, recalling the concern over a "non-Jewish eye" witnessing the blessing of wine.

That changed with the arrival of Bernhard's diverse circle. Gentiles flocked to an introductory course she arranged in Manhattan.

"Non-Jews are welcome at this class," the New York Times declared in 1996 in one of several news stories that saw a hot, new trend in the scene of a yarmulke-wearing teacher from the center instructing a crowd of actors, models and designers.

It was difficult for some former disciples to square the ecumenical approach with the Kabbalah Centre they had known.

Jeremy Langford, an early follower who left the center in 1984 over concerns about its authenticity, said reports about gentile celebrities attending classes confirmed his belief that the Bergs were teaching "pop, light, quasi New Age, ersatz kabbalah."

Nothing garnered bigger headlines for the center than the arrival of Madonna. She enrolled at the L.A. center in 1996 at Bernhard's suggestion.

"It didn't really matter that I was, you know, raised Catholic or I wasn't Jewish and I felt very comfortable and I liked being anonymous in a classroom environment," she told television personality Larry King in 1999.

To the surprise of her detractors, Madonna stuck with her studies. She attended Sabbath services, had one-on-one study sessions with Yardeni, enrolled her daughter in the center's Sunday school and chose a Hebrew name, Esther.

The Kabbalah Centre suddenly had cachet among the rich and famous, and through them entree to a wider audience. Yardeni was at ease with big names and egos, and the Bergs tapped him as their Hollywood emissary. He had once worked as a door-to-door chevre and had a humility and directness that the powerful and well-connected found refreshing, and he was willing to accommodate busy schedules with private lessons.

"I thought Eitan was very, very bright and a very good spiritual teacher," said talent manager and producer Sandy Gallin, who first heard Yardeni speak at Barr's home. He said one-on-one tutoring with Yardeni taught him "to take the high road and to understand there is a greater power than you."

The list of celebrities attracted to the center grew to include Elizabeth Taylor, Gwyneth Paltrow, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

Yardeni held exclusive sessions at Westside mansions. Producer Christine Peters hosted one that drew entertainment figures that included her then-boyfriend, Viacom Executive Chairman Sumner Redstone.

"He was so wonderful," said Cindra Ladd, wife of former 20th Century Fox President Alan Ladd Jr., recalling classes she attended at a Pacific Palisades home. She said Yardeni would begin by reading from the Zohar and the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, in Hebrew and English. He would relate stories about Moses and other biblical figures to daily life. Topics included how to achieve lasting fulfillment, how to transform oneself "in the light of God" and how to refrain from gossip.

"That was the hardest one for everyone," Ladd joked.

Yardeni's teachings about finding meaning beyond the material had a special appeal to those in her circle, said Ladd, who was raised a Mormon.

"A lot of times people in this town who are very successful are left with a feeling of 'Is this all there is?'" she said.

Tax exemption

The heightened profile of kabbalah meant enormous growth, but precisely how much is difficult to say. The parent organization, Kabbalah Centre International, was granted tax-exempt status as a church in 1999 and stopped filing returns.

The center's assets grew from $20 million in 1998, the year after Madonna went public with her ties to kabbalah, to more than $260 million by 2009, according to the resume of a former chief financial officer and tax returns the center and affiliated organizations filed before becoming exempt.

The center's revenue sources include fees for classes and sales of merchandise such as candles, red-string bracelets that the center says will ward off evil, and bottled water long touted as having healing powers.

Soliciting donations remained a focus of the Bergs and other ranking leaders. Major donors to the center or its affiliated nonprofits include Madonna, whose foundation has reported giving more than $10 million, and fashion designer Donna Karan, whose foundation has reported giving at least $2 million.

A prominent filmmaker said that after a few lessons with Yardeni, he received an unannounced visit from another official. You are a rich man and you should be giving millions, the filmmaker recalled being told. He said he ordered the man off his property. The filmmaker asked not to be named for fear of offending industry colleagues still involved with the center.

There also was pressure on less well-off students. George Cabral, a welder in Melbourne, Australia, who participated in a class on Skype, said that when he cut his $100 weekly tithe in half to pay bills, his teacher was furious. The man told him to write "I'm in debt to the cosmos" on a piece of paper each day. Instead, he quit.

Some requests came directly from the Bergs, as in the case of a wealthy Calabasas family who turned to the center after their matriarch was found to have cancer.

Samuel Raoof, a former Kabbalah Centre student, said his parents were invited to join the Bergs at their table after Sabbath services in 2000 or 2001. Raoof, chief executive of a skin-care company, said his parents returned to their own table and told him what happened: Philip had urged them to commission a Torah for the center to "help cure" his mother's cancer.

Philip did not mention money, Raoof said his parents told him. But later, the couple's teacher visited the father at his office, repeated the claim about the Torah's curative powers and requested a $100,000 donation to have a scribe write the scrolls, Raoof said.

Raoof said his father, a physician, was infuriated and refused the request. Raoof said the teacher, who had grown close to his mother, then went to a clinic where she was receiving chemotherapy and persuaded her to give about half the amount.

Raoof said his father eventually paid the rest, hoping the Torah dedication ceremony might provide his wife some final joy with family and friends. Month after month, the family was told the Torah wasn't ready, according to Raoof.

After his mother died in 2004, Raoof said, the family was told by letter that its donations had gone to the center's general fund, not for a Torah.

The center eventually agreed to create a Torah, Raoof said. The family ultimately rejected the offer and asked for their money back, which the center refused, he said.

Raoof showed The Times copies of four canceled checks from late 2003 and early 2004, drawn on his parents' account and made out to the Kabbalah Centre, totaling $107,000. The word "Torah" appears in the memo field on three of the checks.

The elder Raoof declined to discuss the matter but confirmed his son's account.

How much of the center's money made its way to the Bergs is unknown.

Their lifestyle changed markedly after the celebrity influx, however. Billy Phillips, a longtime family friend, said the Bergs had previously lived like paupers with no privacy in simple accommodations at the Robertson Boulevard center, which followers considered beneath their status.

"People had been begging to give them houses," Phillips said.

In the mid-2000s, the Kabbalah Centre bought three houses side by side in Beverly Hills for the couple and their two sons. The homes on South Almont Drive are relatively modest by Beverly Hills standards, with appraised values of up to $1.8 million each.

"They are far from being mansions," said Naftali Gruberger, a Brooklyn cabinetmaker and one of Philip's sons from his first marriage. "My house is bigger than that."

Birthday parties for Philip were elaborate affairs, including one in 2003 at a Hollywood Hills mansion where Michael Buble and Madonna serenaded the guest of honor.

Donors lined up to cover the cost of the parties and other luxuries, demonstrations of loyalty that assured a place in the inner circle, former members said. Gifts included private plane rides, jewelry and trips to Europe and Mexico, they said. Supporters defend such gifts as expressions of gratitude.

"If there's a really rich student, very wealthy, and he wants to cover someone's car lease and that's the way he gives, are you going to insult him and not take the gift?" Phillips said.

Arthur "Archie" Falkenstein, a Toronto volunteer who worked closely with the Bergs, said, "Everything they have is donated or bought for them.

"Show me one spiritual leader in the world who had not been given gifts," he said.

Some former associates say the Bergs made gambling trips to Las Vegas, where the center has a branch, and that the couple sometimes stayed at Caesars Palace and other casino-hotels on the Strip. They were frequent enough players to receive complimentary meals, rooms and limousine rides from the airport, according to three people who said they had gambled in Las Vegas with the Bergs.

One of the three recalled an occasion when Karen played craps at Caesars with a stack of $100 chips while Philip watched "like a bystander."

A second former member described casino trips when both Bergs played blackjack at the $100 table. The man said IRS agents investigating the center's finances had recently questioned him about the Bergs' gambling and that he had given them the same account he gave The Times.

The Bergs were staying at the Bellagio in September 2004 when Philip suffered a stroke, said people who were in Las Vegas with them. It was a devastating blow for followers who had been taught that the truly spiritual could conquer illness. The community rallied with round-the-clock Zohar readings outside his hospital room.

Philip, who began using a wheelchair and had difficulty communicating, could no longer lead the center.

Succession debate

The issue of a successor was debated at a 2007 meeting of the chevre in Boca Raton, Fla. The obvious candidates were the Bergs' sons: Yehuda, an outgoing jokester who favored baseball caps over yarmulkes and interrupted spiritual lessons to announce the Lakers score, or his younger brother, Michael, an introverted scholar who had a close friendship with Madonna.

The sons, both in their 30s, were well liked, but some followers did not see them as mature enough to lead. Karen was urged not to step aside, said two people who attended the meeting. She and her sons are co-directors of the center, but Karen, 68, is chief executive of the parent organization, Kabbalah Centre International, and is identified as "spiritual leader."

As the center continued to court Hollywood -- Yardeni officiated at the wedding of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore in 2005, Yehuda Berg threw a paparazzi-mobbed book party at Kitson's flagship store on Robertson -- it seemed to de-emphasize Judaism more than ever.

"You don't have to stop being Catholic to study kabbalah. You can be both," a member from Miami said in a marketing video that claimed the center's teachings were "known to Jesus" and applicable to "those of no faith."

Some longtime members became upset about what they perceived as Madonna's outsize influence. After the singer adopted a son from Malawi, she and Michael Berg co-founded a children's charity with offices at the center. The cause seemed worthy, but difficult for some to reconcile with the center's teaching that donations should be confined to efforts that spread the Zohar.

"Everything changed once Madonna began to study," said Barr, the comedian. "Madonna had great intentions, and has done a lot of good things in the world, but her fame was so immense that there was no way that God or kabbalah or the rav or Karen Berg or heaven and Earth could remain the same in the face of it."

After Philip's stroke, a number of major donors and celebrities, including Barr and Bernhard, left the center. Norton Cher, a New York apparel manufacturer who said he donated about $400,000 over a decade, said he and his wife disliked what they saw as Karen's all-business approach.

"It just got too commercial," he said. "The people there just wanted more and more and more. We kind of decided we don't need a broker: When we want to talk to God, we'll do it ourselves."

The disaffection spread. The empire the Bergs had built over four decades suddenly seemed vulnerable.

Shaul Youdkevitch and his wife, Osnat, high-ranking chevre who had been with the center since the 1980s, departed in 2008. "The magic was gone; the love turned to confusion, cynicism and bitterness," Youdkevitch wrote in a blog post addressed to "dear friends" at the center.

He said that after complaining that Karen had too much power, "we were presented with an ultimatum -- to have us agree that Karen Berg possessed Ru'ah HaKodesh -- Holy Spirit (total obedience to every decision of hers) or that we could no longer work within the Kabbalah Centre."

"Biblical law has never allowed any human being to be above the law and above constructive criticism," Youdkevitch wrote.

The dispute became ugly. A lawyer for the couple sent a seven-page letter to Karen detailing the money they had brought to the center and demanding $7 million for their three decades of unpaid work. The center had 72 hours to respond, the lawyer wrote, or the Youdkevitches would ask authorities to investigate its finances.

The center called the couple's bluff and sued them, alleging that a kabbalah group the Youdkevitches had started nearby was unfairly competing with the center and using its trademarks and trade secrets. After months of legal wrangling, the center dropped the suit.

Many longtime "close people" who had provided donations and companionship were gone. Increasingly, Karen leaned on Moshe "Muki" Oppenheimer, an Israeli management consultant. Oppenheimer's forceful presence, at a time when Philip was less visible, became a topic of conversation.

Rumors of an affair between the two became public in June 2010 when the New York Post's Page Six gossip column published a denial from a Kabbalah Centre spokesman. The paper called the allegations "a false story" and quoted a center insider who blamed a disgruntled ex-member for trying to create "a scandal that could destroy the Kabbalah organization."

The gossip was beaten back, but a greater threat to the organization was about to emerge.

Allegation of fraud

In August 2010, Nicholas Vakkur complained that he was fired as chief financial officer after less than three months because he had uncovered income tax fraud at the center.

"This is very serious business," Vakkur wrote in an email that circulated among center officials. "I have little choice but to cooperate with the IRS and bring down the entire Kabbalah Centre."

Months later, the criminal division of the IRS launched its investigation, focused in part on whether the Bergs enriched themselves with members' donations. Prosecutors subpoenaed financial records from the center and two affiliated charities with links to Madonna.

Among those the IRS agents interviewed were former employees and ex-members. Those questioned in recent months said investigators possessed an impressive knowledge of the Bergs' world, right down to the name of a casino host who arranged free hotel rooms for the couple in Las Vegas.

Celebrity followers have gone silent. Less famous adherents continue to defend the Bergs.

"They have spent their whole lives spreading kabbalah and trying to help people," said Falkenstein, the Toronto volunteer.

Phillips, the longtime friend who participates in a weekly scripture study that the 82-year-old Philip attends, said it is inconceivable that the family has done anything wrong.

"When it comes to honesty, integrity," he said, the Bergs are "infallible -- or they are not kabbalists and there is no Torah.",0,4137283.htmlstory

Oct 16, 2011

Couple's success spreading kabbalah yields to discord, tax probe

Harriet Ryan and Kim Christensen
Los Angeles Times
October 16, 2011

Philip and Karen Berg, founders of the L.A.-based Kabbalah Centre, set out to make secret Jewish mysticism available to the public. But former followers are now critics, and the IRS is investigating.

Philip Berg's new wife was young, beautiful and worldly, everything that he, a middle-aged orthodox rabbi, wasn't. Karen Berg could be pushy too. She brought a television into their home over his objections. She tossed out his traditional black fur hat, and pressured him to teach ancient Jewish mysticism -- known as kabbalah -- to the public.

'Men and women together?' Philip said.

'Yeah, sure, men and women,' she replied.

Philip understood how radical her proposition was. For centuries, elite rabbinical scholars -- all of them men -- had guarded like rare gems the spiritual secrets believed to be encoded in the Torah. Karen was an outsider to this culture. Entrepreneurial and unimpressed by religious authority, she saw no reason why such valuable teachings shouldn't be offered on the open market.

'Let's give it to the people,' she insisted.

Philip was torn between tradition and his soul mate. He chose Karen.

That conversation four decades ago, recounted by Karen in videos and in a book she wrote, set the course for their lives. Once so poor that they shopped at thrift stores, slept in cramped rooms above a Queens synagogue and studied scripture on a pingpong table, the Bergs gradually turned their spiritual vision into the Kabbalah Centre, a worldwide organization with headquarters in Los Angeles, branches in dozens of countries and assets estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The centers teachings about God, happiness and the meaning of life drew a passionate following that included big names in film, fashion and music. Devotees treated the couple as if they were gods. Some considered it an honor to eat Philips table scraps. They addressed Karen in the third person and showered the couple with gifts, including couture handbags and spa vacations. The Bergs stayed in luxury hotels, traveled by private jet and took gambling trips to Las Vegas, according to former members of their inner circle.

The Kabbalah Centre prospered, but eventually its success proved divisive, and harmony gave way to public discord. The Bergs lifestyle was questioned, their finances scrutinized. Friends became enemies, supporters fell silent. In recent months, IRS agents investigating the centers finances pored over records and questioned the Bergs followers.

Philip had always sensed that Karens idea of kabbalah for the people would stir vehement opposition. Were probably going to get killed, he warned her during that conversation 40 years ago. Were probably going to get stoned.

A devout religious upbringing

Philip Berg was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn, two months before the stock market crash of 1929. His family was devoutly religious. Their neighborhood, Williamsburg, filled with Hasidic Jews fleeing Europe. A thorough Torah education was a given and Philip began his at age 3. He attended ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and was ordained a rabbi in 1951.

As a young man, he turned away from full-time religious studies. He later wrote that he had become profoundly disillusioned by my religion as it had been taught to me, but he also needed to support his wife, Rivkah, and their young family. The couple would eventually have eight children. He Americanized his name and became a salesman for New York Life Insurance Co., a position family friend Billy Phillips said afforded him a chauffeured Cadillac and good cigars. In the early 60s, Philip went to Israel, where he was introduced to kabbalah by his wifes uncle, a renowned scholar named Yehuda Brandwein. Kabbalah entranced Philip. Unlike yeshiva, often dominated by debates about the minutiae of Jewish law, kabbalah focused on lifes existential questions: Why am I here? How can I be happy?

Brandwein, who ran a Jerusalem yeshiva, was Philips spiritual guide to the mystical world that would become his lifelong devotion.

The Hebrew word for received, kabbalah holds that the first five books of the Bible contain hidden lessons. Kabbalists believe God revealed this wisdom to Moses along with the Ten Commandments. That knowledge, they believe, was passed down orally until the 13th century, when it was published in a series of books known as the Zohar.

Some Jewish scholars regarded with suspicion kabbalahs preoccupation with astrology, reincarnation and a world of unseen forces. Others, including Philip, saw it as Judaism at its purest.

Returning to Brooklyn, he opened his insurance office at night to orthodox Jews for the study of the Zohar. In 1965, with the help of another student and an elderly, impoverished scholar, Levi Krakovsky, Philip set up the National Institute for Research in Kabbalah, a forerunner of the Kabbalah Centre.

In a tiny apartment so crammed with books that he could have only one visitor at a time, Krakovsky translated the Zohar and other texts into English. He yearned to spread the teachings, but like other scholars before him, he was confounded by an inherent contradiction in kabbalah: It taught that the Messiah would appear only when the world embraced its wisdom. Yet only Jewish men, 40 or older and with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah and Jewish customs, were permitted to study it.

Krakovksy lugged his handwritten manuscripts around Brooklyn in a suitcase, searching for an audience. He died in 1966, never having found a publisher. Years later, his heirs claimed that Philip had stolen some of his manuscripts. They sued, accusing Philip of publishing the translations under his own name to make money and to falsely enhance [his] stature ... as a great Kabbalah teacher.

Philip denied the allegations.

The case went to trial in Manhattan federal court, but just as the jury was to begin deliberations, the center reached a confidential settlement with Krakovskys family.

Whether or not he stole Krakovskys work, Philip inherited his desire to expand kabbalahs reach. That ambition might have remained unrealized had he not hired a gum-smacking 16-year-old named Kathy Mulnick as a receptionist.

Oft-told tale of couples meeting

The Bergs romance is the Kabbalah Centres creation story, and the family has told and retold it in books, videos, religious services and media interviews. Verifying it has proved difficult. Many of those involved, including Philips first wife, are dead. The Bergs declined to talk to The Times.

Raised by a single mother in postwar Brooklyn, Kathy Mulnick was a self-described wild child who could take care of herself. She attended 13 different schools, and would later tell friends she couldnt read until she was 9. Later in life, after she changed her name to Karen, she regaled friends with stories of the toughness bred by her chaotic youth.

Her family was Jewish, Karen has said. But they were assimilated and ignorant of even the most sacred parts of the religion. In a 2009 interview with the Jerusalem Post, she recalled a family tradition of enjoying a big meal on Yom Kippur, the day of fasting and atonement. Her job at Philips insurance office exposed her to the world of religious Jews who observed the Sabbath and kept kosher.

She has written that as a high school student, she had nothing in common with her boss, a 31-year-old with a wife and children. In fact, I disliked the man, she wrote in God Wears Lipstick, a 2005 book subtitled Kabbalah for Women. 

After six months, she quit.

At 17, she married a man from her neighborhood. They had two daughters, built a contracting business and eventually divorced. After they separated, she decided to call an old friend in Philips office. At the end of the conversation, she asked the woman to say hello to Philip for her. It had been eight years since she had seen him.

Not 10 minutes later, my phone rang, she wrote.

It was Philip. They chatted and their conversation turned to his devotion to kabbalah. Karen was intrigued because of her interest in New Age philosophy and asked if he would give her private lessons. By her account, Philip, who wouldnt even shake hands with a woman who wasnt his wife, nonchalantly replied, Okay, why not?

We made a date for dinner that night to discuss the details, she wrote later. I have to tell you at that meeting, it was all over. We knew instantly that we were meant for each other.

Philips marriage to his first wife fell apart, and he and Karen were married in 1971. Their early relationship was a tug of war between her worldliness and his piety. Philip threw out his new wifes library of New Age books and blocked the door when she tried to bring a television into their home. He gave in when she threatened to leave him, Karen wrote.

Then there was the hat.

One day I took that big black fur hat off his head and threw it right out the window. I said to him, Lets understand something. I joined your world so youve got to come to mine. I can't live with this kind of strictness, she wrote.

Philip gave up the insurance business and the couple moved to Israel shortly after they were married. They lived in a tiny apartment in Jerusalem with their sons, Yehuda born in 1972 and Michael in 1973, and drove a beat-up Fiat, recalled Jeremy Langford, an early disciple who lived with the Bergs in Israel for two years.

Karen began to study kabbalah seriously. They argued over what to do with

Philips spiritual knowledge. She suggested teaching kabbalah to anyone who wanted to learn about it, including women and those without yeshiva training. Philip acquiesced, and in so doing elevated Karen to a status well above a rabbis wife. In the eyes of followers, Karen became Philips peer: He had the education, she had the nerve.

What Karen Berg has done is what no man in history has done, said Phillips, the family friend. Never have the words kabbalah and Zohar been known outside the small circle of kabbalists.

The Bergs advertised introductory classes; the cost was about the price of a falafel, one former member recalled. The New Age seekers, retirees and others drawn to the courses in Tel Aviv were from secular homes and knew little about their Jewish heritage.

We loved that we found mysticism in our own backyard, in Judaism. The teacher spoke of things that very much resonated with us.... There was no pressure to be observant, said one longtime member who became disillusioned and left the center after two decades. The former member, who continues to practice kabbalahs philosophy of helping others, asked not to be named because relatives are still involved.

Philip held himself out as the spiritual successor to Brandwein and used the name of a kabbalah yeshiva founded in Jerusalem in 1922. But Brandweins heirs, who were running the yeshiva at the time, publicly disavowed any connection to Berg.

Philip had fewer than two dozen regular students in 1977 when Langford enrolled. Langford said he was captivated by the rabbis teachings: Everything we did felt so important. The future of spirituality was dependent on us.

The Bergs spoke constantly of expanding and in published materials sometimes exaggerated the size of the organization, he said. There was a joke that anywhere he had sneezed he would say there was a branch there, Langford said.

In the classroom, Philip, known as the rav, or rabbi, was beloved for his clear explanations of lofty concepts such as shame and mercy. At home, his conversations with Karen often concerned less spiritual topics.

She was always talking about money and the need to have it, Langford said. Karen wanted a big house and her husband agreed, saying it could attract new students, he said.

He could see in her no evil. He could see in her no wrong, recalled Langford, who was the first student promoted to teacher. He is now a glass artist in Israel and said he still studies kabbalah.

In the early 1980s, the Bergs returned to the U.S.

He came to me and said that if he wants to make it big time, it cant be done in Israel, Langford said.

A family affair

The Bergs settled in Richmond Hill, a middle-class Queens neighborhood. Karen finally had the big house she wanted, but its stately exterior belied a modest existence. They had moved back from Israel without enough money for a car, according to former student Dorothy Clark. She and another former student recalled that Karen dressed their sons in secondhand clothing.

The house doubled as the American headquarters of what would soon be known as the Kabbalah Centre. The basement served as a dining hall and the living room as a synagogue. Classes were held around a pingpong table, one of the Bergs few pieces of furniture, recalled Michel Obadia, a Manhattan hair salon owner who studied at the center.

As in Israel, the students were mostly alienated Jews who liked Philips combination of approachability and orthodox background. He would teach that the oft-told stories of Adam, Abraham and other Torah figures contained hidden wisdom about how the universe worked. Over two hours, Obadia recalled, Philip would discuss what the Zohar taught about a particular esoteric topic -- how to find the middle ground between judgment and grace, for example.

Obadia said students would speak up about how the abstract principle applied to their own lives.

He had the language, the formulas, for you to pierce through and all of a sudden start to understand things, said Obadia, who left the center more than 20 years ago but can still recite many of Philips teachings.

He said that at the close of class, many students would strap on phylacteries -- small boxes that contain Torah passages -- and pray together.

Their congregation was growing, but the Bergs were determined to reach even more people. They turned to publishing. In Israel, they had discovered that students wanted their own kabbalah texts and would pay for them. This was a revelation to Philip, who was used to impoverished yeshiva scholars hunkered over communal books, as he later recalled in testimony in a civil lawsuit.

The books sold in Israel were dense and difficult, and written in Hebrew. Berg turned to Clarks husband for help in making the teachings more accessible. Kenneth Clark was a Chicago Tribune reporter covering entertainment in New York. The two men got together every Wednesday night at the Bergs dining room table.

His idea was to get this into common language that anybody could understand, Kenneth Clark recalled in court testimony years later.

Philip would explain a portion of kabbalah to Clark, who had been raised a Southern Baptist and knew no Hebrew. Clark would look for ways to make the ancient teachings relevant. When Philip described kabbalahs conception of the age-old conflict between good and evil, Clark suggested comparing it to the "Star Wars" movies.

Books he wrote with Clark and other ghostwriters allowed Philip to reach beyond Queens and Israel, and the Bergs soon had branches in cities with large Jewish communities, including Miami, Toronto and Paris.

They also established a religious order called the chevre , friends in Hebrew. The chevre , primarily young Israelis, took vows of poverty and lived dormitory-style in a house near the Bergs Queens home and later in cities around the world. By day, they knocked on doors in Jewish business districts, carrying Zohars and delivering a pitch about the center to raise funds. At night, they roamed Jewish neighborhoods.

We would say, We are teaching Jewish spirituality. Most people would say, I'm not interested. Some would say, What's it about? recalled Shaul Youdkevitch, a high-ranking teacher who had a falling-out with Karen in 2008 after three decades as a chevre .

The chevre tried to persuade people to make a donation or buy a Zohar for $360, according to Youdkevitch and other former members of the order. Many of the people they solicited did not read Hebrew, but the chevre assured them that wasnt a problem: Just passing a hand over the Zohars letters can give spiritual insight, and its physical presence provides protection from harm. (The talismanic powers of the Zohar remain a central tenet of Kabbalah Centre teachings.)

In the mid-80s, the center began emphasizing donations as a way to ensure members well-being, spiritual and otherwise. Consistent with Jewish tradition, followers were urged to give generously beyond the expected tithe of 10% to 20% of their income.

Teachers departed from tradition in telling donors their money should go only to the center: Spreading kabbalah was more vital than the work of homeless shelters and other charities. The center taught that tithing protected donors against financial setbacks, and that additional donations would stave off divine punishment in the form of illness, family strife and other problems.

Karen kept close tabs on fundraising, Youdkevitch and other former members said.

She was sitting on every chevre in the world: Where are you? How much money are you bringing in? he recalled her inquiring. She would say you have to be outside all day.

Philip focused on spiritual matters. He prayed six to eight hours a day and continued to write books with Clark. In 1988, Philip published Power of Aleph Beth. The first sentence mentioned Star Wars director George Lucas and the cover featured a sci-fi design with Hebrew characters floating under a dark planet.

The book used modern worries such as nuclear war and drug abuse to give kabbalah teachings a contemporary feel.

There was also a nod to a world-famous pop star.

We are living in a material world and Im a material girl, began the second chapter. Nearly a decade before Madonna attended her first kabbalah class, she served as what Clark called a made-to-order metaphor for what kabbalah does not teach.

Part two: Celebrities, secrets and kabbalah

Kabbalah finances: Where the money comes from

Philip and Karen Berg, founders of the Kabbalah Centre, declined to be interviewed for this report and instead issued this statement:

The Kabbalah Centre is a nonprofit organization leading the way in making Kabbalah understandable and relevant in everyday life. Our funds are used in the research and development of new methods to make Kabbalah accessible and understandable.

The Kabbalah Centre has received subpoenas from the government concerning tax-related issues. The Centre intends to work closely with the IRS and the government, and is in the process of providing responsive information to the subpoenas.

The Centre is disappointed that the recent press regarding the Centre and this investigation is being fueled by rumors spread by a few disgruntled former students and former employees with personal agendas. The Centre is confident that the investigation will show that the Centre has and continues to serve its mission and act in furtherance of the wisdom and teaching of Kabbalah.,0,2707071.htmlstory