The String That Binds

The Kabbalah centre wants your heart—and your money

The building at 155 East 48th Street gleams like a freshly polished piece of marble. It is spotless, pristine; it could be Ian Schrager's latest hotel or a swanky, if austere, new restaurant. Everything about it sparkles: the heavy glass doors leading into the white-tiled lobby; the bottled water lined up on a table; the beatific faces on the workers milling about.

Upstairs, in a generic conference room—rows of plastic chairs, an oversize IP chart set up on an easel, recessed fluorescent lighting—people listen to a beaming teacher at the Manhattan branch of the Kabbalah Centre.

"Don't believe anything you hear in this course. Test it in your life. It has to work for you. Believing means there is already an element of doubt," he says with the cadence of a cantor. "The secret to success is to know the laws of life—not to believe in them. When you test these laws and principles, you will come to know the power of Kabbalah."

The group of about 60—men, women, blacks, whites, Israelis wearing yarmulkes—nods earnestly. How could something so ancient, so esoteric, sound so basic, so . . . Barnes & Noble self-help section?

"Why be reactive when you could be proactive? Why not embrace the Light?" He pauses and his eyes shine. "This," he says, "is Kabbalah."

Yes, this is Kabbalah, the mystical, ancient study that has turned into the spiritual therapy du jour, its classes meeting at a center near you. But some claim Kabbalah—"receipt" in Hebrew—is picking up where the Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, and Moonies left off.

Naturally, celebrities, arbiters of the zeitgeist, are all over it: Sandra Bernhard, Barbra Streisand, Rose-anne, and notable Jewish scholars like Demi Moore and Britney Spears have all taken classes with the Kabbalah Centre. Some can be seen sporting the red string, which supposedly wards off evil. (In February, the center tried to trademark the words Kabbalah red string; their application was rejected on the grounds that the string was only "indefinitely identified" as a religious object.) Just the other day Target, which had been selling the red strings in some of its stores and on its website—for a mere $25.99!—yanked them off shelves after receiving complaints from angry customers.

Madonna, of course, has recently reinvented herself as the poster child for Kabbalah. On her appropriately named ReInvention Tour, she allowed only Kabbalah water in her dressing room, invited a rabbi to bless the venue, and donated proceeds from sales of her children's book The English Roses to the Kabbalah Centre's Spirituality for Kids Foundation. She has changed her name to Esther and reportedly shelled out $6 million for a Kabbalah facility in London's West End. She has also spent some $22 million for a Kabbalah school in New York, which is slated to open next fall.

"We don't answer people's questions, we let people get their own answers," says Yehuda Berg, 32, the scruffy, bespectacled, yarmulke- and jeans-wearing co-director (along with his brother, Michael, 30) of the centers. Their father, Philip Berg—known as the Rav—is the organization's founder and spiritual leader.

"One of the biggest problems in religion is that the rabbi, the minister—whoever it is—keeps the information," Yehuda Berg continues. "You need them so they can give you the answer. Religion wasn't meant to be like that. Religion was meant to be the power for the people."

Kabbalah originated in Spain and France around the 13th century, when a Spanish mystic named Moses de Leon is credited with having written the Zohar (Book of Splendor), the text upon which Kabbalah is based. The book was penned in Aramaic and is, by all accounts, virtually impossible to comprehend.

Traditionally, only Jews were allowed to study Kabbalah, and then only those who were at least 40 years old, male, and well versed in the Talmud. But everyone is welcome at the Kabbalah Centre, young and old, Hispanic and Asian, white and black (about 50 percent of its students are not Jewish).

Nearly 4 million people have walked through various Kabbalah Centre doors since its first course was given in 1969 on the campus of Tel Aviv University. The first U.S. center opened in 1972; there are about 40 branches worldwide, the latest in Warsaw (the largest are in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, with about 1,000 students each; Manhattan is quickly catching up). About 20,000 people visit the website each month.

The Jewish community—specifically the Hasidic faction—is less effusive. Itzhak Kadouri, a Sephardic rabbi considered the foremost authority on Kabbalah, has written: "Whomever is supporting Mr. Berg financially or otherwise, is endangering his soul."

Last April, Lawrence Green (not his real name), who lives in the West Village, began attending classes at the center in New York. He bought a red string, which he wore faithfully, and a $415 Zohar.

"Everything in Kabbalah is about correction. We all need to be corrected," says Green, who is 36 and not Jewish. "The message they give is much like the Bush administration—'If you stick with us, you'll be safe. The world is very scary.' "

He grew more disheartened as the weeks progressed. "I found the classes were kind of mediocre, very pop psychology, New Age-y: 'You're in control of your life, it's your own fault, if you have a cold it means something's wrong spiritually.' "

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