October 1, 2008
Kabbalah Centre sues spin-off Universal Kabbalah Communities
Kabbalah changed Shaul Youdkevitch's life.
The native Israeli had never been religious, then as a college student he discovered the esoteric teachings of Jewish mysticism and felt like a missing piece of his life had been put back in place. Soon after finishing school, Youdkevitch joined the faculty of the Kabbalah Centre, first as a teacher in Israel and later landing in Los Angeles, raising his family in the ministry and living in staff housing for almost three decades.
In February, Youdkevitch, who created and oversaw the center's teaching materials, and his wife, Osnat, left the center because of frustrations with the higher-ups, and decided to start their own kabbalah community in Los Angeles, calling it Universal Kabbalah Communities. Shaul Youdkevitch said his goal was to become a kabbalah evangelist, to develop curriculum and programs that could be adopted by synagogues and communities unaffiliated with any organized kabbalah community, even his own.
"It was my life; I didn't want to give it up," Youdkevitch said in an interview. "And more than that, I wanted to share it with people all around the world."
But their efforts quickly attracted the attention of the Kabbalah Centre's leadership, and on July 14, Shaul and Osnat Youdkevitch were sued by their former employer of 28 years.
The lawsuit, which seeks damages in excess of $100,000 as well as any profits, accuses Universal Kabbalah Communities of unfairly competing, of stealing "trade secrets," of setting up a Web site and using an acronym (UKC) that people could confuse with the Kabbalah Centre (TKC), of trying to steal the center's members and of claiming to be intellectual successors to the teachings of Rabbi Philip Berg and his predecessors.
The 23-page suit cites numerous cases in which their activities allegedly violated California law. Among them, that their Web site, www.livekabbalah.org, is too similar to the center's, www.kabbalah.com, and that Universal Kabbalah Communities invited members of the Kabbalah Centre to a celebration on the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, who led the center before he handed the reins to Berg in 1969.
Aviv Tuchman, an attorney for the Youdkevitches, called the lawsuit "groundless."
"The word kabbalah is not trademarked; the observance of the rabbi's yahrzeit is certainly not some proprietary right, the observance of Jewish holidays is not some proprietary right," Tuchman said. "The sole purpose of their lawsuit is to harm Shaul and Osnat -- it is to intimidate them and deter them from freely practicing Judaism and kabbalah."
Youdkevitch and his wife are not the first people to start an alternative to the Kabbalah Centre; they just might be the highest-profile former employees to do so. Because of that, their activities have drawn the attention of many active members and employees of the center.
Across the United States and, particularly, in Israel, countless individuals and organizations teach various forms of kabbalah, said Jody Myers, chair of Jewish studies at Cal State Northridge and author of "Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America" (Praeger, 2007). The most significant of these, she said, is Bnei Baruch Kabbalah Education & Research Institute, which started in Israel in 1991.
That someone who left the Kabbalah Centre would start their own kabbalah community should be no surprise, Myers said. But that the center would file suit is.
"I find it problematic," Myers said. "We have First Amendment rights here. People are going to keep teaching kabbalah."
Calls to the Kabbalah Centre's media office were not returned. Janet Grumer, an attorney for the center, declined to comment.
The lawsuit is presented not as a religious matter but a business dispute. Repeatedly referenced is how the Universal Kabbalah Communities are cutting into the profits and economic advantage of the center. (Although the Kabbalah Centre is a nonprofit religious organization, its revenues fluctuate like those of a for-profit business.)
Youdkevitch's attorneys claim the suit is a vain attempt to skirt constitutional protections of freedom of expression and religious exercise.
"Couching its allegations under the guise of a business dispute cannot dodge the First Amendment dagger and review the corpse that is plaintiff's complaint," they wrote in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
A hearing will be held Oct. 27 in U.S. District Court to decide how the case will move forward. Legal experts said the Kabbalah Centre's claim would hinge on its ability to demonstrate that Universal Kabbalah Communities infringed on trademarked material.
"The touchstone is you can't be so similar that a significant portion of the population is likely to be confused. There is no hard and fast rule," said Daniel Klerman, a trademark expert at USC Gould School of Law. "The question is: Are people likely to be confused by what this new group is doing?"
"If they called themselves the Kabbalah Centres, just adding an ‘s,' that would be confusing. If they called themselves the Kabbalah Spirituality Centre, that would be confusing," Klerman continued. "But what are they calling themselves? The Universal Kabbalah Communities -- yeah, that sounds sufficiently different to me that people would think it was another kabbalah group different from the other one."
Sara Flatow, who for 11 years has been a member of the Kabbalah Centre, hopes the suit is settled without any harm to Universal Kabbalah Communities. She's recently gotten involved there, attending their Shabbat services and becoming a part of the growing fabric of about 100 regulars. What captured her imagination most, she said, was Shaul Youdkevitch's desire to share the teachings of kabbalah with anyone who would listen.
"He has so much to teach, not just from his wisdom and his understanding and his learning but also from his experience," Flatow said. "He and Osnat were the heads of the center in Tel Aviv and reached out to the Arab communities and made great strides in relations in that department. Really reaching out, showing the unification, that we are all people, that we are all mothers and fathers and children, we are one unified soul -- that is sort of the message of kabbalah."