Along with homework time, crafts and supervised games, grade school students in several Los Angeles Unified School District elementary schools this spring are getting something different at their after-school programs: spiritual awareness.
Dozens of San Fernando Valley children are enrolled in Spirituality for Kids (SFK), a program founded and run by officials of the Kabbalah Centre of Los Angeles, whose curriculum teaches socially conscious behavior. Brought to the campuses of four San Fernando Valley public schools through a local after-school enrichment company, the program aims to help kids resist peer pressure, treat others with tolerance and build problem-solving skills.
The Kabbalah Centre has for years drawn the ire of critics claiming its popular version of kabbalah — made famous by such high-profile devotees as Madonna — is a sham.
Critics fear the program — which was founded by Kabbalah Centre International co-founder and co-director Karen Berg, and whose president, Michal Berg, is a Kabbalah Centre official and Karen Berg’s daughter-in-law — promotes concepts that echo the Kabbalah Centre’s teachings. Core terms in the SFK curriculum are also found in kabbalah, such as sharing “the light,” defined by SFK as a force of goodness in all people.
SFK staff, however, claim the program is not religious in nature. “It’s an empowerment program,” said Wanda Webster, director of curriculum for SFK. “We come at it asking ‘What tools would help children in life?’ We teach resiliency, meaning it gives them the tools to deal with the problems and issues they’re facing every day in school, or at home — anywhere they’re interacting with people.”
Webster defines the “spiritual” aspect of the program as “our connection to ourselves and to each other.”
“We don’t touch upon ‘the right thing to do’ — we just don’t go there,” she said. “We never use language like, ‘that’s right, that’s wrong,’ or ‘that’s good, that’s bad.’ What we talk about is, if you make this choice, will that get you what you want?”
A 2008 study by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, found that students enrolled in SFK classes in Florida showed improved communication, leadership and study skills and decreased attention problems and withdrawal.
Founded five years ago, SFK now operates in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, London and Panama City, as well as in Israel, Mexico and Malawi. The program has been criticized by top rabbis in London, but has garnered praise from educators who say it helps at-risk youth make positive choices for their futures.
Most of what the curriculum — the same at each school — teaches is “social competence skills,” such as self-esteem, self-control and sharing, said Jody Myers, professor of religious studies at California State University Northridge (CSUN) and author of “Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America” (Praeger, 2007), which includes a chapter on SFK.
The SFK concept of the “true voice” versus the “opponent” echoes the Jewish concept of yetzer hatov (the tendency to do good) versus yetzer hara (the tendency to do bad), but is expressed in non-religious language, she said.
“They don’t teach worship, they don’t teach rituals or talk about God,” Myers said. “If you look at religion as belief in a higher power, they don’t use that language. The curriculum deals with conscience and emotion and intuition, but it’s not religion.”
Among the themes SFK explores are the causes and effects of reactive behavior and the relationship between physical objects and “spiritual powers” — happiness, love and excitement. A major part of the curriculum is the promotion of “caring and sharing behavior” over selfishness, Webster said.
Physical activities and games are included in the weekly 90-minute classes, such as a human knot game to illustrate the idea that “what we do affects others,” Webster said. According to the program literature, students are taught “rules to the game of life” — short adages including, “Take care of others and your needs will be fulfilled,” and “Share and make room for all life’s blessings.”
SFK classes are offered at Kester Avenue and Riverside Drive Elementary schools in Sherman Oaks, Nestle Avenue Elementary School in Tarzana and Tulsa Street Elementary School in Granada Hills through E3, an after-school enrichment program that operates in nine LAUSD elementary schools.
Social awareness among children often suffers because of a gap in “life skills” education in public schools, E3 director Linda McManus said.
“We’re sensing that our kids need more,” McManus said. “They’re getting enrichment, but there wasn’t much addressing life skills at this age.”
In September, E3’s entire staff trained with a team from SFK in the program’s terms and principles. McManus said she hoped the training would help her employees with classroom management and discipline.
E3 offers parents and their children alternative programming during class times SFK is offered, for those who don’t want their children in the 10-week program, McManus added.
Many parents say the program is a boon to their children — or at least an acceptable pastime during the after-school hours.
Maria Tapia of Van Nuys said her daughter seems to enjoy SFK at Kester Avenue Elementary School, where the program is geared toward third- to fifth-graders. “She says she enjoys it. Sometimes I come to pick her up and she says she wants to stay more,” Tapia said of Jennifer, a fourth-grader.
Jennifer Bahat of Encino said both her children had already taken SFK classes at the Kabbalah Centre last year, and her daughter, Shani, 6, is now enrolled again in a course for first- and second-graders at Nestle Avenue Elementary School.
“I love the program,” Bahat said. “Kids learn a lot of useful things. It’s natural for kids to be selfish and only think about what they want. As parents, we’re always teaching them to think of other people. Here they learn to be more thoughtful and considerate.”
Bahat said she has also taken kabbalah classes through the Centre before, and believes spirituality is a beneficial part of childhood education. Since starting SFK classes, Shani has become more aware of the consequences of her actions, Bahat said.
SFK isn’t the first educational program with ties to a controversial religious organization to draw criticism locally. The New Village Leadership Academy in Calabasas, founded by actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith last year, generated buzz for its use of “Study Technology” developed by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. School publicists have said the facility does not teach Scientology.
An LAUSD spokeswoman said the school district contracts with several enrichment companies, some of which bring in programming with known religious affiliations.
“The Los Angeles Unified School District accepts and supports having programs such as Spirituality for Kids on LAUSD campuses,” said Sharon Thomas, assistant general counsel to the district, in a statement. The district must abide by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by maintaining “strict neutrality in religious matters,” she said, and any program is acceptable as long as it does not run afoul of that.
But some still question whether the Kabbalah Centre is a legitimate religious institution.
“The Kabbalah Centre is to true kabbalah what Jews for Jesus is to true Judaism,” said Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder and director of the anti-missionary and anti-cult center Jews for Judaism. “It’s making it look like it’s Jewish, but it’s not.”
In general, kabbalah is viewed as too “weird” or “out-there” for most mainstream Jews, said Myers, the CSUN professor. But while the Kabbalah Centre’s brand might not hew to the holy tradition on which it is based, it has nevertheless become a ubiquitous part of the religious landscape.
“Little bits and pieces are coming into normative Judaism,” Myers said. “Kabbalah is out of the bag.”