It's 10 a.m. on Shabbat at The Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard and the crowds are starting to converge in anticipation of the Torah reading.
Hundreds are milling about. People are dressed in all white outfits, the place is filling up. There's a casual, relaxed atmosphere in the place, as the crowd takes their seats at pews adorned with song books, which contain a pamphlet declaring that "Death is an illusion" and promising that "Our enthusiasm, combined with our deep conviction, helps to accelerate the process of ending death, forever."
"If you come Shabbat, there is standing-room only," said Rafi Feig, a board member at the center. "It is literally packed."
The Kabbalah Centre is growing, with more than 1,000 people walking through the doors every week to attend classes and services -- making it one of the most popular Jewish institutions in Los Angeles. With an aversion to any publicity, save that generated by itself, the center has managed this growth even while being ostracized from the mainstream Jewish community -- or perhaps because of it.
Kabbalah, meaning "that which is received," is the mystical study of the hidden aspects of Judaism that is traditionally only taught to men over the age of 40 who have otherwise mastered the more mainstream Jewish texts, such as the Talmud and the Mishnah. Kabbalah is said to be so powerful, that only those individuals deemed worthy enough are allowed to learn it.
The Kabbalah Centre asserts that it is bringing kabbalah to the masses, a practice that, throughout the ages, has been long derided by rabbis who thought that the teachings of kabbalah were too explosive to be shared with ordinary people, and should be kept in the hands of a select number of mystics.
But the controversy in the community over The Kabbalah Centre's practices lie not with the problem that the center is teaching a secret discipline to the masses, but that what it's teaching is anything but kabbalah. Critics say that the center promotes "scanning" the Zohar (the main kabbalistic text written over 4,000 years ago by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) rather than actually learning it, and the new age philosophy they teach has little to do with either Judaism or authentic kabbalah.
"From my own perspective, I think that what they are offering is a lot of nonsense," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "I have taken the time to read some of their materials. I found them to be a mixture of two elements: things that are downright wrong, and things that are right but have nothing to do with kabbalah."
Regardless of whether the center's teachings conform to traditional definition of kabbalah, they have managed to stake a strong foothold in the community, despite the arms-length distance between mainstream organizations and the center. For example, there is no Kabbalah Centre rabbi on the Southern California Board of Rabbis. The Kabbalah Centre is not currently involved in raising funds for Israel, an activity common in most Jewish institutions in Los Angeles. Neither the center itself nor its affiliate school, the Kabbalah Children's Academy (KCA), are listed on The Jewish Federation's community resource Web page, www.jewishla.com, which lists all the other synagogues, temples, Jewish day schools and community institutions in Los Angeles. (A spokesperson for The Federation had "no comment" when asked why The Kabbalah Centre was not listed.)
"The Kabbalah Centre is not included in the running of the community," Adlerstein said. "I don't know of any organization in town that includes them in their mailing or their advisories, and I think that The Kabbalah Centre has tried very hard to ensure that it will not become part of the mainstream Jewish community," Adlerstein said. "They tell their people that the only real place that you can get the truth about Judaism and kabbalah is in their own ranks. That is why they set up their own institutions and schools -- you won't find people from The Kabbalah Centre moving to other schools or other synagogues, which is what you will find in any other mainstream Jewish organization," he added.
Billy Phillips, a teacher and director of communications at The Kabbalah Centre, denied that the center has deliberately tried to ostracize itself from the community, insisting that the opposite was true, and that the community tried to distance itself from it. "We made attempts to make inroads into the community, and we have been rebuked every time," he said. "We have been denied access to the community, and it has been going on for 10 years."
Phillips said that he was unaware that the center was not listed on The Federation Web page, but said the center would love to be listed, and he also said he was unaware of any Kabbalah Centre effort to join the Board of Rabbis. And as for Israel, Phillips said that they are not raising money, but they are "trying to raise spiritual light, protection and blessings for the people in Israel through the power of the Zohar."
However, Phillips confirmed one of Adlerstein's criticism, namely, that the center bills itself as the only place where you can find authentic kabbalah. "No other synagogue teaches Torah to the masses in a way that reveals the kabbalistic light inherent in the text, besides The Kabbalah Centre," Phillips told The Journal.
In an e-mail accompanying a Kabbalah Centre Torah insight, Phillips wrote, "Here is an example of a simple kabbalistic insight into a Torah portion that no synagogue in the world would know, if they did not open up the holy Zohar and spend years studying it."
Rabbi Benzion Kravitz, of Jews For Judaism, said that is simply not true.
"Chabad teaches kabbalah to the masses -- the whole Chasidic movement was created to take kabbalah and teach it in a way that the masses can benefit. Nobody taught more spiritual concepts to the masses then the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. But that [the center's belief that only they teach the truth] is part of a cult mindset, where you discredit all your opposition," he said.
"By saying that they are only place that teaches true kabbalah, they are, in essence, discouraging people from going to other synagogues -- and from being part of the rest of the community," Kravitz said.
Phillips countered that The Kabbalah Centre "is not God's police" and people can go where they want.
Even without the positive press or community endorsements, the center has attracted a celebrity clientele that includes Madonna, Roseanne, Sandra Bernhard and even well-known community philanthropists.
A longtime observer of the center, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that the ostracism of the center actually helps it attract people. "In some ways it adds to their prestige," she said. "It puts them in good company, because they say they are not an organized religion. The Kabbalah Centre will use the fact that they have been denounced as a point to their credit, because they will tell their congregants that they are doing what other groups have refused to do."
In fact, so many people are turning out for doses of Zohar scanning and red-string-around-your-wrist-spirituality, that the center has practically outgrown its current premises on Robertson Boulevard. "Right now, because of the space we have, we are very limited," Feig said. "We need to grow, but it is an issue because growing takes a lot of money."
Calling the center "the only synagogue in town that does not charge membership," Feig told The Journal that it funds itself through donations and the sale of books and tapes published by the center, such as "How the Heavens Heal" by Karen Berg, wife of Rabbi Yehuda Berg, the center's founder, as well as through courses.
The classes at the center are taught by volunteers, many of whom were students of Rav Phillip Berg, the founder of The Kabbalah Centre. In some cases, in exchange for pedagogy, the center supports the teachers, giving them food and board at The Kabbalah Centre itself.
But the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre is a global presence as well as a local one. As the home of Berg, Los Angeles has become the headquarters for all Kabbalah Centre activities around the world. It is the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre -- or more specifically, Berg and his five-member board -- who decide whether it is necessary to open up other centers in countries as remote as Australia or Rwanda. Today, there are some 23 Kabbalah Centres around the world and 60 satellite centers.
It is also from Los Angeles that decisions are made to tackle global problems in a kabbalistic way. "A few years ago, the Rav decided that we need to send 3,600 sets of Zohars to Iran for a certain energy," Feig said. "Iran at the time was a very negative place for the whole world, and the Rav believed that if we put a lot of Zohars over there it would make it easier."
The Kabbalah Centre also recently ran ads in Palestinian newspapers, reminding Palestinians that we should all treat each other with human dignity.
"Our mission is to create harmony," Phillips said. "We would love to build bridges and dialogues between those in the community who want to."
On the home front, The Kabbalah Centre last August bought a property on La Cienega Boulevard just south of Olympic Boulevard, the future site of the new building for the Kabbalah Children's Academy (KCA), its elementary school. Currently the school is adjacent to the center, and has 80 students from preschool to fifth grade. Feig expects that the new building, which he estimates will cost anywhere from $5 million to $10 million, will be able to accommodate 400 students.
According to its administrators, KCA is a yeshiva like any other. "The only difference is on the emphasis," said Rabbi Arye Weiner, KCA's Torah studies rabbi. "Here we emphasize spiritual concepts. Not lofty concepts, but things like sharing and loving your neighbor as yourself."
Inside the school, pictures of Berg and kabbalists Rabbis Yehuda Zvi Brandwein and Yehuda Ashlag adorn the walls. Alongside the usual ABC and Alef Bet posters are student projects that look at transforming negative qualities into positive ones -- from anger to love, and the like.
Like most traditional yeshivot, the school teaches Chumash with Rashi, Mishnah and Gemara (Talmud). Boys are expected to wear kippot and tzizit, girls are expected to wear skirts. Unlike most yeshivot, the KCA starts to teach the Zohar in fourth grade. The school also offers afterschool programs in "Spirituality for Kids" and "Mind Games."
Yet, there are other distinctions between the KCA and the other yeshivot in town. Unlike other yeshivot, KCA will not accept Jewish studies teachers who have only studied at The Kabbalah Centre. "We would not take a [Jewish studies] teacher from The Kabbalah Centre if he didn't have a yeshiva education," said Weiner, who himself studied in the Lakewood and Mir yeshivot, both ultra-Orthodox institutions.
More controversially, unlike any other Yeshiva or religious school in Los Angeles, KCA accepts non-Jewish children as students. "We are not looking to recruit non-Jewish students," said Solomon, "but if the student comes, it is not for us to turn them away."
So do the non-Jewish students go home and give divrei Torah to their parents?
"Yes," says Weiner. "It is all about sharing the ohr [light]," he said.