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Our Lady of Malawi

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The middleman in this whole financial/spiritual/celebrity transaction was the Kabbalah Centre, based in a large building in Beverly Hills, with outposts in midtown Manhattan and across the world. The Centre has always been run by the Berg family, but the patriarch, Philip, had a stroke a few years ago, and his wife, Karen, 68, has been in charge with her two sons, Yehuda and Michael. Philip Berg, who grew up in the Orthodox section of Williamsburg, learned about Kabbalah during his first marriage, to the niece of a top Kabbalist in Jerusalem. Years later, though, Berg, swept up in the passions of the early seventies, divorced her, left his seven kids, and took up with Karen, who had been his secretary in the fifties. Over lunch at Ratner’s deli on the Lower East Side, Karen, a tough, practical woman, told him it was worth opening up Kabbalah, a study that Judaism once made available only to Orthodox ascetics over 40 years of age, to all comers—women, Buddhists, Jews who don’t want to be Jews, Christians who think Judaism is cool but don’t want to be Jews either.

The Bergs built their congregation through painstaking outreach, living mostly in Israel until the early eighties. The most loyal among them became what the Bergs called the chevre, Hebrew for “group of friends.” Some of the chevre, who serve the Centre by organizing files and doing the Bergs’ laundry, have been compensated $35 a month in exchange for free study. Many of them moved back to New York with the Bergs in the mid-eighties, bunking in Queens, spreading the gospel door-to-door, as they do at times today. “I once bought a bracelet there, and hot Israeli guys still come to my door sometimes asking if I want to learn about Kabbalah,” says Sahara Lotti, a screenwriter in L.A.

The Bergs’ ideas were similar to those in the traditional Kabbalistic texts, but with a focus on emotional well-being, each individual’s unfulfilled potential. Karen also emphasized the Kabbalistic notion that women are higher beings. Women, as it turns out, don’t need to be on Earth—their reincarnation is assured, and they’re here only to help men achieve their purpose. “Satan, which we also call the ‘opponent within,’ knows that women are the key to a man’s success, and the reason the world suffers is because women aren’t doing their job,” says Phillips. “Women need to kick men’s asses! I’m serious. Kicking ass is more sexy and a turn-on than anything else, because now the woman is talking to my soul.”

“I thought you were the Messiah to save Malawian women and children,” wrote the school’s headmistress. “I will never understand your world.”

You can see why such a philosophy might appeal to Madonna, with her bondage outfits and bayonetlike brassieres. Madonna became close with the Bergs, and they with her; Karen has even noted that Madonna “keeps a kosher home, she observes Shabbat, she circumcised her son and had her [ex-] husband circumcised.” (Yes, you read the last part correctly.) ­Madonna took these lessons about her “bigger” role to heart and collaborated on an outreach charity for inner-city children, called Spirituality for Kids, in 2001. The profits from her five children’s books—from The English Roses, where a sad girl is picked on by some classmates because she’s too pretty, to Yakov and the Seven Thieves, which praises the power of prayer to heal a child—also were put into the charity.

Everyone can agree that giving is a beautiful thing, and that the rich and famous among us should be encouraged to donate as much as they possibly can. The problem is that celebrity charities are rarely run well; for every impeccable foundation by Martin Scorsese, there’s a Yele Haiti, Wyclef Jean’s charity, or a nonstarter like Kanye West’s educational foundation, which was shuttered in April. In fact, some philanthropy advisers say that many of the celebrities they counsel don’t even want to donate to their own charities. “Very few sports stars, other than Lance Armstrong, actually donate to their own charities,” says a tax adviser. “Most of them say, ‘My fans will donate.’ Their attitude is ‘I’m contributing my celebrity to this cause.’ ”

Madonna certainly did not take this let-them-eat-cake approach. She wrote the checks, and they got cashed. But where the money was ending up continues to be a question. As late as last year, some questions were raised about the bookkeeping practices of Spirituality for Kids (since renamed ­Success for Kids to downplay the religious element of course work). SFK was a supporting organization of the Kabbalah Centre, and a source with knowledge of the SFK program indicates that financial transactions moved between different functions and entities in a way that was not easy to understand. Tax filings also reveal that an account was kept in the Cayman Islands.

In Malawi, Madonna took a hands-on approach—maybe too hands-on. There were few boundaries between her personal staff and her charity and her school, as if it were all one big entourage. For her CEO, she chose Anjimile Oponyo, a Malawian with an American degree who is the sister of the country’s vice-president. And for the executive director, she hired Philippe van den Bossche, a Belgian who had worked with the Kabbalah Centre as a development director. He moved to New York after he started dating Tracy Anderson, Madonna’s personal trainer (though she has since moved on, opening a $900-a-month gym with Gwyneth Paltrow in Tribeca). Anderson, who was basically living with Madonna, had helped her maintain her middle-aged body in a state of perfection and beauty.


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