Because both Van den Bossche and Oponyo had confidentiality agreements with Madonna—standard procedure for those who do business with her—neither was able to respond to these claims.
The fiasco in Malawi has exposed certain aspects of the Kabbalah Centre that have been whispered about for years, from reports of the Bergs’ lifestyle, including the three mini-mansions next to one another in Beverly Hills that house the family—the construction permits alone cost $1.4 million—to the Bergs’ propensity to raise money for “Kabbalah schools” that rarely come to fruition. In Los Angeles, the Centre is being sued by a former student who claims she donated a half-million dollars for educational materials for children that were never produced (She originally only wanted to donate $100,000, but some Kabbalah Centre teachers advised her to give more, allegedly saying, “But I thought you wanted to get closer to the Light.”) In New York, they bought a building that once housed Robert Atkins’s office for $5 million and flipped it for $9.3 million without beginning a school there; another Manhattan townhouse was bought for $1.8 million and later sold for $3.15 million. They look, on their face, more like real-estate plays than educational ones. “It was determined that moving forward with establishing and maintaining such a school in Manhattan at that time was not warranted, due to zoning and related issues,” says Rosengart of the first building.
At the Centre, it’s believed that the allegations, which may lead to the endangering of its nonprofit status as a religious organization, are the work of disgruntled students motivated by personal slights. According to advertising executive Zev Auerbach, a student who mentions that he just gave $50,000 to the Centre (“I don’t care where the money goes,” he says, “I know they will put it where it does the most good”), a student began spreading stories about the Centre after he became unhappy that his daughter wanted to join the chevre.
“You know, when you’re prepared to give up your ego, the ray of light is warm and nurturing and embracing,” says Phillips. “If you’re not prepared to give up your ego, that same ray of light is like a match. And if you’re dominated by ego, it’s like a torch. So some people—a few—who cannot make the transformation have made it their mission to destroy the Centre.” He sighs. “It doesn’t hurt the Centre. What’s sad is that people who had a chance to taste the wisdom are now denied that opportunity.”
Last Friday, on the seventh day of Passover, hundreds of Kabbalah members met for Shabbat at the Los Angeles center, a beautiful Spanish-style compound on the outskirts of Beverly Hills. Rebekah Hoyle (from North Carolina but with a vaguely Israeli accent), a stunning woman in her thirties in a diaphanous black dress, took me for a tour, by a staff office that looks like a small call center, a series of rooms with signs reading CLEANED FOR PASSOVER, the mikvah, and a set of birdcages. “Years ago, someone dropped off an injured lovebird here, and grew from that one and one more, to what’s here now,” she says. The congregation, which was split into women on the left and men on the right, was jubilant and loud, kvelling over prayers and wrapping their arms around each other’s waists. The women were in evening clothes, and the men in head-to-toe white, with either yarmulkes or baseball caps. “White is a reflective color,” says Hoyle. “But can you imagine asking a huge group of women to dress all in white when it’s still winter?”
After a few prayers, Karen Berg takes the stage in a lilac dress, with a neat strawberry-blonde wig over her hair. “We are in a time of great enlightenment, of great joy,” she says, in a booming alto. “The Zohar tells us something very clearly—it says, Blessed are the people who will live in this time, and cursed are the people who will live in this time. Now, how can they be the same?” She smiles. “Well, blessed are the people who, when the Light doesn’t seem to be shining anymore, understand that the Light doesn’t give us any more struggle than that which we can handle.”