Note: This article has been updated since its original publication with new information about an IRS probe into the Kabbalah Centre and two Madonna-linked charities.
On a weekend night about a month ago, the paparazzi stand in front of Milk Studios in Chelsea, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of their favorite prey in New York. This is the Kabbalah Centre’s annual Purim party, to commemorate the thwarting of a Persian plot to kill Jews, and Madonna is due to arrive at seven, swishing through the wet streets in her blacked-out Town Car with her children Rocco and Lourdes, and fashion photographer Steven Klein in a black-latex mask. When Madonna is at Shabbat services and celebrating the Jewish High Holidays, she presents a confusing tableau: Still a Catholic, she often appears with a gigantic cross hanging from her neck, the size of the one in her Desperately Seeking Susan days, and carries her adopted Malawian son, on whom she’s usually placed a yarmulke. But like most synagogues, the Kabbalah Centre celebrates Purim with a party befitting Halloween night, so tonight, with her flair for a shocking costume, Madonna has no trouble fitting in. At past Purim parties, she’s dressed as a nun (Guy Ritchie was the pope), a flapper (Guy was a cop), and a goth schoolgirl (she was single at that one), but this year, she’s decided to conceal herself as Charlie Chaplin, with her hair in a bun, a round black hat perched on her head, and a white rose clenched between her teeth.
Even as a man—a being that, according to the teachings of both the Kabbalah and Madonna, is far less enlightened and perceptive than a woman—she’s unmistakable, and the paparazzi shoot her as she goes up to the party, though they miss Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, who dash into the elevator in matching pig costumes with big fuzzy heads. Upstairs, Moore and Kutcher take their pigs’ heads off and move through the crowd of about 250 people, full of disco divas, an Avatar character, lots of sinewy women in saris, and a guy in a T-shirt that says TIKKUN: DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS (Kabbalists believe that “correcting,” your karma is the way to achieve tikkun, the Hebrew word for one’s transformation in the world). The crowd sings Purim prayers together—ecstatic prayer is the mode of worship here, not a cantor’s dreary hum over a Torah—and when the service is over, everyone whoops and claps as Rocco does a short break-dancing exhibition.
Afterward, Madonna repairs to Milk’s VIP room, holding court from a chair in the corner. No one in the main room seems to mind—they’re glad that Madonna’s chosen to join their congregation, to sit among them to reconnect to the Light, which is what Kabbalists call the higher spiritual power. “That’s the way it is with Madonna and Kabbalah,” says a congregant. “If there’s a party, she never mixes. When she comes to services on Friday night and Saturday morning, Madonna rolls in late with an entourage, and they sit in the front row of the synagogue. In Kabbalah, she’s the queen.”
Like many a monarch of the past, the queen’s faith is being tested. Last month, a charity started by Madonna and one of the Kabbalah Centre’s leaders, Michael Berg, Raising Malawi, imploded after spending $3.8 million building a girls’ boarding school in Africa. The school was a beautiful dream. In renderings, it was to be a place worthy of Madonna’s grandeur and good wishes and aesthetic refinement, an impeccably tasteful little city set down in the African savanna.
Now the money is mostly gone, and no one is saying exactly where it went. Some of Madonna’s factotums blame the Africans, and other former employees. The Southern District of New York is conducting a tax-based investigation into the finances of the charity, along with the Kabbalah Centre and Success for Kids, another one of their jointly run charities.
Update: The Los Angeles Times confirmed New York’s report that the IRS is investigating the Kabbalah Centre, Success for Kids, and Raising Malawi as part of a federal tax evasion probe. In addition to a federal grand jury gathering evidence in New York, a team of IRS agents is also interviewing people connected to the Kabbalah Centre at its Los Angeles headquarters.
The Times also reported that investigators have reviewed an email from former Kabbalah Centre CFO Nicholas Vakkur, in which he says he has uncovered instances of income tax fraud, and has “little choice but to cooperate with the IRS and bring down the entire Kabbalah Centre.”
Madonna has taken members of the Kabbalah Centre off Raising Malawi’s board, and plans to build a series of smaller schools in Malawi, though she has not made that commitment yet—“Unfortunately, we may have to wait until the legal issues have been resolved,” says one of her representatives. Karen Berg, matriarch of the Kabbalah Centre had this to say about the problems they face: “In sharing Kabbalah with the world for the last 40 years, we learned the many ways chaos and darkness can manifest themselves. And although it is very difficult, we understand that the darkest part of the night is just before the dawn.”
Some of the money, probably not Madonna’s, seems to have gone into the darkness at the moment, allegedly nontransparent. But what’s money compared with the power of the Light? This is why Madonna may stay close to Kabbalah no matter what allegations may be raised about the group’s finances. The monarch doesn’t just jettison the pope because they have a little disagreement—at least most of the time. “These are her spiritual advisers,” says a source. “At this point, she still has faith in them.”
Madonna has shocked us many times over the years—not least when, even though she was once a Lower East Side icon, she recently moved into a townhouse on the Upper East Side—but there’s really nothing stranger than the role she has taken on in the past decade or so as the de facto leader of this mystical Jewish offshoot. After all, this is the famously heretical Catholic who has consistently thrown her anger at that religion in our face, even performing a mock crucifixion during a world tour a few years ago. Madonna claims that part of what attracts her to Kabbalah is that it’s not a traditional religion. “I’ve had enough of religion,” she has said, adding that it “makes me sick.” “People say, ‘If you’re not a Christian, you’re going to go to hell when you die,’ or, ‘If you are not Jewish, and you’re not part of the chosen people, tough luck for you.’ Kabbalists—and I include myself in that group of people—don’t look at the world that way, in that fragmented way.”
Madonna’s road to Malawi began in the mid-nineties, when she discovered Kabbalah. Early to trends, she was the first major celebrity to sign up for the group but was soon followed by Moore, Kutcher, Donna Karan, Roseanne Barr, prominent New Yorkers like some members of the Wilpon family, the family now struggling to hold on to the Mets, and young goyim like Britney Spears, who once tattooed Hebrew letters on her neck. But Madonna, as always, is the biggest. “The Kabbalah Centre would not have taken off without Madonna, and they know that—they admit it,” says Jody Myers, author of a large-scale study of the center, Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest. “A lot of people thought, Well, Madonna’s tough, she’s smart, and she likes this place—is there something in it for me?”
When Madonna began studying Kabbalah, she was filming Evita and pregnant with her first child, Lourdes. Having achieved total domination in the material world, she’d begun a new campaign to conquer the spiritual, and was an adherent of a strict yoga practice called Ashtanga, a form that attracts a lot of type A personalities looking for the release that comes with a teacher’s literally sitting on your back. But yoga, with its sprinkling of Hindu wisdom, may not have answered enough existential questions for her. As she has said, she worried, “What will I teach my child about the important things in life?”
But the Kabbalah Centre, which is a mix of EST-era consciousness-raising principles and ancient Hebrew texts with a dash of numerology, astrology, and good old-fashioned talk therapy thrown in, is not shy about providing answers. In fact, it prefers to be called a “spiritual technology” rather than a religion. Once she was introduced to Kabbalah, Madonna, like all new students, was assigned a personal teacher to aid her in decoding the Zohar, a thirteenth-century commentary on the Hebrew Bible and other religious writings. She began studying one-on-one with Eitan Yardeni, a handsome Israeli who has also taught Moore and Barr. “The rule in Kabbalah is that the more a person has, the more they need to work on themselves, in every area,” says Yardeni over the phone last weekend, expanding on Kabbalah’s basic philosophy. “With that power of having so much comes a greater challenge, a greater amount of work to become humble about it. It’s a struggle, to have so much.”
These thoughts resonated with Madonna, who has, traditionally, been more interested in power than almost any other pop star. “With celebrities, at least those who are honest with themselves and ready to do the spiritual work, they realize that fame is not enough,” says Yardeni. “The test is to realize that the temporary glitz, the temporary high, the temporary fame, is not true power. If you let the power control you, you’ll be miserable. That’s just the truth.”
In the haze of cocaine, red carpets, and yes-men that is modern Hollywood celebrity, the appeal of being told that you have a responsibility to be good—perhaps being told this for the first time since you moved to L.A.—cannot be underestimated. In fact, one of the main tenets of Kabbalah is that the only way to achieve real happiness is charity or sharing with others: Giving everything away will get you everything you desire. This idea is even woven into their cosmology, which is a doozy. The Kabbalah Centre says that at the beginning of the universe, God, or Light, which is also called the Desire to Share, was all that existed. Then God decided he wanted to share, so he made something to receive his sharing energy: ten vessels, most of which also give off Light, except for one set of vessels, named Malchut. Malchut feels shameful because he is a vessel with nothing to give and only a Desire to Receive. Lost in the depths of his humiliation, Malchut decides to cut out the light.
This was not a good decision. Suddenly, Malchut’s emptiness shatters the vessels and, much like Adam eating the shiny apple, a physical world blasts into being, one in which humans are bound to suffer forever. Down here, in the earthly world, we can no longer perceive the Light, since it’s blocked by the shards of the broken vessels. It is our duty to connect with the Light again, which is the only way that we can (a) be happy, (b) get what we want, and (c) eventually make the cosmos whole again. It’s not that easy, though: Everyone has a different karmic debt to settle, and the accrued actions of one’s past lives may mean that there is a long way to go before reaching nirvana.
“When being was created, God’s one soul shattered into infinite pieces,” says Billy Phillips, a 22-year student of the Centre who runs an intellectual-property licensing business. “If you imagine a piece of fine china when it gets smashed, it goes into many different-size pieces. Each piece is equally important, but they’re different sizes. Madonna is considered to be a bigger piece of a shattered vessel, but is the wire on a supercomputer any less important than the microprocessor? No, that microprocessor is useless if the wire is snipped—the computer doesn’t work. So everybody in Kabbalah has equal importance, but not everybody has equal work to do.”
Madonna, being Madonna, is one of those who has a great deal of work to do. And, much like monarchs of earlier centuries, she saw her destiny abroad, much like other stars who were making their own forays into celebrity colonialism—Bono, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. These days, Hollywood etiquette demands that stars associate themselves with a charitable cause, and they tend to look for a serious international issue, leaving kitsch like auctioning off locks of hair to Justin Bieber. The most stunning act of charitable giving by a celebrity has to be Oprah’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, funded by her $40 million donation. Modeled after Miss Porter’s, where Jackie O. and Gloria Vanderbilt matriculated and where, more recently, Oprah had sent her nieces, the school is reportedly decorated with silk cushions, orchids, and crystal in the dining room, plus a 10,000-volume library with a stash of plush socks near the fireplace, for the ultimate in cozy feet while reading a book.
Madonna wanted to start a girls’ boarding school, too. The Kabbalah Centre, which has always been interested in spreading the Light to impoverished nations (distributing Zohars to the needy is one of their efforts), had already started some charitable activities in Malawi with Madonna. Now she thought that it was a good place for her academy, a $15 million boarding school for 400 girls. Malawi, the tenth-poorest nation in the world, is a tiny landlocked country wedged among Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique, much of whose population was shipped to Zanzibar to be sold at slave auctions until the country was Christianized by Scottish missionaries in the nineteenth century. The majority of Malawians are subsistence farmers who live on less than $1 a day. One in every eight people in the country is infected with HIV/AIDS, and at least a half-million children have been orphaned by the disease.
There was abundant celebrity logic to her mission: To be a Madonna, it made sense for her to try to “raise” some motherless children, as the heavily loaded title of her charity, Raising Malawi, implies. The Raising Malawi Academy for Girls would focus on law and medicine, so that the children educated there would grow up to both protect Malawi from corruption and heal it with their hands. Like Oprah, Madonna hoped to have a nationwide application process, selecting the best female student from each village for the school.
But why stop with a school? By 2006, she had also decided that she wanted to adopt kids from Malawi, too. For most of us, this would have presented a problem: Malawi does not allow international adoptions to prospective parents who have not lived in the country for at least 24 months, fearing that its vulnerable children might be exploited by child traffickers. After much wrangling, a judge ruled that Madonna’s role as a charitable giver in Malawi made her a special kind of personage, one to whom the laws of the land did not apply.
The Malawian government was very excited about a prestigious academy being established in their country. They agreed to donate 111 acres of land for the school, charging only about $8,600 a year for a 99-year lease. She reportedly put in $11 million of her own money and promised to match any dollar that anyone else gave. She even organized a black-tie party with Gucci in a tent at the U.N., raising another $3 million, with Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez, and Diddy in attendance. “With Madonna, it’s not like she calls you up,” declared Diddy. “But when she does it, she does it big.”
In a television interview last year, Madonna expanded on her reasons for building the school. “On one hand, I went to Malawi and I thought, I have to help. I have to save these people,” she explained. “And then I thought, Wait a minute, I think it’s the other way around. I think they might be saving me.” After all, Kabbalah teaches that the holiest kind of giving is one in which you receive nothing back—and of all the places in the world, Malawi certainly had the least to give in return.
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 neverunderstand 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.
The school was beautiful, too. The enormous plot had been designed more like a college campus or the Ross School in the Hamptons than a school in a country where less than half the girls go to secondary school. There was a big, open-plan dining hall, a freestanding library, classrooms, dorms, a wellness center, and a gym that doubled as a theater. But soon, whether because the Centre had started to worry about the costs of the project, or Madonna started to think this was plunking a spaceship in a lunar landscape—or had gotten a whiff of upcoming legal troubles the Centre would be facing—she suddenly changed tack.
The board fired Van den Bossche and hired Trevor Neilson, a former Clinton White House staffer and “philanthropic adviser to the stars,” who is an expert in pairing celebrities to causes. Neilson, largely credited with transforming Angelina Jolie’s image, counseled fellow Kabbalists Moore and Kutcher in their recent human-trafficking campaign. “Trevor is a good guy, but he comes from politics,” says a colleague. “He plays Rahm Emanuel style.”
The project was the kind that raised Neilson’s antenna. He advised Madonna that, in a country like Malawi, she should be building village schools. He also felt the project had been mismanaged by the former team. It was true that the $3.8 million had flowed to the Malawi project—but according to Newsweek, only $850,000 of it actually reached Africa. The rest of it was spent in the U.S., with checks cut by the Kabbalah Centre, including over $1 million in unspecified construction costs (Mathew Rosengart, outside litigation for the Centre, declined to discuss any of the Centre’s financial details). Stories were leaked to the press blaming the problems with the school on incompetence in Africa, claiming the charity did not have the title to the land and that unhappy villagers were kicked off the parcel, even though it seems they were not removed.
By February, Neilson began the process of terminating the staff, but he hit a roadblock with Oponyo, whose contract called for her to be paid $380,000. When she continued to demand what she believed was rightly hers, Neilson’s office sent the draft of a press release to the Raising Malawi board that he would put out within three days if she did not agree to terms. The press release calls her demands for severance “outlandish” and contrasts Oponyo’s pay with that of the average Malawian, pointing out that “according to UNICEF, the average per capita income in Malawi is $280.”
Oponyo believed that Madonna would straighten this out for her. “I do not understand how I went from an employee you were proud of, an employee who last year women’s day you championed with so much fanfare, to this year the enemy you want to discredit in the press,” she wrote in a letter she sent to her in March. “My biggest question is, what did I ever do to make you wake up one day and decide to ruin my life, the lives of my staff and families, my career and the careers of our staff, and standing in Malawi?” She defends her salary (“check out what the head of the Winfrey Academy was getting”), chastises her for firing Van den Bossche (“I will never understand your world. It is like any good deed is punishable”), and includes a wail: “I thought you were the Messiah to save Malawian women and children.”
This was not the way to save her job. Soon, an unseen hand led the New York Times to a story pegging the problems with the school on the management team and including some descriptions from a Global Philanthropy Group report from Neilson’s office: “Philippe’s level of mismanagement and lack of oversight was extreme in both aspects of the project,” the report says; “Oponyo’s charisma masks a lack of substantive knowledge of the practical application of educational development, and her weak management skills are a major contributor to the current financial and programmatic chaos.”
In truth, there does seem to be a certain rich-person’s failure to take responsibility here. No doubt there were, along with the narcissism and grandiosity, the noblest of intentions. But when people get in the way of Madonna’s mission, what happens to them is predictable. A couple of bumps, and the tour bus rolled on.
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.”