London -- To devotees, it's the path to spiritual fulfilment. To detractors, it's a money-grabbing cult. But to leaders of London's Jewish community, the growing popularity of Kabbalah in the United Kingdom increasingly is an embarrassment.
The L.A.-based Kabbalah Centre - whose brand of coed mysticism has won celebrity devotees including Madonna, Britney Spears and Demi Moore - recently announced the launch of an after-school Kabbalah program next month for elementary-school children.
The center's co-director told London's Jewish News he was "very excited" about a Spirituality for Kids pilot plan in the United Kingdom, which he said would run for 10 weeks out of a non-Jewish primary school in Hertfordshire, just outside London.
"Anytime we can offer young people the tools to take control of their destiny and reach their ultimate potential is a great thing," Rabbi Michael Berg told the London Jewish News. "The consciousness of today's children shapes tomorrow."
While details of the curriculum have not yet been finalized, some 400 Jewish and Muslim kids came together for a Spirituality for Kids event in Israel this year to eat hamburgers, watch a video narrated by Madonna and receive copies of the Zohar, the 13th-century kabbalistic commentary.
A network of Kabbalah Children's Academy schools already functions in the United States, but the idea of a similar crossover to England has proven to be a step too far for more-traditional Anglo Jewry, with exasperated rabbis describing it as "a farce."
"I just can't understand the point of peddling the idea of Kabbalah to children," said Rabbi Shmuel Arkush, director of Operation Judaism, an organization that combats missionaries and cult activity. Arkush says he has received many inquires from people concerned that their loved ones are being sucked into a sinister sect.
"The Kabbalah is part of the holy Torah, and we're seeing it turned into some sort of quirky pseudo-cult," he said. "That worries me."
While Jewish tradition sees Kabbalah as an ancient esoteric belief, only suitable for accomplished Torah scholars, the modern trend established by Rabbi Yehuda Berg, who founded a Kabbalah center in the 1970s, promotes Kabbalah as a tool for personal improvement, without barriers of age or religion.
Now fast growing in popularity, with some 50 centers worldwide, the contemporary Kabbalah movement has met fierce opposition within Orthodox Judaism.
The center opened a still-pending slander lawsuit six years ago against a Canadian Kabbalah scholar, Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet, after he spoke out against the movement.
His son, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, is carrying on the fight on this side of the Atlantic, calling the idea of the Kabbalah cheder "a farce."
As for the Kabbalah Centre itself, "it's just a cult," said Schochet, a member of Orthodox Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' Cabinet - a group of rabbis who assist Sacks - and a rabbi at London's Mill Hill United Synagogue.
"The movement has one primary objective, that of generating cash," Schochet said.
Officials at the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles and officials in London declined to respond to these accusations.
Much has been made of the commercialism of the Kabbalah Centre. A Web site offers products such as red strings to ward off the evil eye, at $26, or Madonna's Kabbalah-inspired children's books, "The English Roses" and "Mr. Peabody's Apples."
While it's easy to be cynical about a $12 pineapple-cilantro scented "72 Names" candle that promises to "activate direct-dial to God," the movement is proving as popular among U.K. celebrities as it is among high-profile Americans.
Soccer star David Beckham wore a red string during the European Cup this summer, and his wife, Victoria, was recently spotted with a Kabbalah accessory she bought in the L.A. center.
Even the Duke and Duchess of York's eldest daughter, Princess Beatrice, was wearing something that looked suspiciously like a Kabbalah band at this year's Wimbledon tennis tournament.
The $6.4 million London center was established six years ago. Enrollment is about 500 and growing, with students attracted to courses such as "Living the Light - an Ego Workshop" and "The Power of Kabbalah Level II."
"It's growing fabulously quickly," one volunteer said.
Unauthorized spin-offs have been growing too, including a "Kabbalah-dating" effort launched recently by a Jewish entrepreneur calling herself "Mama Love," who offers complimentary champagne along with an initiation bracelet that "vibrates romantic and sexual energy."
Leading rabbis are not happy about the trend. In April, Sacks publicly distanced mainstream Jewry from the movement.
In a statement issued jointly from his office, the United Synagogue and the Beit Din, Sacks said, "In the light of issues which have been brought to our attention relating to the Kabbalah Centre in the U.K., we wish it to be known that this organization does not fall within the remit of the chief rabbinate or any other authority in the U.K. recognized by us."
With Kabbalah fever showing no sign of abating, religious figures are taking issue with repeated media reports describing Kabbalah as part of the Jewish faith.
"It doesn't do the reputation of Judaism any good, by any stretch of the imagination," Schochet said.
"It's a bit trying," says Rabbi Meir Salasnik, also a member of the chief rabbi's Cabinet, and a rabbi of Bushey and District United Synagogue.
Salasnik's only consolation is that he thinks the popularization of Kabbalah will be a passing craze.
"It's a fashion," he said, "but Orthodox Judaism has been around for centuries, and it's the one that will continue."