Using a secret camera, cancer patient Tony Donnelly went inside the Kabbalah Centre in London to reveal an organisation that charges £860 for dinner, 'healing' water and some books in Aramaic
The surgeon at the Royal Marsden Hospital had warned me after I went under the knife for bladder cancer that the third month after the operation would be the most frustrating. I had got through the chemotherapy course and the good news was that I was still alive and kicking. But, while nowhere near my original fitness, I was desperate for something exciting, anything, to break me out of the boredom of convalescence.
John Sweeney, the BBC reporter, who knows me of old, had visited me at the hospital and knew that I had done covert camera work before. His call was like a tonic. This job, he explained, concerned a curious religious outfit called the Kabbalah Centre, which claimed, among other things, that its Kabbalah water was blessed with "miraculous powers of restoration and healing" and that its Zohar books, the core texts of Kabbalah which they marketed, did you good, too.
They operated from a £3.65 million property off Bond Street in central London, and names such as Madonna and Britney Spears were mentioned as supporters. Some people said the centre helped people to understand ancient Jewish mysticism, but others who had been inside it called it a cult.
My task was to test its claim that the water and the books could help cure cancer. I was to play the wealthy businessman stricken with cancer, which was at least half true.
After picking up my secret camera, I headed off to the London Kabbalah Centre. On hearing of my cancer and that money was no problem, Miriam at reception filled me in: "We have the Kabbalah water, that has very strong healing powers."
Would it help my cells?
"It's a very good possibility," she said. "We have one girl, who works here, her mother used to have cancer and she doesn't have it any more& Because she drank the water. She comes here for Shabbat [the Sabbath]. There are a lot of connections you can do. The water is very, very good because it affects the cells, it cleanses the cells."
She arranged a meeting that day for me with Chagai Shouster, a senior figure in the centre. He told me he lived there and explained that his possessions would fit into one suitcase. He didn't have money to buy clothes, but received gifts. He also said that, for the last nine years, he had only been given what he needed. He struck me as an intelligent man who, but for his devotion to the Kabbalah Centre, would be holding down a worthwhile career in the outside world.
We talked about my cancer. Shouster was very careful to stress that he wasn't promising miracles, but he said there were tools that could help, including the water and the Zohar - the Kabbalah books in Aramaic and Hebrew.
"You need to let go of what the doctors told you," he said. "Drinking the water while meditating on the places that we have a problem with - the bladder, you say? - will clean and strengthen those places. Also, you can put the water on your stomach as well."
"How much water will I need?"
"In your situation right now? About three bottles a day to drink& and to meditate and to scan the Zohar& There are a few items that I'd like you to get right now in the bookstore, that I'd like you to have, if you want."
Expecting money might raise its ugly head, I asked: "The water is not a gift?"
"No, nothing is a gift, the water is not a gift, the Zohar is not a gift, as you know& There is the water cost. A case of 12 boxes costs £45 and the Zohar is £289. And the Shabbat meal is £26."
Shouster explained the importance of the Zohar books. No matter that they were written in Aramaic and, to me, indecipherable, I was told that I only had to run my fingers over the pages and scan the words for the "tools" to start working. Their tools, however, weren't cheap - the bill was £860, including dinner that night. And guess who was coming to dinner? Madonna!
Why does the material girl need Kabbalah?
"She wants to understand how she works with her kids better," Shouster told me. "She wants to understand how to control her mood better, how to be more happy. How to be more tolerant with her husband and to maintain the relationship."
That evening, I was back at the centre, complete with hidden camera. Looking forward to dinner, I was welcomed by Shouster. My first blunder was the dress code. Everyone else was dressed in white; I was dressed in black. Spot the undercover BBC investigator&
People were friendly, touchy-feely, shaking hands and cuddling each other. Shouster took my hand to shake it and embraced me, and, in doing so, touched the camera.
"What's that?" he asked. I fended him off by telling him that it was an electronic device delivering the chemotherapy drug. He looked embarrassed and nothing more was said.
Throughout the evening, I was introduced to people who told me how their lives had been changed by Kabbalah, the water and the Zohar.
I was seated at a table with a charming lady who told me that she'd had breast and lung cancer. She had undergone surgery at the Royal Brompton Hospital but, she told me, she had recovered from the operation quickly because of the Kabbalah water.
At one point, I noticed a striking blonde enter, in a trilby hat - Madonna. She was seated with her husband, Guy Ritchie, and their children on the next table. They seemed like a nice family, with Madonna a normal mum.
But then things turned crazy. A weird religious service started with prayer readings and chanting that culminated in everyone turning to the east, pushing the air with their hands, and crying out "Cher-er-er-er-nobyl" at the top of their voices. They thought they were curing Chernobyl of radiation, using the power of Kabbalah to drive away the evil - and one of the biggest rock stars on the planet was joining in the chanting.
The issue of how to pay the £860 came up a couple of days later. I didn't want to hand over a credit card, so I invented a cock-and-bull story about offshore riches and promised to deliver cash - £860 in total for the Kabbalah water and the Zohar books. I counted out the cash, then Shouster counted it out again.
Having paid £860, I was next offered a trip to celebrate a Kabbalah religious festival in Israel. Rabbi Philip Berg, the leader of the Kabbalah Centre movement, would be present. I was presented with an invoice for $6,232 (£3,331); flights were to be extra.
Then I had a session with Rabbi Eliyahu Yardeni, a Kabbalah Centre teacher. He told me about the meaning of life and the secrets of the universe, and volunteered a staggering piece of information: "Just to tell you another thing about the six million Jews that were killed in the Holocaust. The question was that the Light was blocked. They didn't use Kabbalah."
It sounded as though he was blaming the Holocaust on its victims. Then he made a vitriolic attack on mainstream rabbis, labelling them the enemy of the Kabbalah Centre. I'm not Jewish, but his unprovoked rantings about Hitler's victims left me questioning his sanity.
My encounter with the Kabbalah people still makes me angry. On the one hand, I have experienced first-class surgery and care at the Royal Marsden Hospital which has, at the very least, extended my life. Yet that hospital is struggling to raise money for essential equipment that saves lives.
On the other hand, you've got the Kabbalah Centre, this wacky outfit, where, for £860, I bought a few bottles of water and some books I can't read. The Kabbalah Centre is attracting the weak and those who are most vulnerable. I know, because I've been through cancer.
Recently, I saw on the Kabbalah Centre website pictures of a tsunami victim - a little boy with a red string around his wrist and a book in his hand - and I thought: how could they? The idea that they are sending their over-priced water and books you can't read to the tsunami victims makes me very angry indeed.
What is Kabbalah and who believes in it?
Kabbalah is a branch of Jewish mysticism, which is thought to have originated in the 13th century. Its teachings come from an ancient 23-volume book called the Zohar, which offers interpretations of the inner meaning of the Torah. Traditionally, its practices were reserved for a select number of Jewish scholars who already had an advanced understanding of Jewish law, but for the past 500 years it has been followed more widely.
In 1969, a former insurance salesman, Rabbi Philip Berg, established the Kabbalah Centre International and appointed himself its leader. The centre markets Kabbalah as a "universal system for self-improvement" and attracts more than 3.5 million followers. Berg claims that Kabbalah answers the ultimate questions of human existence: who we are, where we come from and why we're here. Its followers claim that it can purify the soul and banish disease, depression and discontent using the spiritual light of the Zohar.
The Kabbalah Centre sells copies of its sacred texts and other "spiritual tools", such as Kabbalah Water. Among the best-selling items is the red string bracelet, said to protect the wearer from the evil eye. The Beckhams, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Demi Moore and Madonna have all been seen sporting one.