Kabbalah leader talks

Shaul Youdkevitch, director of the Tel Aviv Kabbalah Centre, who was suspected of swindling and extorting money from dying cancer patient Leah Zunis has responded to the allegations following Leah Zunis' husband dropping his lawsuit.

Ynet News, Israel/December 5, 2005
By Yifat Glick

“I was in a jail cell with 20 other detainees. It was shocking. They treat people there like animals in a cage. Everyone sits on a cement floor. Suddenly, from out of this horrible thing, they notice that I am reading the Zohar. In the end I gave a lesson to the entire group. It was an amazing experience. Everyone calmed down and the energy in the cell was sensational. They said it was a wonderful learning experience and I invited them all to visit our center.”

Shaul Youdkevitch, director of the Tel Aviv Kabbalah Center spent 24 hours in jail, suspected of swindling and extorting money from cancer patient Leah Zunis, who has since passed away. Zunis, a former student, and her husband Boris said the center promised her a full recovery in exchange for a donation of USD 60,000.

Youdkevitch was remanded in custody for six days, five of which he spent under house arrest, and police questioned his wife in her capacity as the managing director of the Center.

During the scandal the couple refused to be interviewed, but spoke to Yedioth Ahronoth a week after Boris Zunis surprisingly withdrew his lawsuit following mediation.

“I discovered depths of pain I had no idea existed,” says Osnat Youdkevitch. “I felt alone, even though Rabbi Berg and his wife Karen (founders of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles and international directors of the movement) gave me their full support and were in touch with me on a daily basis. But I think that this is the way among true leaders: There is very little oxygen at the top of the mountain and it’s lonely.

The couple says supporters came in droves to the Tel Aviv center, but they stopped volunteers from protesting in support of the couple.

“People have to tendency to get something, and then to take more and more. When the supply is cut off – they are profoundly disappointed. All those people you interviewed for your article were people to whom we gave our life’s blood. We sat with them until the wee hours of dawn; we helped them with their mothers, their aunts, with their problems at work, Osnat says.

It has been said that you purposely incite family members against one another and ask those who learn at the Center to cut off ties with their relatives and every one they know. Your center is regarded worldwide as a cult.

Shaul Youdkevitch: “Once, a number of years ago, there was a meeting of the New York Jewish Federation. There was someone there from a group called the ‘anti-cult movement’ and he told them how much money required rescuing Jews from Christian cults. Rabbi Berg said in response that instead of investing so much money ‘rescuing ’ people from these cults one needs to ask why Jews turn to these cults in the first place. Ever since then, everyone is mad at the Kabbalah Center. The truth is that the anti-cult group is a cult itself. They just don’t know us.”

Osnat Youdkevitch: "There is no truth to the allegations that we force people to spend Shabbat with us. This place is open. I encourage people to take home what they learn here. We have parents' evenings, and many of them bring their children here for study at the center.”

Shaul: “Sure we tell people they should eat at the Center on Shabbat, but not at the cost of a fight with their families. It’s not worth studying Kabbalah if it’s going to cause family tension.”

One of the main allegations against you is that you demand your volunteers to work around the clock to the point of exhaustion, for token payment.

Shaul: “We operate like a kibbutz. People work and their earnings go into a communal kitty which is distributed among everyone for their sustenance. People who donate know exactly where they money is going. It's all transparent.

"Sometimes people get worn out from the tasks because we have many activities. We often have volunteer supervisors who demand too much from other volunteers. If we get a complaint we fire them. This happens in every volunteer organization.

“Do you have any idea what this center does for a person’s health? Amazing things. Statistically, those who study here take fewer drugs and are sick less often. Their immune system is stronger. Those who have control of their daily life can bring about miracles and revive the dead, heal the sick and bring the rains. We are talking here about something awesome, something extraordinary. This is not a macrame group. It’s no wonder that people want to help us, even if it means giving a lot of hours.”

Do you also contribute to the communal pot?

Shaul: “Osnat and I are on salary, a few thousand shekels a month. In general, people in Kabbalah are good business people, because we work by day and study at night. We don’t have a lot of time to waste.”

Oded and Carmit Tsafroni, a couple in their forties, volunteered at the Kabbalah Center for five years.

“Our job was to work the markets and stalls for food donations. We would dress like an ultra-Orthodox couple and say we need food for our yeshiva, 'Kol Yehuda.' Afterwards, Shaul and Osnat would sell the food to people who ate Shabbat meals at the center. We were supposed to be gathering food for the needy, but they used it to make money for the center.”

The Youdkevitches deny it.

Shaul: “We have many functions at the center and we raise money for them. We ask people for a token payment for meals and for the upkeep of the kitchen, which costs a lot of money. It’s not just buying cucumbers. Besides, a lot of people have no money and eat here for free. We have a very big table.

"We have a special camaraderie with our students that cannot be assessed in terms of dollars and cents. We get a lot of very lonely people here and everyone mobilizes on their behalf and welcomes them into the group. If someone is ill or sitting shiva (seven days of mourning), everyone is there to support them, hold their hand and to help them heal.

“We teach the difference between winning and losing: Losers sit and complain. Winners get up and do. It is hard to comprehend how the fabulous activities of the center are dwarfed just because it seems everyone is complaining that we ask them for financial donations. There are people who don’t want to give much and that’s okay. We tell everyone ‘Come as often as you want and give what you want.

“Sometimes it happens that an individual feels social pressure and then we need to be careful and understand when he is making a donation out of free will and when he is doing it in order to please. There are people who come to us and say they will give everything they own to the center, selling their house to do it. We stop them usually, but when something goes wrong, then the media gets wind of it and that is regretful. Nevertheless, we learn from our mistakes.

"We have hired a public relations consultant who will represent us with the media. A documentary film is being made about our activities worldwide. Channel Two will be glad to buy the movie. We’ll come out of this yet.”

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