Inside the Bizarre Cult that's Gripped Hollywood

Its followers have included everyone from Dolly to Liz and Streisand to Rosseane. But critics say it's a scam.

Star Magazine/January 26, 1999
By David Sargeant

Madonna scribbles in her notebook: "I am having problems with my boyfriend. He is not emotionally opening up to me. This is tough on me." Sitting on a hard, fold-out chair, she takes a couple of gulps from her can of Coke and plays with her hair, ignoring those around her and listening intently to the bearded speaker in the room. After he is finished she rushes up to him and engages him in earnest conversation about the latest message he has given his followers.

This is a meeting of the Kabbalah Learning Center, the controversial New Age cult that has taken Hollywood by storm. Critics claim it is nothing but a moneymaking scam that splits families and gives out dangerous medical advice. But Madonna, Roseanne, Elizabeth Taylor and comic Sandra Bernhard all swear by it. And dozens of other stars --Barbra Streisand, Diane Ladd, Cortney Love, Gwyneth Paltrow, Dolly Parton, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum, among others -- have dabbled with classes at the Learning Center in Los Angeles.

Cult experts are alarmed at the growing number of celebrities who are getting involved in the Learning Center. "I don't think that Madonna has any idea what she's getting into," leading cult watcher Rick Ross tell STAR. "She should take the time and effort to talk to former members of the Kabbalah Learning Center and hear their stories of physical abuse and how they suffered financially. It is a very questionable group."

It's also been alleged the center:

  • Told a California man to stop his medication for depression and instead by Kabbalah books and look to them for divine help.
  • Warned an elderly Florida couple that if they did not turn over most of their life savings tragedy could come their way.
  • Said a young Russian immigrant's miscarriage was caused by "demonic possession."
  • Told a man whose business was in ruins after an earthquake to give $26,000 for "so much light in my life I wouldn't believe it."

But many celebrities credit Kabbalah for straightening out -- if not saving -- their lives. STAR was there when Madonna attended a recent Kabbalah meeting at the Beverly Hills Center, a run-down former church badly in need of a coat of paint. She was part of a 10-week class taught by the guru to the stars, Rabbi Eitan Yardeni. Some 50 people were crammed into a small classroom to hear Yardeni, 35, an intense bearded Israeli with penetrating eyes. "Kabbalah has all the answers," Yardeni promised. "Let go and let the light in," he cried to the eager group of students.

"Madonna is fixated with Eitan," a Kabbalah insider tells STAR. "There is a real chemistry between them. She is very happy around him." The 40-year-old superstar has been going to classes ever since she was expecting her baby Lourdes in 1996. She consulted the Kabbalah Learning Center about what day to give birth, and even how many songs to put on her Grammy nominated record Ray of Light. On the album credits she thanks the center for "creative guidance."

Liz Taylor also speaks highly of the group. "I don't know what I would have done without Kabbalah," says Liz. "I was suffering physically, falling deeper and deeper into a fog of pain pills. "Then suddenly I found a light to lead me through the darkness. And it was one simple word -- Kabbalah."

Comedienne turned-talk-show-host Roseanne, even employs a Kabbalah consultant on her show. Recently she gave a lecture to try to entice people to join. More than 400 people packed the Beverly Hills Center. Dozens were turned away. "It's cheaper than therapy and deeper than therapy," Roseanne claims. "Before Kabbalah I had no friends and everyone thought I was crazy." She says fellow comic Sandra Bernhard is responsible for her membership.

Bernhard claims: "My DNA has changed, my whole way of being has changed. "My energy, my understanding, my compassion, my level of tolerance and patience is something I never dreamed I was capable of."

Kabbalah has been around for centuries. But it's only in recent years that the church began attracting a celebrity following. The Kabbalah Learning Center itself dates back from 1969 when it was taken over by Rabbi Philip Berg, a twice-married 69-year-old former Brooklyn insurance agent, who changed his name from Feivel Gruberger. Kabbalah, which includes a belief in reincarnation, is an ancient Jewish mystical tradition. It teaches that nothing in the world happens by accident.

Cult expert Ross claims that Berg's version of Kabbalah is designed to part followers with their money as quickly as possible -- members are even advised to "give till it hurts."

Berg claims to have 150,000 students in eight countries. He and his center are now estimated to have a net worth of $20 million, leading critics to charge that he is more profiteer than prophet. Berg feels it is vital that his group recruit celebrity members just like another controversial semi-religious group, Scientology, which calls on household names such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kristie Alley to spread its message.

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