Sick in spirit

Former Kabbalah Centre volunteers claim abuse, had to beg for medical care

The Daily/April 3, 2012

The obstetrician had gotten used to his fellow worshipers, even men, coming to him desperate for treatment. And it troubled him that they weren't getting the medical care they needed.

They were all devoted volunteers of the Kabbalah Centre, a global spiritual movement that espouses a New Age version of ancient Jewish mysticism.

The Kabbalah Centre movement relies on hundreds of these loyal soldiers — known as the chevre (pronounced hev-rah), the Hebrew word for "friends" — to do everything. They teach, they prepare the weekly Shabbat feasts and, most importantly, they raise millions of dollars. They are willing to follow every command of the center's founding family, the Bergs, believing that the word of matriarch Karen Berg is equivalent to that of God, as several former members interviewed by The Daily explained.

To Dr. Clifford Bochner, though, the center doesn't simply depend on the chevre. He contends that it abuses them. The obstetrician told The Daily he left the Kabbalah Centre in 2008 over what he witnessed and experienced — chevre, both women and men, begging for medical care.

"When they have a medical problem, they do everything they can through connections to get it done for free," said Bochner. "Otherwise they will go look for the cheapest medical care possible, and they have to go begging to the boss, Karen Berg, whether to get the procedure or not."

A former member forwarded The Daily an email from one person who has been with the chevre a long time, asking Bochner about an inexpensive place for a hernia operation.

"I gave my name — first only, I said I have 2 side hernia and no medical insurance, and I asked them what now and what next," wrote the 15-year veteran teacher at the center, who did not respond to The Daily's request for comment.

"But in order to have the light u need to build the vessel and I am working on it," the email concluded.

Since late 2010, the center, several of its entities, and the Bergs — Karen, 69, Philip, 82, and their two sons, Michael and Yehuda — have reportedly been under federal investigation. The center has said it is cooperating with the investigation.

Much of the media coverage of the probe has focused on gambling trips, private jets and plastic surgery that seemingly belie the Bergs' vow of poverty and the many charity projects that donors, including Madonna, have given millions toward — only to never see them materialize.

But more than a dozen people formerly with the chevre, as well as students and employees, told The Daily that they have also talked with FBI and IRS special agents about the Bergs' exploitation of the chevre as personal servants, as well as widespread immigration and Medicaid fraud. One source said the agencies have a list of about 75 people with close ties to the center, half of them chevre.

"They think that they are soldiers of the Light, workers of the Light; they are above the law," explained "Rebecca," who met her husband, "Samuel," after she became chevre in the 1990s. The couple, who requested pseudonyms to protect their identities, are preparing to sue the center in Israel, and plan to request that the Tel Aviv court keep their names confidential.

The Daily interviewed Rebecca, Samuel and Zipora Giladi, another former member suing the center, via Skype with their attorney, Chaim Cohen, who is based in Tel Aviv.

The Kabbalah Centre prospered because of its army of cheap labor, but the former members, who helped do the work, said they were treated like chattel — verbally abused, moved around the world at Karen Berg's whim, crammed into tiny apartments, made to beg for medical care, even kept from taking a lunch break during their 16-hour workdays.

Rebecca and Samuel recalled living, for a time, with their children in a storage closet while they were opening a center in Jerusalem because center officials "wanted to save money." They were then moved to a cockroach-infested building that also served as a brothel.

Rebecca claimed she did not receive maternity leave after the birth of each of her three children, yet the center kept the money the Israeli government pays new mothers.

After her first son was born, Rebecca had her mother help care for the baby, which the center disapproved of. One of her punishments: Cleaning all six floors of the Kabbalah Centre in Tel Aviv by herself, infant in tow.

"One of the things with the center is to detach yourself from your family. One of the things that they tell you is [your family] has a very negative influence on you," said Rebecca. "They felt that they had to teach me through violence, through pain … to be 100 percent connected through the center."

Giladi, 56, wept as she described how she and another woman were tossed out in 2009 after they became too old and had stopped bringing money into the center. She said she watched her friend, who was shipped back to Israel after developing costly health problems, die "of a broken heart."

The three ex-chevre also described dividing "hundreds" of boxes of merchandise — jewelry, books, calendars, candles, red strings — between the luggage of chevre and students who were flying from Israel to the U.S. so that the center wouldn't have to pay customs taxes and charges on weight.

The Kabbalah Centre, through spokesman Mark Fabiani, declined repeated requests for interviews.

The former chevre, along with several other sources, said Karen Berg often played matchmaker between young female chevre and wealthy older men.

"The husband is giving all her needs and donations to the center," Rebecca said. "It's the easiest way to get money into the center, through this chevre girl."

In other instances, sources said chevre married American citizens solely for the purpose of obtaining a green card.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has received 76 visa petitions from the Kabbalah Centre since 2006, including for religious workers and skilled workers, according to an agency spokesman. The number does not include other visa types commonly used by the center, such as tourism and exchange visas for visiting scholars provided through the State Department, which would not disclose figures to The Daily.

"You can get yourself into a lot of trouble if you abuse immigration policy and try to somehow use that in furtherance of your organization illegally," said James Wedick, a former FBI supervisor who has worked on organized crime cases.

A high-ranking USCIS official told The Daily that the agency's fraud investigators turned over four leads to Immigration and Customs Enforcement between 2007 and 2008, but ICE declined to pursue them. ICE declined to comment.

Although the center has gotten stricter about following immigration laws in recent years, Rebecca said, "a lot of chevre stayed illegally, no visa."

Publicly available USCIS denials on Kabbalah Centre visas also showed the center had provided "false or conflicting information," such as a fake "vow of poverty" from one chevre, with area codes on the letterhead that did not exist at the time the vow was dated.

Also, according to these documents, the center claimed on visa petitions that chevre are provided medical care, which sources insisted is untrue.

Some visas, such as J-1 visas, require the petitioning agency to provide immigrants with medical care. Rebecca and Samuel, who were in Miami on J-1 visas in 2005, said they begged members to provide medical care for themselves and their children.

Sources said they told investigators that chevre did everything they could to avoid asking the center to pay the out-of-pocket, asking other chevre who had obtained Medicaid legally to share their benefits or giving false names for emergency room care.

Shaul and Osnat Youdkevitch, who left the center in 2008 after 28 years as chevre, told The Daily they received Medicaid benefits after they obtained their green cards.

"Karen [Berg] personally sent a few people to [Osnat] so they could use our Medicaid to get medicine," said Shaul Youdkevitch.

There is no shortage of former believers willing to help the investigators bring down the Bergs.

"They took advantage of a great many people, emotionally, spiritually and financially," said another former member. "I hope that they are shut down and that the chevre are set free."

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