Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Local Kabbala Cult?

Cross-posted at A Mother in Israel.

"So who is moving into Kiryat Matalon as the older people die out?" I ask the woman I met in the park (let's call her P). P has just explained that Kiryat Matalon, her upscale neighborhood at the western entrance of Petach Tikvah, no longer has enough kids to justify its own elementary school.

"The private houses are expensive," P answers. "So the survivors divide them up into rental units. Do you know that storefront on Jabotinsky Street, Kabbalah La'am? The members of that group snatch up all the available rentals."

"Really?" Whenever I go by the place seems deserted.

"Yes. If you go out at 3am, you see thousands of men headed there, from my neighborhood, Tel Aviv, and other cities. Many are celebrities—singers, models. . . ."

This conversation is starting to ring a bell. A year or two ago I saw a response by Rav Aviner to a question about learning kabbalah, warning the writer about kabbalah cults. His reponse included a former member's testimony, which appears here. If the testimony is accurate Kabbalah La'am, also known as Bnei Baruch, has all the characteristics of a cult: late-night brainwashing, a charismatic leader, large charitable "contributions," gradual initiation into an inner circle, secrecy, and ostracism of members who leave.

From the outside it seems to resemble Orthodox Judaism. The page I linked to mentions Shabbat, kashrut, niddah, modest dress for women, and kippot for men. On Sukkot and Pesach they hold huge festivals with large numbers of overseas visitors.

Nana10 has an interview with other former members of Bnei Baruch. One couple was attracted to it because, unlike others offering Jewish studies, the group didn't object to her Italian-born husband's non-Jewish status.

Men are allowed to spend only fifteen minutes a day with their families. When a husband mentioned that his wife objected, his comrades told him to divorce her and get a new wife. They said "It's like switching one cow for another."

The woman in the park added more details, which I have no way of verifying. The newspaper article (from 2005) mentions an emphasis on skirts for women. The women in P's neighborhood wear skirts or pants, and married women cover their hair. They stay with the kids all day through the evening; P doesn't see fathers with the children. The men volunteer or study at the center during the evenings, and again from 3-6 AM. During Pesach and Sukkot, the men don't see their wives at all. The women and children attend meals on Shabbat but eat separately.

Once P noticed some of the women eating on Yom Kippur. When questioned the women told her that the Jewish Torah is "shtuyot (nonsense)." They explained that they follow the kabbalah, and come from a lost tribe that had left Egypt with the Jews but never made it to Eretz Yisrael. P claims that the kabbalah center houses scrolls that look like a sefer Torah but contain a different text.

One woman from the group noticed that P's daughter is overweight. She looked intently at P and said, "There's nothing wrong with your daughter. It's you. You have a sickness." Still, all in all, P. says that the influx of young couples is good for the neighborhood. The kids attend their own school in a different city, but enroll in local preschools and afterschool activities.

Leader Michael Leitman responded to the claims in the Nana article saying, "We take a 10% tithe like every community synagogue in Bnei Brak." This is disingenuous. Jewish sources recommend donating at least ten percent of income to charity, but no one expects the shul to get all of it. Former group members report that real numbers are closer to 20%.

Blogger Hezi Amiel writes that the kabbalah center has a sophisticated web presence and high ranking in search engines, making it difficult for potential members to find information critical of the group.

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