Many religious and secular Jews alike would agree that spirituality can neither be bought nor sold; that the unrevealed Jewish wisdom of the Kabbala (mystical teachings of rabbinical origin) may be better left to learned scholars. The other camp - vocal supporters of Kabbala studies for the masses - say the opposite, that studies in Kabbala reveal hidden dimensions of the Torah that benefit anyone who attempts to uncover them.
People who study and work at the Kabbalah Centre in Tel Aviv are used to media attention. Last year, during Rosh Hashana, the "material girl" Madonna proudly sported her devotion to the center in the form of a red string around her wrist when she visited Israel. Stacks of her children's books and snapshots of her face could be found adorning the Tel Aviv center's lobby - a sight far from the traditional setting of synagogues and learning centers.
There are four Kabbalah Centres in Israel: in Tel Aviv, Tiberias, Haifa, and Jerusalem.
Recently, the Tel Aviv center became the focus of a police investigation after a woman and her husband filed charges of fraud. Boris Zonis and his wife Leah complained that Leah was cheated and lied to by the center's administrators, who claimed that their donation of thousands of dollars would assure Leah's complete recovery from cancer, aided by drinking "Kabbala water." The water, which originates from a spring in Ontario, Canada, is believed by members of the center to have special healing properties. Leah died in August.
According to Sergeant-Major Mores Tal, who is heading the police investigation, the Zonis case goes back to 1999 when the Rishon Lezion couple approached the Kabbalah Center, desperate to find a cure for Leah. According to Tal, the center took thousands of dollars from her and went on to promise that she would be cured of her disease if she drank the Kabbala water, which costs NIS 27 a bottle, more than 10 times the cost of regular bottled water.
In an interview with Metro, Tal said he commanded an undercover probe at the center in Tel Aviv that led to the arrest of the center's head, Shaul Youdkevitch, on October 13. He was placed under house arrest for five days. According to media reports, Youdkevitch called the complaint "bogus." He admitted to receiving the money but says he never promised Mrs. Zonis a full recovery from cancer.
Zonis's lawyer and the police say that the center in Tel Aviv is rife with fraud. After the charge was made last month, about 20 other complaints were filed.
The center's lawyer, Lior Epstein, says the whole matter is a question over hearts, and told Metro that the charges against the center should certainly not be criminal.
"We are trying to seek the real root of this frustrating situation," Epstein said.
Last Sunday, still in the wake of the much-publicized scandal, the Kabbala Center, off Dizengoff Square in the city center, had its doors open and quietly accepted new patrons. A middle-aged woman with a headscarf and calf-length skirt swept the stairwell that leads to the first floor entrance. Inside the lobby, a woman attired in pants, a blouse and designer glasses awaited visitors' eye contact before saying "Shalom."
The reception room is impressive, with large leather sofas, a massive flat-screen television set, and handmade ceramic bowls - for sale - replete with Hebrew script patterns inside. Soaps, candles and aromatic items are tucked into alcoves that line the walkway, which is clearly set up for helping people access books, tapes, and T-shirts.
A wall of books flanks the desk of Sarah, the reception clerk. A few meters from where she sits, bottles of Kabbala water are lined up on a shelf. She greets a woman in her early twenties, from Moscow, explaining to her that there are no classes in English, but adds that she can learn through the Internet or buy a series of taped lectures.
Although Sarah admits to being criticized for belonging to and working for the Kabbala Center, she has no regrets about the path she is on. For the past 10 years, she has been immersed in Kabbala studies that help her understand the reasons (read "secrets") behind some Jewish rituals.
Those following the traditional path of Orthodox Judaism can turn to Rabbi Israel Meir Lau's book Practical Judaism, where he writes that the two candles lit before the Sabbath begins signify two things: to "observe" and to "remember" the Sabbath. Sarah, on the other hand, says she learned something else via the Kabbala - that one of the candles signifies the soul, and the second represents a mate. When the two candles are lit together, a person becomes whole.
Studying Kabbala, says Sarah, helps her gain the understanding behind Jewish rituals and traditions. Before she turned to Kabbala, she would light Shabbat candles "just because my mother did it. I can't be a robot," she says.
Sarah finds it hard to follow the beliefs of certain religious groups that practice Jewish tradition based on the tenet that only after one performs the mitzvot will one's heart follow.
At the center in Tiberias a receptionst, Sarah #2, answers the phone. Raised in a secular home, Sarah #2 says there is something for everyone at the Kabbalah Center and that its teachings make people strong. Some members are religious - "religious" being a word she likes to refrain from using - but most are not. Introductory classes start next week and can draw anywhere from three to 50 people. The first meeting is free. Subsequent lectures cost about NIS 1,000 for 10 meetings.
"It is not the Kabbala way to call someone religious," says Sarah #2, who agrees that the center where she works could be considered the opposite of Orthodox religious Judaism. "Big rabbis are afraid of the Kabbala," she says. "Some rabbis will say Kabbala is forbidden, but it is for everyone and helps us break out of the world's chaos."
Although the Tiberias location doesn't see many non-Jews from the region, at least two Jewish converts participate. And, like Sarah #1, Sarah #2 says that Torah and the Kabbala are not reserved only for Jews.
Jewish people, explains Sarah #2, are given light from which they must distribute to all the other nations of the world. The mess in the world is because the rest of the nations are not receiving the light they deserve. In short, the Jews aren't doing their job, and the rest of the world is angry, she believes.
If I had the chance, I would sell spirituality," quips Ari, a vendor from the kiosk facing the Tel Aviv Kabbalah Centre. "I'm a businessman, after all."
Ari knows many of the people who pass through the center, and even spoke with Youdkevitch the day he was arrested. Through working at the family-run business for 15 years, Ari has learned that "No one gets nothing for nothing."
His attitude toward the center used to be more cynical, but these days he doesn't want to judge. He conducts a straw poll about the center with customers and friends who come to buy beverages and cigarettes.
"I don't think they [the Kabbalah Centre] are taking money from people; I think people are giving it to them," he says.
Ari, who sees Kabbala teachers come and go - some of them wearing skullcaps - believes that people should pay for what they take. "If I go to school and want to learn different courses all the time, I have to pay," he says.
"People go to the organization," he reasons, "because they have problems. Everyone has problems, even Bill Gates. Thousands of people are going to the organization, not because it is phony but because it gives them something. That makes it real," he says. "If someone's teeth hurt, I won't tell him to go to a rabbi, rather a dentist," Ari says of the recent scandal.
"I'm not surprised about the arrest," pipes in Nir, a 20-something neighbor who calls the center and what happens there "rubbish." Nir thinks that corruption is going on in the center and says he wouldn't sell spirituality for any price.
At police headquarters, the Tel Aviv fraud squad, headed by Tal, has no polite words to describe the Kabbalah Centre, even when it was suggested that perhaps the activities there bring about eventual good.
Since Youdkevitch was arrested last month, Tal reports to have scoured the premises and found no records that indicate where some $25,000 of the Zonis family's money went. Tal was due to meet with the center's accountant to go over records.
"They claim that the money went to many projects for Israeli and Palestinian children. If that is so, where are all the receipts?" asks Tal, who says that the center interchangeably refers to itself as a company and a non-profit organization, depending on the circumstances.
In the meantime, Tal is out to prove what he is sure is fraud. Six bottles of the Kabbala water have been sent to the Jerusalem police labs for testing. Tal says that Youdkevitch told him that the water has special redemptive properties and the bottles are stamped by a biochemist who validated that the water can cure people's illnesses such as cancer.
When asked to produce the test results that proved these claims, the biochemist said she could only do so in two weeks. In the coming weeks, the Jerusalem police hope to reveal what is really inside the water. Tal and his partner Gila did not seem too optimistic.
The boys at the kiosk say it is just tap water.
"The center is a cult," says Tal, while Gila volunteered that people in the center "act like zombies."
Since the arrest, others have filed complaints against the center. One mother, says Tal, was denied access to her children. Another youth recently released from the army was informed that he should break connections with his family. Tal suspects many others are out there but are prohibited from speaking to the authorities and will not come forward, even though they have suffered severe injustices.
Moshe Rosenberg, the director who first persuaded Leah Zonis to donate money to the center, is being remanded to return to Israel. He resides in the US.
"We're sure they are criminals," Tal reiterates. "They are fooling people, telling them stories, using their weaknesses, playing on their hopes and taking money from everyone who believes them. We have not finished this investigation," he concludes.
According to Haim Cohen, Boris Zonis's lawyer, the Kabbalah Centre has enlisted three powerful law firms against the plaintiff, one of which is headed by an ex-minister of justice. In all, Cohen sees himself against a team of some 20 lawyers. Cohen feels proud that media outlets such as the BBC have agreed to submit tapes on the Kabbalah Centre that could help indict the defendant.
"My client has given everything he has - all his savings - while they took advantage of the family's psychological situation. Leah died knowing that she was cheated and had caused an economic crisis for the family. Instead of confessing, they are selling lies to the public," says Cohen.
Epstein, the lawyer representing the center, believes that the police are doing a professional job.
"It's a sad story that involves good people," he said.
The traditional path
Almost a month after the arrest of the Tel Aviv Kabbalah Centre's Shaul Youdkevitch, the news had yet to reach the nearby religious neighborhood of Bnei Brak, where students and rabbis learn all aspects of the Torah, including Kabbala, free of charge.
One student, Itzik (not his real name), will not be found wearing the symbolic red ribbon around his wrist. A full-time Torah scholar, he concentrates on the teachings of the Kabbala through the writings of Rav Yehuda Ashlag.
"In fact, one who studies Kabbala is encouraged to hide the fact that he does. We look normal like everyone else, and we are certainly not missionaries," he says.
Itzik does not read secular newspapers and had not heard about the Kabbalah Center arrest last month, although he knew that somehow the center was associated with pop icon Madonna.
"All I hear are rumors," says Itzik, who knows people who have visited the center.
Asked about his thoughts on popular Kabbala study through such centers, Itzik says he cannot say what is right or wrong for people.
"Everyone must do what is right for themselves. I don't know the truth. I am not a prophet."
The learning centers where he - and others like him - study in Bnei Brak do not have websites.
"If someone needs to find the studies, he will surely find a way."
Itzik says there is no question about fees at the traditional Jewish centers where he learns. "One will not pay a penny. Charging for studies is ridiculous," he says.