The entrance to Israel's main Church of Scientology in central Tel Aviv is hidden behind a mini-market and a car dealership on Rehov Soncino, just a stone's throw away from the imposing Azrieli towers.
Sitting behind the wooden desk at the entrance is a young woman; next to her a beaten copy of one of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's many books. She is friendly and speaks in Hebrew as she tries to track down the people who are supposed to be meeting me to offer an insight into what Scientology - a modern religious movement, officially labeled as "the study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, others and all of life" - is doing here.
"Go up and wait for them on the first floor," she says.
I follow her directions, up the steep staircase with pictures of Hubbard and posters of various Scientology campaigns, to a reception area with a polished parquet floor. Facing the entrance - for maximum impact - is a large bronze bust of Hubbard. In one corner is an impressive library, which on closer inspection reveals only books written by Hubbard. In front of the bookcases is a comfortable couch facing an assortment of video equipment, presumably used for seminars and workshops.
In another corner is a large display of leaflets and flyers in several languages: "Psychiatry - Hooking Your World on Drugs," reads one pamphlet. "Creating Racism - Psychiatry's Betrayal," announces another. "Harming Artists - Psychiatry Ruins Creativity," reads yet another. All of them are public service reports from the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, which according to the fine print is "an organization established in 1969 by the Church of Scientology to investigate and expose psychiatric violations of human rights and to clean up the field of mental healing."
Dalit Vilhelmsen, head of public affairs for Scientology in Israel, arrives to meet me. Smartly dressed and with a warm comforting smile, she ushers me into a beautifully decorated room with leather chairs and, again, hardwood floors. It's the only room in the building that has air conditioning, which is still required this warm autumn morning.
On the way, she points out another room that has a large glass window on one side facing onto the hallway. It is also reminiscent of a museum exhibit.
"It's a recreation of L. Ron Hubbard's office," she says without irony. "It is exactly like the one where he worked in America, and it is ready for him if he returns."
The pens lie untouched on the smart wooden desk next to a blank piece of paper. She points to two symbols decorating the back wall behind "Hubbard's" chair. She says that even though one of the symbols closely resembles a cross, actually the eight points represent the eight "dynamics of life" in Scientology.
Transplanted to the Holy Land in the late 1970s, the Church of Scientology is increasingly integrated into all segments of Israeli society. Whether from the ripple-effect influence of its lectures on auditors or through the funding of charitable works, Israelis are increasingly - knowingly or not - being exposed to Scientology's unique philosophy.
At the center in Tel Aviv, Vilhelmsen continues her tour of the building. There are four floors and each one has several small classrooms dedicated to the various Scientology courses, such as auditing and ethics. There is also a study hall and a book and video library filled with volumes after volumes of Hubbard's works.
In one room, a group of young Tel-Avivi types is holding a lunchtime meeting; they stand around taking deep breaths and refocusing their energy.
"JUDAISM AND Scientology can exist together," Vilhelmsen has told me during previous discussions.
"Scientology is the basis of all religions," she reiterates, once we are seated in the room together with Gad Klopstock, who serves as the local church's chaplain or spiritual adviser.
He begins to tell me a story about one of his first experiences with the Church of Scientology in the early 1980s.
"My wife and I had been studying some of Scientology's philosophies on communication," he says. "We did not know it was a church until we visited Copenhagen. There we saw a sign advertising the Church of Scientology. We were curious and so went inside. We knew immediately that the supervisor who greeted us was a Jew and we asked him how can a church work together with Judaism? He told us that not only was he Jewish but that he was also the son of a rabbi and had a haredi brother. He told us that since he'd been involved in Scientology, his relationship with his father had much improved."
"Because of its guidelines in communication, Scientology gives me the tools to understand Judaism," explains Klopstock, adding that he attended synagogue on the High Holy Days this year.
Klopstock says that it is the element of Scientology's communication guidelines that first enticed him into what some critics call a cult and others call a profitable business, but which millions of members worldwide say is a religious doctrine for living a healthier, more virtuous life.
His involvement started more than 15 years ago in his hometown of Nahariya, where meatpacking mogul Hanan Sogloweck had already started taking some Scientology courses. He was running a course in communication based on the writings of Hubbard, says Klopstock.
"My daughter told me about it; she was seven years old and friends with Hanan's daughter," he says. "My wife and I were both teachers and we were always looking for courses to improve our communication skills. We said: 'If it doesn't bite, we'll come.'"
While Klopstock recalls that the course seemed rather infantile at first, he adds that he came to realize "it was something fundamental, related to a bigger thing."
That is when he and his wife started to look around for other Scientology-related courses, which would enhance their lives.
Today, Klopstock's work with the church includes advising individual members with problems and those who have disagreements with each other on various issues. He also runs group seminars based on Scientology teachings and weekend programs for new and experienced members. His whole family has been converted to this way of life. Klopstock says the philosophies have had great benefits for his son and daughter, who now has her own children and has chosen to home school them under the guidelines of the church.
BUT WHAT exactly are Scientology's philosophies?
According to Scientology.org, the organization's official Web site, "the word Scientology literally means 'the study of truth.' It comes from the Latin word scio, meaning 'knowing in the fullest sense of the word' and the Greek word logos, meaning 'study of.'"
The on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia, states that the teachings and related techniques were developed by L. Ron Hubbard, originally a science fiction writer, over a 30-year period beginning in 1952 until his death in January 1986.
"It is an outgrowth of his earlier self-help system, Dianetics, and claims to offer an exact methodology to help humans achieve awareness of their spiritual existence across many lifetimes and, simultaneously, to become more effective in the physical world," states Wikipedia.
The official Web site claims that Dianetics "provides answers to the fundamental riddles of the mind with a thoroughly validated method that increases sanity, intelligence, confidence and well-being. It gets rid of the unwanted sensations, unpleasant emotions and psychosomatic ills that block one's life and happiness."
At the Tel Aviv center, Klopstock talks mainly about communication and the pursuit of truth.
Vilhelmsen says, "Scientology teaches people to see for themselves."
Both of them emphasize how Scientology can "improve society." They mention the church's struggle against psychiatrists, drug abusers and the organization's latest campaign to raise awareness of human rights. Vilhelmsen proudly shows me a DVD laced with trendy music and 30 artfully produced video clips to highlight the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, created by yet another branch of Scientology called Youth for Human Rights International.
The organization and its activities are growing here. Vilhelmsen estimates that there are more than 200 people currently studying the various facets of Scientology here and "a couple of thousand who use Scientology in daily life from reading books." She says there are roughly 100 others, similar to herself, who work for the organization.
Aside from the Tel Aviv center on Soncino, Vilhelmsen says there are several others around the country, including buildings on Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv and one in Haifa. But critics here point to other, more secretive centers, such as a multimillion dollar state-of-the-art facility to open soon on Rehov Hashlosha, near Ramat Gan's Nokia Arena.
It is this expansion that worries Scientology's critics here. Ranging from cult-busting organizations such as Lev L'Achim and Yad L'Achim to former members of the church to university professors well versed in sociology and religious matters to several Knesset members, the critics all see Scientology as a dangerous cult aimed at extorting its members and controlling their minds.
"A cult is a small, secretive and mysterious group," laughs Vilhelmsen. "We are very open, anyone who wants to improve himself has the opportunity to do so with us."
She maintains that these claims are simply untrue and points to a Scientology-produced booklet entitled Can We Ever Be Friends?. Now translated into Hebrew, the book is a compilation of reprinted legal letters and newspaper articles from many countries, including the US and UK, declaring Scientology a religion similar to Judaism and Christianity.
"Scientology meets all three criteria generally used by religious scholars when examining religions: 1) a belief in some ultimate reality, such as the Supreme Being or eternal truth that transcends the here and now of the secular world; (2) religious practices directed toward understanding, attaining or communicating with this ultimate reality; and (3) a community of believers who join together in pursuing the ultimate reality," says information on the official Web site, www.scientology.org.
"SCIENTOLOGY IS not a religion," argues Dr. Benny Beit-Hallahmi, author of numerous books and papers on religion and a professor in the psychology department at the University of Haifa. "It only masquerades as a religion. It is more of a business than a religion."
Beit-Hallahmi explores this notion in a 2003 paper he wrote for the Marburg Journal of Religion, entitled "Scientology: Religion or Racket?"
"The first [theory], espoused by most NRM [New Religious Movement] scholars, as well as some legal and administrative decisions, asserts that Scientology is a religion, perhaps misunderstood and innovative, but a religion nevertheless, thus worthy of our scholarly attention," he wrote. "The second, found in most media reports, some government documents in various countries, and many legal and administrative decisions, states that Scientology is a business, often given to criminal acts, and sometimes masquerading as a religion."
"Anyone who poses as a Scientologist is usually part of the organization and is making a good living off of it," says Beit-Hallahmi during our interview. "Those at the top make a lot of money and would defend at all costs what they are doing."
Vilhelmsen responds again that the booklet she has given me defuses that debate because there is documentation that Scientology is a religion and not a business.
"I don't know what he is trying to show. Scientology is practical knowledge to improve conditions in life, that includes finance," she says. "As a staff member I get a salary. It does not cancel out the fact that Scientology is a religion."
However, she does not hide the fact that Scientologists are charged for their courses. While she would not disclose the price range, she says, "We offer many free services too. The courses that do cost money offer people the tools for life."
Beit-Hallahmi brings up another widely held criticism in his article, when he explores an incident in the US in which an organization calling itself National Mental Health Assistance opened a hot line following the September 11 terrorist attacks to offer help to families of victims. When people called the hot line, they discovered that it was being run by volunteers from the Church of Scientology.
"Everything they tell you is a lie," says Beit-Hallahmi. "They work in all different forms: the committee of human rights, ways to find happiness, they send e-mails and run campaigns that provide solutions to all the world's problems."
Incidents like the hot line have also occurred with Scientology followers here. In April 2002, Scientology volunteers were discovered in Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital offering counseling to families of victims following a terrorist attack.
Beit-Hallahmi highlights several more of these "masquerades," even pointing out that the free personality test offered by the church, the Oxford Capacity Analysis, was proven to be a hoax in 1971 in a British study called "Enquiry into the Practice and Effects of Scientology Report" by Sir John Foster.
"I know it is an excellent and accurate test," counters Vilhelmsen. "You can do it and see for yourself."
She brushes off the other accusations with the same ease: "Scientology volunteers have the technology to improve situations in life during times of war and crisis, that is why they went to the hospital to offer assistance to the people, to help them get rid of the shock they suffered and help them get out of the confusion and back into communication with the environment."
TELEVISION PERSONALITY Odetta Schwartz, who hosts her own lifestyle show on Channel 10, says that while she does not consider herself a full-fledged Scientologist, she has taken several courses, which have helped to enrich her own life.
"[The courses] have given me the technology for how to live my life," she says. "They have been amazing and extremely effective."
She says that she became drawn into Scientology's philosophy four years ago when searching for a comprehensive program that would provide her with some fulfillment.
"It was a period of transition in my life," she says. "My children had grown up and suddenly I was on my own. I did some 'window shopping' in search of life repair courses and this is what I found."
She says that what has attracted her most to Scientology is its flexibility.
"I am very busy and I like that I can do the courses at my own pace," says Schwartz. (Spokeswoman Vilhelmsen emphasizes that Scientology courses are usually done alone, either through the written word or via audio tapes recorded by Hubbard.) Schwartz says what she has learned from the Scientology courses is the ability to really concentrate and focus on what is happening in her life.
She tells of a local millionaire who contributed funds via Scientology and how that helped to improve the quality of a school in the North.
"That school had the highest rate of violence and with the help of Scientology philosophy was turned around to gain second place in the country within eight months."
The "local millionaire," a fellow self-identified dabbler in Scientology and international businessman Meir Ezra, says that in Israel he is very involved in the projects promoted by Scientology and highlights a recent one in several schools in the North that has provided students with Scientology techniques to help them study.
"One hundred and twenty schools have now asked to have this program implemented in their school too," he says.
Ezra says he has been involved in Scientology since 1993.
"I don't really know if I would describe myself as a 'Scientologist,'" he says, "but I have been applying the technology of Scientology to my everyday life, so if that makes me a Scientologist, I guess I am."
A businessman with several companies both here and around the world, Ezra says that he has used Hubbard's teachings for his business models and claims that this is what has helped him become so successful.
"I employ at least 100 people in Israel directly and more in several other countries," says Ezra, one of seven children born to a religious Sefardi family in Kiryat Shmona.
He says he spent six years in the navy as a diver and then, like many of his peers, headed to the Far East. On his return, Ezra decided to visit South Africa and it was here that he got involved in Scientology.
"I went for a few days and ended up staying for 12 years," says the 42-year-old who shuttles between Israel and Clearwater, Florida - which wikipedia calls the worldwide spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology - where his wife and three children reside.
Ezra describes his upbringing in Kiryat Shmona as a religious one and says that when he joined the army he stopped adhering to what his parents had taught him.
"Since studying Scientology, I have become more religious," he says, adding that Scientology doctrines showed him how to learn and he finally understood what his father had been trying to teach him while he was growing up. "Scientology is a tool for living."
Ezra, who has reached the Scientology level of Clear, says that the classical stereotype that Moroccans have short fuses no longer applies to him. Rather, "I no longer get upset and now have the tools for handling life."
Schwartz echoes his sentiments. "It has given me knowledge," she says.
When asked if she is aware of some of the negative aspects of Scientology and the accusations that it is a cult, she answers with surprising self-assurance.
"It's all lies," she says. "There is a standard document with statistics that advises Scientologists on how to answer these lies."
"If there are people who say that Scientology is forcing them to do something, I cannot comment. I can only talk about how it has helped me."
Ezra also replies that he is very aware of what is said about the movement.
"I have heard a lot of nonsense spoken about Scientology, but when I get to the bottom of it, I never find it to be true," he says, adding that Scientologists are normal people and among them there are some good ones and some bad ones. "I believe Scientology to be a very ethical organization."
As for the question of whether Schwartz feels that Scientology doctrines can be combined with Judaism, Schwartz, like Vilhelmsen and Klopstock, maintains that the two go very well together.
"I feel very Jewish," she says. "Scientology does not stop me from being Jewish. I know in America it is recognized as a religion, but here it is about improving the soul of a person."
And when asked whether it can be referred to as the Church of Scientology in Israel, a Jewish country, Schwartz explains: "By dictionary definition, a church is a meeting place. Obviously in Israel it means a Christian place of worship, but Scientology in essence does not have any effect on Islam, Judaism or Christianity."
With respect to the Scientology courses she has taken so far, Schwartz says that as with any religion, the individual learns from it as much or as little as he wants to and it has different meanings for everyone.
"WHAT YOU have to remember is that while these people may be good people, they will lie to you about everything," says one former Scientologist, who was involved in the organization for four years in the early 1980s. "It is okay to lie in Scientology, in fact these people really believe what they are saying is true. That is the nature of a cult."
Preferring to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, this former member - whom we shall call H - echoes much of what Beit-Hallahmi claims.
"Scientology is based on lies, you can never trust what they are saying," he reiterates.
Even though he left the organization 20 years ago, he says he has "made it my business to understand everything that is happening with this cult. It is a scar that will never leave me."
H says he was sucked into the church in a similar way to Klopstock and grew more and more curious about the secretive upper levels of Scientology. Involved in Scientology first in Israel and later in the US, in one of Scientology's main hubs in California, he says he volunteered at a private center as an auditor and took some of the OT or Operating Thetan courses.
"Washed out" by the church in a 1982 power struggle for leadership, H says that many Scientologists who were kicked out then have now become the organization's staunchest critics. He says that even though he was not welcome in the organization, he was still hooked on its philosophy and set about, like many other Scientologists, trying to discover the truth.
"I thought I could change things from inside," he says. "But I learned very quickly that I was wrong. I also learned that most of what [Hubbard] was teaching was bullshit.
"Leaving was a painful process. I did not do it in a covert manner and had to be 'handled' - a technique generally used to persuade wayward members to return to the church. There is no recourse, if a person has any problems or criticisms of L. Ron Hubbard or the church, then he himself is not okay."
"This is total bullshit," says Vilhelmsen, responding to the question of whether Scientology encourages its members to lie. "The aim of Scientology is exactly the opposite."
And she gives a resounding "no" when asked whether Scientology members are not allowed to criticize Hubbard, adding emphatically that the "purpose and practice [of Scientology] is known to all."
But Ze'ev Steiglitz, head of Lev L'Achim's Forum against Cults, says that many ex-Scientology members are still traumatized by their experiences within its ranks. Active in the battle against Scientology in Israel for the past 13 years, he claims to have helped many people escape the church.
"Socially, physically and economically, Scientology does not give them anything," says the Netanya-based Steiglitz. "Families have been separated and people have been brainwashed.
"One person I met, it took me a quarter of an hour to even convince him to even talk with me. He had a laugh that was fake and chilling, many things about him were just not normal. Today he is still disturbed from the experience."
"Lev L'Achim is against many alternative groups in Israel. They spread lies and racism," responds Vilhelmsen. "Scientology actually unites families and solves disputes, see the Can We Ever Be Friends? booklet."
But Steiglitz is adamant that Scientology is a cult and he is quick to point out that the establishment is doing nothing to prevent it or similar cults from operating here.
"We managed to prevent them from setting up a school here," he says, referring to attempts to open a kindergarten and elementary school in Mikve Yisrael, south of Tel Aviv, in 1991. "But they still manage to get into other schools; principals decide on their own what to allow in.
"The Education Ministry did set up a committee in July and promised to invite us to give a presentation but so far nothing more has happened. I guess this country has more serious matters to deal with."
"THE BEST thing that can be done in Israel is to keep Scientology as small as possible," says H, acknowledging however that secular Israeli culture has a tendency to admire all things "New Age." "I guess Israelis have much more tolerance to this stuff."
Beit-Hallahmi backs up his theory suggesting that the Yom Kippur War marked a turning point.
"Since then, Israelis have been open to all sorts of new ideas," he says. "Today, there are lots of different philosophies blooming in Israel, and Scientology and [Rabbi Philip S. Berg's] Kabballah Center are doing very well. Even the health funds run courses in feng shui [an ancient Chinese art of furniture arranging to induce positive energy]."
According to Beit-Hallahmi, and clarified by Klopstock, Scientology was brought to Israel in the late 1970s by Yehoshafat Givon, a mathematics professor at Ben-Gurion University. Both say that Givon is no longer involved in the church and attempts to track him down for this article were not fruitful.
H says that he met Givon several times back in the 1980s and even dated his daughter for a while. "He was a charismatic guy," H recalls.
And just like in the US, where Scientology claims famous members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta - and even Jewish celebrities such as singer Beck and actress Jenna Elfman - here, too, some well-known personalities are involved.
"Not everyone is susceptible to following such a belief system," says Beit-Hallahmi. "It is mostly those who can be exploited by a lack of identity. However, you have to keep in mind that only a very small percentage of people get involved in this kind of thing."