More tsuris for Kabbalah empire

los angeles | Tel Aviv police have arrested the director of the Israel Kabbalah Center, following complaints that he had fraudulently exploited a dying cancer patient and her husband.

According to Israel media reports, the director, Shaul Youdkevitch, extracted more than $60,000 from Leah Zonis and her husband Boris, assuring them that the center would help cure her cancer.

The incident is the latest in a long line of accusations against the Kabbalah Center’s headquarters in Los Angeles and its branches throughout the world, charging deception and high-pressure tactics to squeeze large sums of money from trusting adherents.

Center leaders have consistently denied the charges, insisting that they make no promises of cures and that all donations are freely given. They attribute much of the criticism to envy by less successful Jewish organizations and religious leaders.

In fact, since the founding of the Los Angeles Center by Rav Phillip Berg in 1971, its popular and “user-friendly” teaching of Kabbalah has attracted thousands of fervent supporters (among them headline-making celebrities) and millions of dollars. Its Web site currently lists 27 centers and 58 satellite branches spread out over five continents.

In the current case, Boris Zonis charged that his cancer-stricken wife sought spiritual comfort at the Tel Aviv Center in 1995.

As her condition continued to deteriorate, she allegedly turned to Moshe Rosenberg, then the Israel Kabbalah Center’s director and now in the United States, for help in improving her condition.

In return, Zonis said, Rosenberg told him that to achieve his wife’s full recovery, a “serious sum of money,” amounting to $36,000, would have to be donated to the center by the couple, the parents of three children.

Zonis said he scraped the money together by borrowing and exhausting his savings. He was then reportedly assured that center members would pray for the wife and she was urged to buy a bottle of “holy water” to aid the recovery.

As the cancer spread, the couple turned to Youdkevitch, the center’s new director, who, according to Zonis, said that the previous donation was apparently insufficient and that an additional $25,000 gift would assure the wife’s complete health.

Shortly before his wife’s death in August of this year, Zonis reportedly asked Youdkevitch for financial help and was directed to an anonymous donor, who gave him $5,000.

After Youdkevitch was arrested, he refuted the Zonis complaint as “bogus,” according to Israeli media. He admitted receiving the money from the couple, but said that he never promised a recovery. The bottle of “holy water,” he maintained, had therapeutic qualities.

According to Kabbalah Center spokesperson Jamie Green in Los Angeles, “No charges have been filed or made against any of the centers. The husband of a student who attended the Kabbalah Center in Tel Aviv made a complaint about one of the teachers at the center. Based on what we have been told, we believe the charges to be untrue.”

Green added that the leadership in Los Angeles exercised neither legal control nor direct supervision over the Israel center.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent