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'It Haunts My Nightmares': Growing Up Inside the Kabbalah Centre 'Cult'

By Neta Ahituv, Haaretz, may 13th

Until the age of 18, Debbie Haski-Leventhal grew up under the rigid regime of the Kabbalah Centre in Tel Aviv, which she terms a ‘cult’ that subjugated her and made her life a misery. Today, a professor of business management in Australia, she helps people find purpose in life and work

When Debbie Haski-Leventhal was 4 and her sister was 8, their 10-year-old brother died from cancer. Four months later, another son, Ori, was born into the family. Two years after the death of one brother and the birth of another, Haski-Leventhal’s mother saw an ad in the paper for an introductory talk at the Kabbalah Centre in Tel Aviv. At the time, in the 1970s, it was a small organization which had been established by the charismatic American couple Rabbi Philip Berg (“the Rav”) and his wife, Karen.

In short order, the parents informed the three children that they would forthwith be leading a religiously observant life, with all that that entailed: The mother began to cover her hair with a wig, the father grew a beard, the girls switched to skirts and all three kids enrolled in an ultra-Orthodox school in Tel Aviv. Two years later, at the Rav’s directive, Haski-Leventhal also changed her first name – from Adi to Devorah.

“The Kabbalah Centre was what my family had found in its own quest for meaningfulness, [a quest that] started many years prior when tragedy crawled into our home and consumed everything like a fierce fire,” Haski-Leventhal writes in her newly published book, “Make it Meaningful” (Simon & Schuster Australia). In it she sets forth her unusual life story and also provides a guide for finding meaning in life.

She left the Kabbalah Centre at age 18, forsook religion and embarked on a successful academic career, mostly in management. Today she is a professor at Macquarie University Business School, in Sydney, Australia, where she teaches and does research on volunteerism and more recently also corporate social responsibility. Haski-Leventhal has published more than 60 academic articles in professional journals, many of which were covered in places like The New York Times and the Financial Times. She also can be seen in a popular TED Talk, talking about ways for universities to recalibrate their missions.

The book’s subtitle, “How to Find Purpose in Life and Work,” might suggest a mass-market-style, self-help manual. However, the reader quickly realizes that it’s something else. You might call it a memoir/manifesto for improving the world and doing good, interlaced with both personal stories and research, all coming together to offer a broad answer about how to fill our lives with meaningfulness. Which is not the same as “meaning,” as Haski-Leventhal explains in the book.

“‘Meaning,’” she writes, “refers to the type of meaning people attach to work and other aspects of their life, whereas ‘meaningfulness’ refers to the significance they attach to it. For example, a nurse could explain the meaning of her job as to help increase people’s health. If she sees this as important and significant, it will make her life more meaningful.”

'Our first conversation was about the occupation. We've been together ever since'

In a Zoom conversation from her home in Sydney, where she moved 14 years ago, Haski-Leventhal relates that the idea for the book came to her in the wake of reading “Educated,” the 2018 memoir by Tara Westover about growing up in a violent Mormon family, isolated from society, and never being sent to school. Westover describes how she extricated herself from this situation by the skin of her teeth and salvaged her life through education.

“I thought that I too had a potent story to tell, about my childhood in the Kabbalah Centre,” Haski-Leventhal says, “but I didn’t want to write a memoir just for the sake of writing a memoir. I wanted to intertwine my life story with something that would accord me and others greater meaningfulness in life and work.”

The book recounts three journeys in search of meaningfulness. The first is of the author’s mother, who embarked on such a quest after the death of her son, and thus led the family into a cult, as Haski-Leventhal herself describes the Kabbalah Centre. The second journey is that of Haski-Leventhal herself after she left the Centre and searched for meaningfulness amid a feeling of spiritual loss. Finally, there is the author’s 20-year academic journey in which she has studied the concept of meaningfulness in everyday life and at work.

The book’s message is encapsulated by the acronym TIP, standing for talent, impact and passion. Accordingly, we need to consider what we are passionate about and then use our talent, which is effectively all our knowledge and skills, whatever those may be, in order to create an impact in our area of passion.

Innumerable people follow that exact course without consciously intending to, Haski-Leventhal says, and they are generally the people with shining eyes. Nor does it have to be only in the workplace; it can also be done by engaging in volunteer work for a cause dear to our heart or for a community that touches us in particular, as well as in our meaningful personal relationships. “To live a meaningful life, what’s most important is to do good in a way that suits our skills and worldview,” she sums up.

The Kabbalah Centre is a large part of Haski-Leventhal’s story. Shraga Philip Berg, a former insurance agent, established the first center in New York at the beginning of the 1980s with Karen Mulnick, his second wife. Since then dozens of centers have opened throughout the world, and the organization has been a magnet for many, among them – in the past – numerous celebrities including Madonna, Demi Moore and Britney Spears. Over the years the organization has also come under criticism from Jewish Orthodox circles, which accused Berg of charlatanism and of commercializing the Jewish faith. The center sold bottles of what it described as “holy water,” and charged exorbitant fees for its classes. For the famous red thread, which believers tie around their wrists (an old tradition that the center turned into a money-maker), they charge $26. The organization’s publishing house, which put out books written by the Bergs and their two sons, also became a significant component of the center’s activity.

Over time the organization became extraordinarily rich. In 2013 The Los Angeles Times estimated the worth of its assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2006 the organization partnered with Madonna in a charity project intended to build a school in Malawi. However, a Newsweek investigation found that, of $18 million that was raised, only $3.8 million went to the school. “The lion’s share, almost $3 million, was spent by the Kabbalah Centre’s office in L.A.,” the magazine reported. In 2011, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service launched an investigation into the center’s funds.

When Berg died, in 2013, he was buried in a magnificent cave that was hewn especially for him in Safed, in northern Israel, over the course of months. The grave, which covers almost half a dunam (500 square meters, an area equivalent to 35 gravesites), stands out flagrantly amid the modest headstones around it. Hundreds attended Berg’s funeral, from Israel and abroad, including the actors Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and other celebs.

Haski-Leventhal’s book is the first critical work about the Kabbalah Centre written by a former member. In 2005, a three-part BBC series made by the journalist John Sweeney depicted its questionable behavior, which included exploitation of people’s vulnerability and distress to raise enormous funds.

Members of the Kabbalah Centre have a high level of religious observance, no less rigorous in some cases than the strictest ultra-Orthodox Jews, says Haski-Leventhal. She details, for example, certain ceremonies and rituals that were taken to the extreme. “The more you suffer, the more you purify yourself,” she explains. On Sabbath and Jewish holidays they customarily dress in white rather than black. On the other hand, women and men can hold joint ceremonies and, as noted, non-Jews have also joined the center.

Other things also happened in the Kabbalah Centre in Tel Aviv, notably on Sabbath Eve, which was often spent at the family’s small apartment, which was not far away, with up to 40 other members. “When I was little, I didn’t like going to shul and I was allowed to stay home and play with my Barbie dolls. One of the men also often stayed. His task was to read the Torah in shul and he said he needed to practice before joining all the others. When we were alone, he would grab me, a girl of 7, and kiss me hard on the lips. It happened a few times, but I never told anyone,” she says.

Haski-Leventhal goes on to note that when she was 12, she was sexually harassed by another man, and that members often were often subjected to public humiliation. Of Rabbi Berg she relates in her book: “He was strong and charismatic, he would shout at people who needed ‘to mend their ways,’ call them ‘Satan’ brand them satanic, humiliate them in front of everyone and mock them. He often mocked my father and us… Dad would simply stand there, humiliated, and take it.”

You see the misery of these women, who weren’t allowed to do anything that wasn’t in the service of the center, and you wonder what awaits you on the other side of that dream wedding.

Despite this behavior, or perhaps because of it, Haski-Leventhal’s devotion to the center only grew; as a girl she couldn’t wait until she would be allowed to join what were referred to as “the hevre,” who did “harisha” together. Hevre – roughly “the guys” in Hebrew, referred at the center to a group of men or women who lived together, and harisha, Hebrew for “plowing,” meant going door to door to sell the Bergs’ books on kabbala and the Zohar, Jewish mysticism’s principal text. On the day she completed high school, in 1991, Haski-Leventhal moved into a small apartment in Tel Aviv with 10 other women, and for six days a week she “plowed” the city. At the time, she was driven by two dreams, she recalls: to sell enough books so that she would be sent abroad to carry out harisha there, and for Karen Berg to find her a worthy match from among the men in the hevre.

Within a few months, one of those dreams was realized: Devorah was sent to Paris. There she lived in a tiny apartment, with another 14 people, including two young couples with babies, before setting out each morning to sell books. But there she discovered what happened to all the young married women of her fantasies. Effectively, they became handmaidens, trapped in the apartment to only clean, cook, serve the center and care for children. If they complained or cried, their husbands would shout at them that they weren’t “spiritual” enough.

“What I thought would be the ideal life – with clear values, purpose, and meaningfulness – looked in reality more like a nightmare,” she writes in the book, and adds, in conversation, “You see the misery of these women, who weren’t allowed to do anything that wasn’t in the service of the center, and you wonder what awaits you on the other side of that dream wedding. Suddenly I realized that I didn’t want that and that I had to get out before I got married and have children. If I waited until later, I might have been compelled to leave my children and be left with nothing – without an education or a profession. Extricating yourself means being completely lost, which is why many women stay: They have no alternative.”

Beset by backaches in Paris, she sold fewer books than the required quota, and after only a few months was informed that she would be sent back to Israel in disgrace. From the day it became known that she was being expelled from the hevre, and until the day of her flight back home, the other women in the apartment stopped talking to her. “Paris left me with a broken back, heart, and spirit,” she writes.

Once back in Israel, she knew she could no longer remain in the Kabbalah Centre. The rupture was searing, as she relates in our conversation: “It required tremendous fortitude to leave the Kabbalah Centre; not because the family became alienated from me or because someone in the center threatened me, but because I was coping with a feeling of vast emptiness and with the fear they instilled in us that outside we would be an ‘empty wagon,’ lacking values. I was terrified. The whole ground on which I had walked all my life was pulled from under my feet.”

Are you in touch with others who were formerly in the center?

“I had the opportunity to speak with a few of them. Most of them left with a feeling of rage, hatred and an inability to forgive what had been taken from them. It’s true that no one forces adults to join the center, but there is definitely exploitation there of the most painful elements in life, including illness, grief – as in the case of my parents – or simply low confidence or low success in life. You arrive at a place like that when you’re at a low point and they tell you, ‘We will give you redemption, just sign up for our courses, buy the books, wear a red thread and you’ll see the light.’ Anyone who doesn’t have the money to pay the center becomes one of the hevre, who are actually the people who generate the money for the center, because they work without getting paid – a type of modern slavery.”

Haski-Leventhal writes that recently, when she told her sister (who also left the cult a few years before Debbie did) about the book she was writing, the latter asked whether she intended to write about her attempted suicide a few days after returning to Israel from Paris. Haski-Leventhal was dumbfounded. She had repressed the incident that occurred 30 years prior to the point of not remembering that she had tried to kill herself. It was back then, she writes, that her journey of searching for meaningfulness in life began.

Her first decision as a free individual, she says, was to become a vegetarian. “Instinctively,” she says, “I decided to put into action, for the first time in my life, a value about which I’d always felt powerfully but which was contrary to the milieu I grew up in: compassion for animals. I really suffered when I ate meat as a girl, and now there was no longer a mitzvah I was committed to in that context.”

Most people still spend most of their day on the job, says Haski-Leventhal, and most of them prefer to know that they are devoting those hours to something greater than further enrichment of the shareholders and owners.

The next necessity was to find a job – not an easy task for someone who had only a Haredi education. Finally she found work as a clerk in the accounting department of Yellow Pages. After a time, her boss suggested that she should get an academic education. And thus, she writes, “A year after exiting a cult, I was no longer a Kabbalah Centre member; I was no longer a follower; I was no longer religious. I defined myself as a vegetarian secular Jew. I was free – terrified and excited, about to open a door onto my next phase in life.”

In 1993, the young Haski-Leventhal enrolled in undergraduate studies in philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. To support herself, she took any job she could find, from cleaning houses to typing students’ assignments. She also became a volunteer in the university’s Perach project, in which students tutor disadvantaged children, in return for a scholarship. The mission filled her with a sense of meaningfulness that she hadn’t previously experienced, and she decided she wanted to work full-time in the project. Initially she was hired as an enrichment center coordinator, and subsequently, after she obtained her B.A., she was upgraded to a managerial position, becoming the deputy director of the entire project in Jerusalem. Awed by the impact of the volunteers, she decided to devote her academic career to the subject as well, studying the pro-social behavior of individuals – aka volunteerism.

“After I saw the evil in humanity, I chose to focus on the good,” she says about her unusual field of research. “Volunteering is one of the finest aspects of humanity. A special place is created in volunteering, in which those involved rediscover themselves and what they are capable of doing for the world.” Her master’s thesis dealt with volunteers at rape crisis centers, and for her doctoral dissertation, she conducted participant observation with volunteers at the Jerusalem branch of the Elem/Youth in Distress organization to explore the ways in which they find meaningfulness in their activity, working with young people who have left home and run into trouble of different kinds.

Haski-Leventhal cemented her academic status in Australia – where she lives with her husband and their two daughters – first as a researcher at the Center for Social Impact at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney; afterward as an adviser to the United Nations in preparation of a report on the state of volunteerism worldwide; and since 2008 at Macquarie University. In the latter, as noted above, she broadened her scholarly work to encompass corporate social responsibility, or CSR. A large number of studies exist today, including some by Haski-Leventhal herself, that reveal that employees of purpose-driven companies who also participate in their employer’s CSR efforts, such as through corporate volunteering, report higher levels of meaningfulness and happiness at work, higher productivity and better on-the-job performance.

“Companies might be skeptical at first about setting a corporate mission, but I have seen how many of them come to realize the importance of this over time,” she notes. She also provides examples of firms in which the employees are proud to work, such as Body Shop, a cosmetics company whose declared goal is to supply high-quality cosmetics without animal testing or modern slavery, and with minimal environmental damage. Such companies, she says, create emotional attachment among their employees and stakeholders, and through purpose-alignment, yield better results.

“The majority of people in the world still spend most of their day on the job,” she says, “and most of them prefer to know that they are devoting those hours not only to further enrichment of the shareholders and owners, but also to achieving something greater.” In her book, Haski-Leventhal sets forth a model for instilling meaningfulness in organizations, which is effectively an adaptation of the TIP model. Companies need to think about what’s important for them, what change they want to lead in the world. Then they need to harness the company’s financial and non-financial resources to create the desired impact. “That’s when the reputation of the company and the sense of meaningfulness of its employees really rises,” she writes.

How did you get from volunteerism to CSR? Isn’t it a transition from a naïve realm to one ruled by cynicism?

“While I was still writing my doctoral dissertation I realized that my interest lies not only in how individuals do good in the world, but commercial firms as well. I am not naïve, I know that many companies utilize social or environmental actions in order to maximize profits and enhance their reputation; but it’s also possible to find in the corporate world many beautiful examples of idealism and of a sense of mission. In the end, it’s a natural transition from being occupied with individuals who do good to large organizations of people who together wish to generate a social impact.”

That happens also without an umbrella of commercial corporations – in protests, for example.

“Definitely. We can see many people finding meaningfulness in the demonstrations against the regime coup [in Israel]. They are making use of their skills, such as humor and creativity, to create an impact and save their home.”

Indeed, Haski-Leventhal has something to say about the political crisis going on in Israel today: “It’s hard to be half a world from home and watch it burn. It’s a feeling of helplessness. Especially because the thought of someone in a position of power who is exploiting that power in order to deprive people of their basic freedoms – even if some of the people think they agree these actions – is a situation I saw as a child in a cult. If an entire country becomes a cult, led by a guru who is robbing the people of the possibilities of choice and protection, that should be opposed with all possible strength.”

What kind of relations do you have today with your parents and siblings?

“My whole family lives in Israel and we have good relations. We have overcome a great many difficulties. My sister gave up religion even before me, my brother did the same not long after me, and my parents left the Kabbalah Centre, but they have remained traditionally observant. In terms of religion, they have effectively returned to the way of life they had before their dramatic adoption of Orthodoxy and the Kabbalah Centre.”

Is there anything from your childhood in the Kabbalah Centre that you miss?

“Cults aren’t all bad – if they were, people wouldn’t join them and remain in them. A cult is a group that affords a sense of belonging. I miss the sense of social cohesion, but on the other hand, there are many more things that I don’t miss, things that still haunt me in my nightmares.”

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