Kabbalah

Lawsuits allege that Kabbalah Centre employees pressured the plaintiffs "to give money until it hurts" in order to receive "the light" and win favor with the center's leaders, Karen Berg and her adult sons Yehuda and Michael. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Former supporters of the Kabbalah Centre have sued the Los Angeles-based spiritual organization for fraud, alleging the misuse of more than $1 million they contributed to a building fund and charitable causes.

“Kabbalah Centre has engaged in a pattern and practice of raising funds . . . for the purpose of enriching itself and others associated with Kabbalah Centre,” according to a complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Carolyn Cohen, a San Diego County real estate broker and president of the Solana Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Cohen’s complaint alleges that she and one of her companies, Here We Grow Inc., lost about $810,000 in contributions and interest on loans she secured to cover her giving. A similar complaint filed by Randi and Charles Wax, who own a San Diego sanitary supply business, alleges losses of more than $326,000.

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Both lawsuits were filed Wednesday and claim that Kabbalah Centre employees pressured the plaintiffs “to give money until it hurts” in order to receive “the light” and win favor with the center’s leaders, Karen Berg and her adult sons Yehuda and Michael.

Neither the Bergs nor their lawyers responded to a request for comment made through a spokesman.

The donations by Cohen and the Waxes were earmarked for construction of a new Kabbalah Centre building in San Diego and for a children’s charity, the complaint states. But the center was not built and the charity abruptly ceased operation, according to the lawsuit, which alleges the nonprofit organization has a history of raising money for projects it never carries out.

“My clients have, bravely, decided to not allow themselves to become another of Kabbalah Centre’s many silent victims and look forward to resolving this matter at trial wherein they will not only seek compensation for their financial losses but also look forward to exposing the Kabbalah Centre’s true nature,” said Alain Bonavida, the plaintiffs’ lawyer.

The lawsuits seek damages totaling more than $40 million from Kabbalah Centre, the Bergs and a couple who worked for the center as teachers and spiritual advisors to Cohen and the Waxes.

Karen Berg’s husband and the sons’ father, Kabbalah Centre founder Philip Berg, died in September, nine years after suffering a debilitating stroke.

Known as the Rav, Philip Berg’s center drew famous followers with its lucrative, New Age take on Jewish mysticism. His rendition of the ancient wisdom of the Torah was embraced by many gentiles and celebrities, including his most famous student, Madonna, but his approach was derided by mainstream Judaism as superficial and inauthentic.

After a boom in popularity driven by its association with celebrities including Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears, the center in recent years has been dogged by controversy.

The Times has previously reported that the organization made millions through merchandise sales and cash donations it aggressively sought from adherents. The Bergs enjoyed a lifestyle of private jets, designer clothes and gambling trips, including one to Las Vegas when Philip suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak clearly or walk.

In 2010, amid questions about the center’s assets and spending, the Internal Revenue Service and federal prosecutors in New York opened a tax-evasion investigation. The government has declined to discuss its case and the current status of the probe is not known.

Kabbalah Centre officials said previously they were cooperating with authorities.

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