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Philip Berg dies at 84; founder of Kabbalah Centre

Berg's new-age interpretation of the ancient wisdom of the Torah was embraced by pop star Madonna and other celebrities. But mainstream Judaism saw it as inauthentic.

By Harriet Ryan

9:44 PM EDT, September 17, 2013

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On a trip to Israel in 1964, Philip Berg, a high-flying insurance salesman from Brooklyn, crossed paths with an aging rabbi renowned for his grasp of kabbalah, an esoteric strain of Jewish mysticism. Neither Berg nor kabbalah would ever be the same.

The organization he founded after returning to the United States, now known as the Kabbalah Centre, transformed a field once reserved for the most elite of Orthodox yeshiva scholars into a lucrative pop culture phenomenon. His new-age repackaging of the ancient wisdom of the Torah was embraced by many gentiles and celebrities, including Berg's most famous student, Madonna, but his approach was derided by mainstream Judaism as superficial and inauthentic.

Berg, known to his followers as the Rav, died Monday, the center announced on its website. The Kabbalah Centre, headquartered in Los Angeles and run in recent years by his wife and their sons, said Berg was 86; public records indicate he was 84. A spokesman said he did not have any information about where Berg, who lived in Beverly Hills, died or the immediate cause of his death. He had been in ill health since suffering a stroke in 2004.

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His family buried him Tuesday in the Israeli city of Safed, a historic center of kabbalah study, Israeli media reported.

Born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn on Aug. 20, 1929, Berg was reared in a devout Orthodox Jewish family. His Torah training began at age 3 and he was ordained as a rabbi in his early 20s. He soon grew disillusioned with religious life, changed his name and took a job selling policies for New York Life Insurance Co.

He made enough money to provide for his first wife and eight children, buy nice cigars and drive a Cadillac. But, he later wrote, he felt a spiritual thirst quenched only when he traveled to Israel and met Yehuda Brandwein, a kabbalah scholar.

"He was, as I came to learn, uniquely gifted in his ability to draw back those who had become alienated," Berg recalled in his book "Education of a Kabbalist."

A Hebrew word meaning "received," kabbalah holds that the Torah contains hidden lessons about the meaning of life. Followers believe those teachings were revealed to Moses and then passed down orally until the 13th century, when they were published in a series of books known as the Zohar. Kabbalah was considered so challenging that even rigorously trained Orthodox scholars had to reach the age of 40 before they could begin studying it.

Back in New York, Berg began holding kabbalah classes in his insurance office. He and his wife divorced, and he married Karen Mulnick, his secular, street-smart former secretary. She pushed him to expand his student base, first to teach her, then Jewish men without religious education, and then Jewish women.

After a stint in Israel in the 1970s, the couple set up the Kabbalah Centre in Queens. His impassioned teaching style in which he used aspects of modern life to make the struggles of Biblical figures more relatable made it a success. By the late 1980s, the Bergs had established branches around the world. Many followers treated the couple like deities, vying to eat Philip's table scraps and addressing Karen in the third person. Outside the center, controversy dogged Berg. Brandwein's family disavowed any connection to him, Berg was sued for plagiarizing another kabbalah scholar, and Orthodox leaders publicly condemned him as a fraud.

The center's fortunes changed dramatically in 1996 when Madonna enrolled in a class.

"I felt very comfortable, and I liked being anonymous in a classroom environment," she recalled in an interview years later.

Jewish celebrities, including Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhard, were already studying there, but the pop star's interest made the Bergs more open to gentiles — Madonna was raised Roman Catholic — and the entertainment industry more interested in kabbalah.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashton Kutcher, Elizabeth Taylor, Britney Spears and Demi Moore soon followed Madonna. Their embrace brought the center global fame, and its red string bracelets, books and special blessed water became coveted items. The center, a nonprofit religious organization, raked in money through merchandise sales and cash donations it aggressively sought from adherents. Its assets are now believed to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The Bergs enjoyed a lifestyle of private jets, designer clothes and gambling trips. Philip Berg was at a Las Vegas hotel when he suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak clearly or walk.

Karen Berg and the couple's sons, Yehuda and Michael, took over operation of the center, and their stewardship has been accompanied by questions about its finances. The IRS and federal prosecutors in New York opened a tax evasion investigation in 2010. Madonna subsequently removed her African charity from the center's control, and another nonprofit under government scrutiny abruptly shut down. Agents were still gathering evidence last year, but the government has declined to discuss its case, and the current status of the investigation is not known.

harriet.ryan@latimes.com