NEW YORK – Philip Berg, the self-appointed Kabbalah guru who founded and ran the Kabbalah Centre until his death Monday, was brought into the public limelight in no small part by Madonna, the pop superstar who made the movement a celebrity go-to destination.
Madonna initially came to Berg’s Kabbalah Centre via Sandra Bernhard, the risqué stand-up comic. Bernhard was the first celebrity to gravitate toward Kabbalah in the mid-1990s. She introduced Madonna to the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre in 1996. At the time, Madonna had just finished starring in the film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Evita” and was pregnant.
Despite not being Jewish, Madonna delved into her experience, taking both classes in Jewish mysticism and the Hebrew name Esther. “It didn’t really matter that I was, you know, raised Catholic or I wasn’t Jewish and I felt very comfortable and I liked being anonymous in a classroom environment,” she told television personality Larry King in 1999.
”I was looking for something,” she continued. ”I mean, I’d begun practicing yoga and, you know, I was looking for the answers to life. Why am I here? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? How do I fit into the big picture? I know there’s more to life than making lots of money and being successful and even getting married and having a family.”
Madonna’s friendship with Berg and his wife, Karen, grew, and the pop icon received VIP treatment at the Centre, even with higher quality Shabbat meals provided to her at her visits. In turn, she gave as good as she got: Madonna provided major financing for the Kabbalah Centre’s London branch in the exclusive neighborhood of Mayfair, and also co-founded, with Berg’s son Michael, a children’s charity with offices at the Los Angeles center.
On the pop artist’s album “Ray of Light,” Madonna credited the Kabbalah Centre with “creative guidance.” No longer giving concerts on Friday nights, she has also set aside tickets for Kabbalah Centre members to shows. Madonna wears the emblematic red string around her wrist.
She was dubbed by some as a “celebrity recruiting sergeant” for the Kabbalah Center, whose fame brought in figures like Mick Jagger, Demi Moore and Britney Spears, but her extreme celebrity proved trying for some members.
“Everything changed once Madonna began to study,” comedian and Kabbalah Centre member Roseanne Barr told the Los Angeles Times. “Madonna had great intentions, and has done a lot of good things in the world, but her fame was so immense that there was no way that God or Kabbalah or the rav [Philip Berg] or Karen Berg or heaven and earth could remain the same in the face of it.”
Over the course of her relationship with the Kabbalah Centre, Madonna is said to have contributed at least $18 million to the organization.
The children’s charity co-founded by Madonna, Raising Malawi, has met with intense scrutiny and opprobrium, with Newsweek calling it a “disaster” of financial mismanagement and misappropriation of funds. In April 2013, Madonna filed a federal tax document stating that Raising Malawi had severed all connections with the Kabbalah Centre.
In 2004, Berg had a stroke that confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But even as late as 2009, Madonna’s kept up a personal relationship with Berg as her spiritual guru.
Madonna had a series of private meetings and counseling sessions with Berg in New York in the aftermath of her divorce from British director Guy Ritchie, supposedly with the purpose of making the pop star less “domineering.”
A source told Britain’s Daily Mirror newspaper at the time that the pop star had “been having a tough time with Kabbalah in the wake of her and Guy’s split…. Whenever she’s in New York, she’s taken to having intense private sessions with Rabbi Berg, working on her tikkun. She feels that previous relationships have broken down because she always takes control, not allowing the other party to flourish and be themselves.”