This fall, I read Two Unlikely People to Change the World, a memoir by Karen Berg. Published ten months before her passing this summer, it recounts her remarkable life with husband Philip Berg, two very different people who made an odd pairing in friendship, never mind marriage. He is an Orthodox rabbi often seen in a traditional long black frock coat and a big black fur hat. She is a free spirit, in attire and attitude. He is religious and wants to follow tradition. She has the crazy idea to make the ancient wisdom of Kabbalah accessible to anyone who wants to learn.
For centuries, women and non-Jews were prohibited from studying Kabbalah, the spiritual tools and teachings reserved for scholarly Jewish men over the age of forty. This tradition of secrecy passed through generations of male kabbalists until 1968, when Philip Berg, later known as the Rav ("Rav" is another way of saying "teacher"), and Karen opened the Kabbalah Centre to everyone.
You can imagine the chaos and controversy that ensued when they answered that spiritual call together. The Rav remembered that his beloved Kabbalah teacher Rav Brandwein once foreshadowed this by telling him, "Your gift and your duty is to explain Kabbalah in such a way that all people will easily understand." Today, this 4000-year-old wisdom is taught to millions of students around the world, in Kabbalah Centres and study groups from Europe to Latin America, and on a popular online streaming platform where anyone with Internet access can connect and learn.
When I was finishing the memoir, I felt compelled to tell my own story of how I came to study Kabbalah. Many people find it odd that I, a young Asian woman, am a Kabbalah student. Wouldn't it make more sense for me to be into one of the Eastern religions or something? The thing is, I didn't go looking for it; Kabbalah found me.
Over ten years ago, I was searching for a part-time job that could work around my studies. Around this time, I was just embarking on my own spiritual journey. I was lost, unhappy, and desperately seeking answers—in short, I was young. But I was careful to avoid religious texts, preferring New Age nonfiction by Ekhart Tolle, Shakti Gawain, and the like.
Religion was never something that interested me throughout my life. In fact, it turned me off, all the rules and hypocrisy, not to mention the abuse of power, violence, and killings that happened "in the name of God." I couldn't stand how people twisted spiritual texts and teachings to suit their own selfish and horrific agendas.
Yet, ever since I was a child, I knew that there was a greater power in the world, and it wasn't that of an old, white-bearded man wearing sandals. God, to me, was energy, and energy was all around us, which made sense when they say God is everywhere. I never believed in a hell depicted in the religious context, and the concept of a vengeful, punishing God made no sense to me.
During this stressful period in my life, I kept a Word doc on my computer listing all the strange coincidences and serendipitous encounters from my daily life, I suppose, as a way of proving to myself that God was around me and guiding my journey. Before I started sending out resumes, I made a list of what I wanted from the job based on the manifesting techniques of Creative Visualization, mainly practical things: flexible hours, good pay, nice co-workers, but I also added that I wanted a job that could help me grow spiritually. I figured if I had to work somewhere to pay the bills, I might as well become a better person in the process.
After making that manifestation, I forgot about it during the job hunt. Most didn't get back to me. Even temp agencies didn't give me the time of day. Then finally, I received a call to come in for an interview for a job I didn't remember applying for. The man said he was an accountant at The Kabbalah Centre and the position was for an office assistant. Apparently, I had applied for the job through Craigslist.
I didn't know much about Kabbalah at all. I was apprehensive, even afraid. Wasn't that the cult du jour that Madonna was in? Celebrities were into all kinds of weird stuff then. Tom Cruise with Scientology and jumping on Oprah's couch. Madonna already over Hinduism and onto a new spiritual trend, some mystical cult. Not only did I not do religions, I certainly didn't do cults.
But the Kabbalah Centre at the time was really close to where I lived in uptown Toronto (the current location is now near Lawrence Station), and the hourly pay was good. A short bus ride took me there. I figured I'd just go to the interview to check it out. If the place gave me the creeps, I'd just leave. The Centre was a standalone building, a two-story house really, in a pretty boring part of town sandwiched between a strip mall and a Tim Hortons. I entered the book store and the woman working there called someone to come down.
A man in his sixties appeared, and I was relieved that his vibe was positive. In fact, he seemed to have a warm glow about him. He explained that he was partially blind and needed someone to help him with day-to-day tasks such as answering emails, making phone calls, setting up meetings with students, and occasionally running errands. I distinctly remember him asking me what my astrology sign was, which I thought was unusual but cool. I heard back shortly that I'd gotten the job. Bless his heart for having faith in an Aquarius to work in an office.
Five times a week, I came in three hours a day. The second floor was an open office, one of those situations where I had to pretend I wasn't privy to other people's goings-on and that they weren't to mine. There were at least three other Kabbalah teachers working there, as well as an office manager, and sometimes volunteers. I was like April Ludgate in Parks and Recs, unsocial and disinterested, but got the job done. I found it ironic that I was basically the eyes for someone with vision problems, while my own eyes were in constant pain and tension (much later diagnosed as a result of TMJ disorder). Pretty soon, the office manager, my boss's wife, asked me to work additional hours to help with events, organizing the stock room, class setup, marketing, whatever they needed extra hands on.
My boss and I got along very well because we joked around all day. I would read out emails from students and he'd dictate his responses. Another ongoing task of mine was to add spiritual lectures from advanced Kabbalah teachers on his iPod and teach him how to access ebooks on his Kindle.
Still, I was careful to keep some distance from the teachings. I had a fear of religion and being brainwashed. While my boss insisted that anyone can learn Kabbalah, it seemed to me like it had too many religious elements associated with Judaism. Also, the other people talked about The Rav and Karen as if they were gods, and I was turned off by that. I didn't, and still don't, like to put other human beings on pedestals. Whenever my boss recommended I take an intro class, I'd bluntly reply that I didn't need to study Kabbalah because I was reading a lot of other New Age spirituality books, thankyouverymuch. I'm sure that anyone who heard me saying those things thought I was arrogant.
Of course, it was hard to avoid the teachings due to literally reading them out loud to my boss. One day, when I was sorting books in the stock room, I started thumbing through some of the Centre's books. The spiritual concepts made sense, and I was inspired to read more. I've always been a big reader, so I didn't see the harm in cracking open a book or two. The Power of Kabbalah, The Spiritual Rules of Engagement, God Wears Lipstick, Kabbalistic Astrology, and other books for beginners fascinated me. The teachings aligned with my beliefs and values.
One day, I came to work and told my boss I had a strange experience that week. I had taken a walk through a cemetery, went home, and took a nap. While I was in and out of sleep, I felt a tiny hand—a baby or a child's—latch onto my body as if to snuggle. I woke up, creeped out. This wasn't the first time it had happened. I had spent a year in China two years prior, and I also felt a ghostly hand on me during a daytime nap. My boss mused it must've been an entity trying to attach itself to me. He suggested that I use the Kabbalistic tools: wear a red string on my left hand and carry around a pocket-sized Pinchas Zohar as protection. And avoid cemeteries whenever possible. After I did that, I stopped experiencing those ghostly visits. I still wear a red string and keep a Pinchas in my purse to this day.
Working at the Kabbalah Centre could be chaotic. Often, it felt like we were swimming against the current whenever we tried to get anything done. Staff were always working around the clock to make up for being short-staffed. Having volunteers helped but they weren't always trained to handle the more advanced tasks. When it wasn't external things going wrong, I'd witness teachers butt heads even though they had the common goal to do good. Communication was the biggest challenge that I could see, but I noticed that most of the time they made an effort to better themselves and use the spiritual tools to stop being reactive. It was important for me to see that just because they were spiritual teachers, some of them very advanced, they were far from perfect. It was easier to teach these concepts than walk the walk. The important thing was that they were trying.
After two years of working at the Centre, it was time for me to move on. I'd made an escape plan to live in Paris, France, for a year. I was young, and I wanted glamour and excitement, not work in an office in a boring part of town.
In Paris, I did the starving artist thing. I kept in touch with my former boss, who became my de facto Kabbalah teacher. We would Skype about once a month. I'd tell him about my life and the challenges I was experiencing, and he'd give me spiritual guidance and practical advice. He has always been open to me about his problems and challenges too. In my spare time, I read books on astrology, feng shui, reincarnation, manifesting, and I tried meditating, which I'm still not very good at. My one-year stint in Paris extended to almost three, but near the end of that time, I was hungry for more spirituality. For a place called the City of Lights, Paris, from what I could feel, was not spiritual. Years later, I learned that Paris did have a Kabbalah Centre only steps away from where I lived in the 16th arrondissement, but the Centre no longer existed when I lived there. Negative speech had brought the place down.
When I moved back to Toronto in 2014, I jumped right into taking Kabbalah 1, 2, 3, and 4. While I had learned some Kabbalah from being an office assistant and on my own, it was clear to me how much I didn't know when I took the intro classes. I didn't have the foundations. The older students thought I still worked there, but with the new students, I could be one of them, fresh to the teachings and excited. The lead teacher at the time was new too and didn't know me that well. I raised my hand to ask questions whenever I could, and the amazing thing was that I got satisfying answers to everything I wanted to know. Kabbalah finally clicked for me.
I volunteered and made friends at the Centre. I went to international events, such as Rosh Hashanah, and made even more friends with students from around the world. I'd go to the New York Centre whenever possible to connect with Karen or Michael Berg. And yes, I'd see Madonna there sometimes, sunglasses on, no makeup, dressed in all black, striding in late for Torah reading. Say what you will about her, but she was in it with Kabbalah for the long haul. (I find it funny that Kabbalah attracts the most random celebrities, like that guy from Dawson's Creek.)
In the spring of 2015, I went on the Kabbalah Centre's Energy Tour of Israel with two busloads of students from Toronto and New York, led by three teachers. Karen Berg was also there for Shabbat and the holiday of Lag B'Omer. We touched the Western Wall in Jerusalem, did mikvah in the Sea of Galilee (where Jesus walked on water), visited the cave where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai revealed the Zohar, attended a double wedding for New York students, ate a feast in The Old City of Akko, among other magical experiences. A big part of the trip was visiting the resting places of the Tzaddikim (the righteous) and connecting to their energy. At Rachel the Matriarch's tomb, my heart felt as if it were expanding.
My most memorable experience was visiting the tomb of Rav Berg. The Rav had passed on in 2013 (a tear-jerking section of Karen's memoir for sure). I had never met him. I enjoyed reading his books and thought he was a good writer, although some of his video lectures were too advanced for me. Because Karen was a woman, I felt more connected to her. When I put my hand on The Rav's tomb, I didn't expect to connect to him in such a deep way. A strong energy began vibrating up my arm that was hard to brush off as just my imagination. The sensation didn't leave me as I kept my hand there, and I began receiving messages from The Rav. He conveyed to me that I did not come to the Kabbalah Centre by chance. In fact, he had invited me. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Only I would end up at the Kabbalah Centre from getting a job through a Craigslist ad. Any regular person might have been intrigued by an ad to attend a class or event, but not me. I was too stubborn to have come any other way.
My cynicism did serve a purpose: to not accept anything at face value, and to test the teachings and tools for myself. I now know that any institution run by human beings is bound to be flawed, but sooner or later, cosmic laws are there to correct any wrongdoings.
I had a conversation about this topic not long ago with my current Kabbalah teacher. (My former boss has been living in Israel for the past few years and is semi-retired.) He told me that The Kabbalah Centre is not the only organization teaching the wisdom of Kabbalah, but if they stopped doing a good job, another organization would surely take its place. Same with the teachers. If they become egotistical or corrupt once they gain popularity and power, they will either leave or get kicked out. It's about the wisdom, not the institution or people. Students revere The Rav and Karen Berg, but they would be the first to say that if they hadn't answered the spiritual call, another couple would have. They are channels, as we all have the potential to be.
Kabbalah provides me with a spiritual foundation, but I think it's very healthy to be open to different spiritual teachings. I was happy that Karen Berg thought along the same lines and for years invited other spiritual leaders to speak at Kabbalah holiday events. She would co-lead workshops on body energy work, breathing exercises, chakra openings, and the like. Those experiences resonated with me, and I wanted to do more body energy work. I knew there had to be a reason why I had all these fears and blocked energy in my body, and they weren't all from experiences from my current life. Kabbalah had tools for physical and emotional healing, but I wanted something deeper.
As usual, when I asked God for help, answers soon came. It has always been my experience that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. It all kicked off in the summer of 2017 when Karen hosted a weekend workshop in the Catskills with Sara Yardeni, a long-time Kabbalah teacher who was also certified as a Dahn Master. Sara co-led classes with other masters from the Body & Brain Institute, where they teach holistic fitness with yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and breathwork. We moved our bodies, screamed, and did sound therapy in nature. Karen took us on a hike and we talked to a tree. I'm making this sound like hippy nonsense, but it was exactly what I needed. I also have this nice memory of sitting around a bonfire at night with Karen and everyone, roasting marshmallows for S'mores and tossing balled-up pieces of paper written with what we wanted to let go into the fire.
A guest lecturer was Eric Brumett, a co-founder of the ThetaHealing Center in New York. I had already heard about ThetaHealing through other people at the Toronto Kabbalah Centre around that time, but I had no clue how it worked. One teacher relayed her experience as answering a series of questions on the phone, swaying back and forth, and next thing she knew, she was drudging up some event from her childhood that the ThetaHealer somehow released and healed from a distance. I was intrigued. Eric did an exercise with us that involved releasing resentment with loved ones. I learned how to muscle test. I still didn't completely understand what ThetaHealing was, but a couple of months later, I was in New York, so I made an appointment to have a session with a ThetaHealer there. The rest is history — read my posts on my experiences with ThetaHealing as a client and getting certified as a practitioner.
Almost ten years ago, I had a Kabbalalistic astrology reading where I was told I was meant to be a healer. I didn't want to be a healer then and didn't even know how, but the astrologer told me that this simply meant I could inject healing energy in whatever I choose to do. Well, she was actually right, because last year I decided, sure, I will be an intuitive healer. I'm certified, so why not? I do it very much part-time now, and it's fun to help people.
Recently, I started reading Ilchi Lee's book Change: Realizing Your Greatest Potential, over three years after I bought it, along with a bunch of his other books, at Karen Berg's retreat in the Catskills. Ilchi Lee is the founder of the Body & Brain Institute, and his work brings a different perspective on spirituality that also resonates with me. His book touches on science, Tao philosophy, breathing techniques, and a concrete plan for a better earth. I'm eager to read his other books.
Some students or teachers at the Kabbalah Centre would not be open to teachings outside of the Centre. Kabbalah is their path; they only want to learn from Kabbalah teachers. That may very well work for them, but they could potentially be missing out on something amazing and life-changing by closing themselves off to other wisdom and tools.
I always check myself so I stay open. These days, I trust my intuition. I think it's important for everyone to develop intuition and a strong moral compass so they can do what feels true to them instead of what's expected of them and risk having a religious or cult mentality.
Looking back, it's amazing how many major spiritual tools and teachings outside of Kabbalah I connected to through Karen. She was ahead of her time.
Before I read Karen's memoir, I was in a transitional phase in life and one night I had a dream where Rav Brandwein made his presence known to me. I didn't know much about Rav Brandwein other than that he was Rav Berg's beloved teacher, someone Karen called The Rav's soulmate. I recounted the dream to my Kabbalah teacher, who is good at dream interpretation. He interpreted the dream as meaning Rav Brandwein is there for me no matter which path I take. The more I read about Rav Brandwein in Karen's memoir, the more I felt connected to him. I plan to read and study more of his teachings. I'm humbled that he chose to connect with me. Every day, I feel grateful to have the three kabbalists—The Rav, Karen Berg, and now Rav Brandwein—guiding me from above.