The Kabbalah Center: how crucial was Madonna to its rise?

Director Madonna poses before the news conference for the film "W.E." at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival September 12, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Cassese

LOS ANGELES ( - The Los Angeles Times’ two-part series on the Kabbalah Center this week provides a fascinating look at the organization’s rapid rise in popularity, its colorful founders, and its current tax issues.

The series focuses on the ascent of Philip and Karen Berg, an orthodox rabbi and his ambitious wife. The Times said Karen Berg pressured her husband to teach ancient Jewish mysticism -- known as Kabbalah -- four decades ago. It says gifts from their followers have since helped fund an opulent lifestyle that has included gambling trips to Las Vegas, travel by private jets, and spa vacations.

That lifestyle has drawn the notice of the Internal Revenue Service, which has undertaken an investigation focused partly on whether the couple enriched themselves with members’ donations.

Among the issues the series addresses is how crucial celebrities were to making the religion trendy. The Times reported that in 1998, the year after Madonna went public with her ties to Kabbalah, the center had $20 million in assets. By 2009, the assets had grown to $260 million.

“Everything changed once Madonna began to study,” the Times quotes Kabbalah follower Roseanne Barr as saying. “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 or Karen Berg or heaven and Earth could remain the same in the face of it.”

Though its parent organization, Kabbalah Center International, stopped filing returns after it was granted tax-exempt status as a church in 1999, the Times reported the center’s assets based on the resume of a former chief financial officer and tax returns the center and other groups filed before the exemption.