Kabbalah: The Kabbalah Centre's founders built a far-flung empire now under IRS investigation. - latimes.com Philip Berg’s new wife was young, beautiful and worldly, everything that he, a middle-aged orthodox rabbi, wasn’t. Karen Berg could be pushy too. She brought a television into their home over his objections. She tossed out his traditional black fur hat, and pressured him to teach ancient Jewish mysticism -- known as kabbalah -- to the public. "Men and women together?" Philip said. "Yeah, sure, men and women," she replied. Philip understood how radical her proposition was. For centuries, elite rabbinical scholars -- all of them men -- had guarded like rare gems the spiritual secrets believed to be encoded in the Torah. Karen was an outsider to this culture. Entrepreneurial and unimpressed by religious authority, she saw no reason why such valuable teachings shouldn’t be offered on the open market. "Let’s give it to the people," she insisted. Philip was torn between tradition and his soul mate. He chose Karen. That conversation four decades ago, recounted by Karen in videos and in a book she wrote, set the course for their lives. Once so poor that they shopped at thrift stores, slept in cramped rooms above a Queens synagogue and studied scripture on a pingpong table, the Bergs gradually turned their spiritual vision into the Kabbalah Centre, a worldwide organization with headquarters in Los Angeles, branches in dozens of countries and assets estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The center’s teachings about God, happiness and the meaning of life drew a passionate following that included big names in film, fashion and music. Devotees treated the couple as if they were gods. Some considered it an honor to eat Philip’s table scraps. They addressed Karen in the third person and showered the couple with gifts, including couture handbags and spa vacations. The Bergs stayed in luxury hotels, traveled by private jet and took gambling trips to Las Vegas, according to former members of their inner circle. The Kabbalah Centre prospered, but eventually its success proved divisive, and harmony gave way to public discord. The Bergs’ lifestyle was questioned, their finances scrutinized. Friends became enemies, supporters fell silent. In recent months, IRS agents investigating the center’s finances pored over records and questioned the Bergs’ followers. Philip had always sensed that Karen’s idea of kabbalah for the people would stir vehement opposition. "We’re probably going to get killed," he warned her during that conversation 40 years ago. "We’re probably going to get stoned." Philip Berg was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn, two months before the stock market crash of 1929. His family was devoutly religious. Their neighborhood, Williamsburg, filled with Hasidic Jews fleeing Europe. A thorough Torah education was a given and Philip began his at age 3. He attended ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and was ordained a rabbi in 1951. As a young man, he turned away from full-time religious studies. He later wrote that he had become "profoundly disillusioned by my religion as it had been taught to me," but he also needed to support his wife, Rivkah, and their young family. The couple would eventually have eight children. He Americanized his name and became a salesman for New York Life Insurance Co., a position family friend Billy Phillips said afforded him a chauffeured Cadillac and good cigars. In the early ‘60s, Philip went to Israel, where he was introduced to kabbalah by his wife’s uncle, a renowned scholar named Yehuda Brandwein. Kabbalah entranced Philip. Unlike yeshiva, often dominated by debates about the minutiae of Jewish law, kabbalah focused on life’s existential questions: Why am I here? How can I be happy? Brandwein, who ran a Jerusalem yeshiva, was Philip’s spiritual guide to the mystical world that would become his lifelong devotion. The Hebrew word for "received," kabbalah holds that the first five books of the Bible contain hidden lessons. Kabbalists believe God revealed this wisdom to Moses along with the Ten Commandments. That knowledge, they believe, was passed down orally until the 13th century, when it was published in a series of books known as the Zohar. Some Jewish scholars regarded with suspicion kabbalah’s preoccupation with astrology, reincarnation and a world of unseen forces. Others, including Philip, saw it as Judaism at its purest. Returning to Brooklyn, he opened his insurance office at night to orthodox Jews for the study of the Zohar. In 1965, with the help of another student and an elderly, impoverished scholar, Levi Krakovsky, Philip set up the National Institute for Research in Kabbalah, a forerunner of the Kabbalah Centre. In a tiny apartment so crammed with books that he could have only one visitor at a time, Krakovsky translated the Zohar and other texts into English. He yearned to spread the teachings, but like other scholars before him, he was confounded by an inherent contradiction in kabbalah: It taught that the Messiah would appear only when the world embraced its wisdom. Yet only Jewish men, 40 or older and with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah and Jewish customs, were permitted to study it. Krakovksy lugged his handwritten manuscripts around Brooklyn in a suitcase, searching for an audience. He died in 1966, never having found a publisher. Years later, his heirs claimed that Philip had stolen some of his manuscripts. They sued, accusing Philip of publishing the translations under his own name to make money and "to falsely enhance [his] stature ... as a great Kabbalah teacher." Philip denied the allegations. The case went to trial in Manhattan federal court, but just as the jury was to begin deliberations, the center reached a confidential settlement with Krakovsky’s family. Whether or not he stole Krakovsky’s work, Philip inherited his desire to expand kabbalah’s reach. That ambition might have remained unrealized had he not hired a gum-smacking 16-year-old named Kathy Mulnick as a receptionist. Oft-told tale of couple’s meeting Philip and Karen Berg are seen here at a 2009 event in Israel sponsored by their Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre, which the IRS is investigating. (Photo by Shai Halamish) The Bergs’ romance is the Kabbalah Centre’s creation story, and the family has told and retold it in books, videos, religious services and media interviews. Verifying it has proved difficult. Many of those involved, including Philip’s first wife, are dead. The Bergs declined to talk to The Times. Raised by a single mother in postwar Brooklyn, Kathy Mulnick was a self-described wild child who could take care of herself. She attended 13 different schools, and would later tell friends she couldn’t read until she was 9. Later in life, after she changed her name to Karen, she regaled friends with stories of the toughness bred by her chaotic youth. Her family was Jewish, Karen has said. But they were assimilated and ignorant of even the most sacred parts of the religion. In a 2009 interview with the Jerusalem Post, she recalled a family tradition of enjoying a big meal on Yom Kippur, the day of fasting and atonement. Her job at Philip’s insurance office exposed her to the world of religious Jews who observed the Sabbath and kept kosher. She has written that as a high school student, she had nothing in common with her boss, a 31-year-old with a wife and children. "In fact, I disliked the man," she wrote in "God Wears Lipstick," a 2005 book subtitled "Kabbalah for Women. " After six months, she quit. At 17, she married a man from her neighborhood. They had two daughters, built a contracting business and eventually divorced. After they separated, she decided to call an old friend in Philip’s office. At the end of the conversation, she asked the woman to say hello to Philip for her. It had been eight years since she had seen him. "Not 10 minutes later, my phone rang," she wrote. It was Philip. They chatted and their conversation turned to his devotion to kabbalah. Karen was intrigued because of her interest in New Age philosophy and asked if he would give her private lessons. By her account, Philip, who wouldn’t even shake hands with a woman who wasn’t his wife, nonchalantly replied, "Okay, why not?" "We made a date for dinner that night to discuss the details," she wrote later. "I have to tell you at that meeting, it was all over. We knew instantly that we were meant for each other." Philip’s marriage to his first wife fell apart, and he and Karen were married in 1971. Their early relationship was a tug of war between her worldliness and his piety. Philip threw out his new wife’s library of New Age books and blocked the door when she tried to bring a television into their home. He gave in when she threatened to leave him, Karen wrote.