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History > 2013 > USA > Faith, Sects (II)



Edgar M. Bronfman,

Who Brought Elegance and Expansion

to Seagram, Dies at 84


December 22, 2013
The New York Times


Edgar M. Bronfman, the billionaire businessman and philanthropist who as chairman of the Seagram Company expanded his family’s liquor-based empire and who as president of the World Jewish Congress championed the rights of Jews everywhere, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.

His death, of natural causes, was confirmed by the family’s Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Mr. Bronfman inherited control of Seagram from his father, Samuel Bronfman, an irascible, self-made Canadian magnate who founded a distilling company in 1924 and got rich during Prohibition when Bronfman liquor found its way to American customers through bootleggers.

Edgar gave the company a more sophisticated image, in keeping with his own elegantly turned-out profile in New York society — a prominence underscored in the 1970s by the headlines generated by the kidnapping of his son Sam for ransom money.

But as liquor profits began to falter, he broadened the company by acquiring Tropicana, taking Seagram into the oil business and eventually making it the largest minority shareholder in DuPont, the chemical giant. Later, he allowed his son Edgar Jr., who had succeeded him as head of the company, to risk billions of dollars to transform Seagram once again, this time into a major player in Hollywood.

As president of the World Jewish Congress, from 1981 until 2007, Mr. Bronfman turned a loose, cautious federation of Jewish groups in 66 countries into a more focused, confrontational organization.

Under his leadership, the Congress pressed the Soviet Union to improve conditions for Jews living within its borders and to allow freer emigration. Spurred by Mr. Bronfman, the Congress led efforts to expose the hidden Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, the former secretary general of the United Nations who became president of Austria. And it campaigned successfully to force Swiss banks to make restitutions of more than a billion dollars to the relatives of German death camp victims who deposited their savings in Switzerland before World War II.

Mr. Bronfman shrugged off criticism from those who feared that his aggressive tactics were risking an anti-Semitic backlash. “The answer isn’t to say, ‘Don’t make trouble,’ and hide our heads in the sand,” he wrote in his 1998 memoir, “Good Spirits: The Making of a Businessman.” “We may not earn the friendship of others, but we will demand their respect.”

Edgar Miles Bronfman was born in Montreal on June 20, 1929. His father and his mother, the former Saidye Rosner, were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who had moved to Montreal from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Edgar was the third-born of their four children.

Sam Bronfman and his brother Allan established a successful mail-order liquor company but were forced to give it up when provincial governments in Canada took over the retail side of the liquor business themselves. The Bronfmans decided that if they could not sell liquor, they would produce it. The family built its own distillery near Montreal in 1925.

It prospered, and the Bronfmans took advantage of Prohibition by opening more distilleries just across the border from the United States. One that the brothers bought was owned by the Seagram family, and they incorporated the name. When Prohibition ended, they were strategically placed to open a Seagram subsidiary in the United States, in 1933.

“How much business Father and his brothers did with bootleggers was never clear,” Mr. Bronfman wrote in “Good Spirits.”

Edgar and his siblings grew up in aristocratic splendor. Their family’s suburban Montreal mansion was staffed with a butler, a cook, maids, nannies, gardeners and chauffeurs. They spent summers at their country estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., and at the family retreat on Lake Placid in the Adirondacks.

But affluence did not always evoke fond memories. “My childhood was marked by a tension between privilege on the one hand and emotional dysfunction on the other,” Mr. Bronfman wrote in “Good Spirits.” He complained that his father had rarely been around and that his mother had been remote and inaccessible.

Mr. Bronfman said he had grown up with a confused understanding of his Jewish identity. The Bronfmans kept a kosher home, and the children received religious schooling on weekends. But during the week Edgar and his younger brother, Charles, were among a handful of Jews sent to private Anglophile schools, where they attended chapel and ate pork. “No one said anything to my face,” Mr. Bronfman remembered, “but I constantly heard comments denigrating Jews.”

Mr. Bronfman enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts and then transferred to McGill University in Montreal, graduating in 1951.

At 21 he joined Seagram, working as an apprentice taster and accounting clerk in Montreal and then at the main distillery nearby, where he eventually oversaw production. He had a knack for finances and the boldness to tell his tyrannical father how best to handle his money. At 22 he explained that Seagram could reap great tax benefits if it incorporated its petroleum subsidiary and carried out exploration in the United States rather than in Canada.

“Fortunately, Father saw the point at once and agreed,” he wrote.

Mr. Bronfman was a confident executive, safe in the knowledge that as the firstborn son he was the heir apparent. His brother accepted his status and throughout his life deferred to Mr. Bronfman on business decisions. But his oldest sibling, Minda, resented the accident of gender that had removed her from consideration as the eventual heir, despite her degree in business administration. Relations between her and Edgar were strained for most of their lives.

In 1953 Mr. Bronfman married Ann Loeb, a granddaughter of the financier Carl M. Loeb. Loeb, Rhoades & Company helped the Bronfmans purchase the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company.

Mr. Bronfman convinced his father that since the United States accounted for 90 percent of Seagram revenues, it made sense to install himself permanently in New York. In 1953 Samuel Bronfman put Edgar in control of the company’s subsidiary in the United States, Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, and placed Charles in charge of the Canadian branch, the House of Seagram.

Mr. Bronfman moved to New York two years later and shortly afterward became an American citizen — although it was his sister Phyllis, who had studied architecture, who was put in charge of the construction of the new company headquarters, the Seagram Building, on Park Avenue, considered a jewel of modern skyscraper design.

At its zenith, in 1956, Seagram’s products accounted for one of every three distilled-alcohol drinks in the United States. Then its market share began to slide. To compensate for the losses, Mr. Bronfman squeezed more profits from less production, using modern cost-cutting methods and focusing on more expensive brands of whiskey.

But he was frustrated by his inability to wrest full control of Seagram from his aging father, and he began to dabble in film and television production. After losing a bid for MGM to the financier Kirk Kerkorian, however, he returned full time to the beverage business.

With the death of his father in 1971, Mr. Bronfman’s personal life began to unravel. That same year he separated from his wife, with whom he had five children. After their divorce, he married Lady Carolyn Townshend, in 1973, but that marriage also ended in divorce, a year later. He quickly became involved with another Englishwoman, Rita Webb (who changed her name to Georgiana). They married and divorced each other twice, and had two daughters. He then married Jan Aronson, an artist and a former triathlete.

He is survived by Ms. Aronson; his sons, Samuel, Edgar Jr., Matthew and Adam, and his daughter Holly Bronfman Lev, all from his first marriage; his daughters with Ms. Webb, Sara Igtet and Clare Bronfman; his brother, Charles; his sister Phyllis Lambert; 24 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In 1975, Samuel Bronfman II was kidnapped in New York and held for ransom. Mr. Bronfman himself delivered the $2.4 million ransom to one of his son’s two kidnappers, who were both arrested shortly afterward by the F.B.I. But the kidnappers’ lawyer claimed in court that the abduction had been a hoax and that Sam Bronfman had been a part of it. In the end, the jury convicted the defendants of the lesser charge of extortion.

With liquor consumption in decline in 1981, Mr. Bronfman tried to buy Conoco, a major oil and gas company. Seagram lost out to DuPont in the bidding but, because of its investment in Conoco, ended up with a 20 percent share of DuPont — and soon raised this to almost 25 percent, making Seagram DuPont’s largest minority shareholder.

Initially, most Wall Street analysts and the financial press took the position that Seagram had been outdueled for Conoco by DuPont. A 1981 Business Week article quoted a DuPont senior executive as saying jokingly that he enjoyed drinking “Seagram on the rocks.” But by 1985 its stake in DuPont accounted for nearly 75 percent of Seagram’s earnings, and Mr. Bronfman was being hailed as a smart, risk-taking businessman.

At the same time, Mr. Bronfman was becoming increasingly involved in Jewish causes. He was elected president of the World Jewish Congress in 1981. “Making money is marvelous, and I love doing it, and I do it reasonably well,” he told The New York Times in 1986, “but it doesn’t have the gripping vitality that you have when you deal with the happiness of human life and with human deprivation.”

As his devotion to Jewish causes grew, he reduced his involvement with Seagram and prepared to turn over the company to the next generation. By family tradition his oldest son, Sam, was the logical successor, but he favored his second son, Edgar Jr., and without consulting either, Mr. Bronfman announced his choice in a 1986 interview with Fortune magazine. It would be Edgar Jr.

“It took Sam a long time to get over the hurt that I had inflicted,” Mr. Bronfman later conceded. “But my responsibility was to choose the right C.E.O. for Seagram regardless of presumed birthright or familial relationship.”

Edgar Bronfman Jr. became president of Seagram in 1989 and chief executive in 1994. With his father’s approval, he sold Seagram’s shares in DuPont and used the proceeds, more than $9 billion, to purchase MCA, a major Hollywood film and music company, which was later split into Universal Studios and Universal Music.

DuPont’s share price doubled within four years, while Seagram’s stock barely budged during the long bull market of the 1990s. Undeterred, Edgar Jr. spent billions more on entertainment. In 1998 he bought PolyGram, the giant music company, but the resulting conglomerate floundered, forcing him to seek a strategic partner. So in 2000 he negotiated yet another controversial deal, an all-stock acquisition of the French conglomerate Vivendi. He briefly became chief executive of the new company, Vivendi Universal, but after Seagram lost control of its entertainment holdings, he stepped down from an executive capacity in 2001. Seagram then sold its beverage business. In 2004, Edgar Jr. acquired Warner Music Group.

Edgar Sr., for his part, became a major philanthropist through the family foundation, with a focus on Jewish educational and social programs in the United States and Israel. At New York University, he helped establish the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also wrote four autobiographical books.

His work with the World Jewish Congress also accelerated. In the 1990s the Congress, spurred by Mr. Bronfman, negotiated with Eastern European countries to recover — or at least receive compensation for — the property of Jews that had been seized first by the Nazis and then by the Communists.

In the late ’90s, the Congress became one of the foremost critics of Switzerland’s role during World War II, accusing Swiss banks of having stolen the deposits of European Jews who died during the war. After several years of bitter negotiations, Swiss banks agreed in 1999 to distribute at least $1.25 billion in compensation to relatives of European Jews who had secretly deposited their money in Switzerland before perishing at the Nazis’ hands.

Mr. Bronfman acknowledged that he could be abrasive in pursuing Jewish causes, but he defended his approach, telling The Times in 1986, “I would like every Jew to be as comfortable in his skin as I am in mine.”

    Edgar M. Bronfman, Who Brought Elegance and Expansion to Seagram,
    Dies at 84, NYT, 22.12.2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/23/






Grandson: Televangelist Paul Crouch

Dies at 79


November 30, 2013
The New York Times


COSTA MESA, Calif. — Paul Crouch, the televangelist who built what's been called the world's largest Christian broadcasting network, has died. He was 79.

Crouch died at his home in Orange, Calif., on Saturday after a decade-long fight with degenerative heart disease, his grandson Brandon Crouch told The Associated Press.

"He was an incredible businessman, entrepreneur, visionary; he built something that impacted the world," he said.

Trinity Broadcast Network had reported that Crouch fell ill and was taken to a Dallas-area hospital in October while visiting the network's facility in Colleyville, Texas. He later returned to California for continued treatment of "heart and related health issues."

"We mourn Paul's passing and he will be greatly missed. But we know, as the old hymn reminds us, soon enough we will see him again in that great 'meeting in the air,'" the network said in a statement Saturday.

Crouch began his broadcasting career while studying theology at Central Bible Institute and Seminary in his native Missouri by helping build the campus' radio station. He moved to California in the early 1960s to manage the movie and television unit of the Assemblies of God before founding Trinity Broadcast Network in 1973 with his wife, Jan.

They grew the network into an international Christian empire that beams prosperity gospel programming to every continent but Antarctica around the clock. The programming promises that if the faithful sacrifice for their belief, God will reward them with material wealth.

Based in Costa Mesa, the network says it has 84 satellite channels and more than 18,000 television and cable affiliates as well as a Christian amusement park in Orlando.

The Crouches faced criticism for what critics say was their extravagant lifestyle. Ministry watchdogs have long questioned how TBN spends the hundreds of millions of tax-exempt donations they receive from viewers.

Last year, their granddaughter and her husband's uncle filed lawsuits alleging $50 million in financial improprieties at the network and detailed opulent spending on private jets and 13 mansions and homes around the U.S. for the Crouch family's use.

The Crouches dismissed the allegations, and their attorney said the network's spending was in line with its mission to spread the gospel throughout the world.


He was survived by his wife and their two sons,

Matthew and Paul Jr.

    Grandson: Televangelist Paul Crouch Dies at 79, NYT, 30.11.2013,






Ministering on Death Row,

and Feeling a New Confidence in Rome


October 1, 2013
The New York Times


This week, trailing a group of men walking through a prison, Sister Helen Prejean overheard bits of what they were discussing. “I heard one saying, ‘He is so honest,’ but I didn’t catch who they were talking about at first,” said Sister Prejean, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, an order of Roman Catholic sisters.

Then she figured it out from fragments that floated back to her, hearing mention of a man who admitted to having been excessively authoritarian as a boss, who washed the feet of women and prisoners and Muslims, and who had called for the Catholic Church to find a “new balance” in its teachings of moral concerns. The subject was Pope Francis.

The people talking about him were 12 bishops who were visiting California’s death row in San Quentin prison, the home to more than 700 condemned men.

“Francis’ whole style is so honest and forthright,” Sister Prejean said. “He just really says what he thinks. That’s what the bishops were commenting on. They’re not used to it.”

Who could be used to unvarnished comments like those published on Tuesday in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica? “The leprosy of the papacy,” Francis said, was the culture of the Vatican court that was devoted to cosseting popes in flattery.

For many American Catholics, especially for the women in religious orders, the new pope has been a jolting, rejuvenating presence. Just 18 months ago, a Vatican report on the largest organization of women’s religious orders in the United States declared that there were “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life.” Among their faults, the report found, was that they had been insufficiently energetic in promoting Catholic teaching on abortion, sexuality and family life. The organization was put under the supervision of an archbishop selected by Rome.

Now there is a pope who has said that when it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” The church’s highest calling is to be with the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized in society, he said.

Which has been ground zero for the work of American Catholic religious women in the United States for decades.

Catholic sisters in New York are getting older, but their works meet enduring needs. They run homes for women just released from prison, feed drug addicts and prostitutes who gather under the Major Deegan Expressway, build homes for women who are victims of human trafficking.

Sister Prejean, the author of “Dead Man Walking,” an account of her ministry on Louisiana’s death row, is working her way across the country to the Convent of Mercy on Willoughby Avenue in Brooklyn, for a gathering on Sunday afternoon of the Cherish Life Circle, which Sister Camille D’Arienzo founded 20 years ago. The group ministers to people on death row and to the victims of crime.

“Camille embodies everything we’re talking about,” Sister Prejean said.

As it happens, Sister D’Arienzo is a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the very organization that fell under Vatican scrutiny last year.

“I am pretty confident that this nonsense with the Vatican is going to go away,” Sister D’Arienzo said. “There is no way that we would relinquish our authority which is not in conflict, really, with anything the Vatican imposed.”

She had no intention of getting involved in direct death penalty ministry, but learned about a man imprisoned in Allenwood, Pa., who was scheduled to die in less than two months. A few weeks before the date, Sister D’Arienzo visited him. By mistake, they were led into a room with no barriers.

“He asked, ‘Why are you here?’ ” Sister D’Arienzo recalled. “I told him, ‘I couldn’t find anyone else.’ He burst out laughing.”

The man, David Paul Hammer, received a stay of execution. He has since drawn artwork used for Christmas cards that Sister D’Arienzo sells, raising $70,000 for a children’s school in Jamaica. She, too, has found Pope Francis to be a revitalizing presence, and is certain he will appreciate the complexity of working with castoff people.

“He is a holy man who has hugged the people that he has walked the streets with,” Sister D’Arienzo said. “He, more than anyone, will understand those of us who are committed to serving the people he cares so much about, those on the margins of society.”

Sister Prejean, in her travels, has felt an electricity about Francis. “ ‘I can’t believe we got this pope’ — that’s what people are saying,” she said. “He’s the second most Twittered guy in the world. This is the church alive. This is something we can believe in. He’s making it so attractive, he’s so blooming honest. It’s downright refreshing.”

    Ministering on Death Row, and Feeling a New Confidence in Rome,
    NYT, 1.10.2013,






The West Need Not Fear

Its Young Muslims


September 23, 2013
The New York Times


LONDON — It has been five years since Shirwa Ahmed, a 26-year-old from Minneapolis, blew himself up in northern Somalia, and sent shivers up American spines about young immigrants from war-torn Muslim countries who were turning into terrorists. Unconfirmed reports that American Muslims might have been among the gunmen who stormed Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall over the weekend will no doubt revive fears of the “enemy within.”

I know the Westgate well. Nairobi was my jumping-off point for many research trips to Somalia in 2011 and 2012. The sunny terrace of the ArtCaffe, with its excellent coffee and free Wi-Fi, became my virtual office. I shopped often in the mall’s Nakumatt supermarket, where the jihadis staged their attack. They reportedly singled out non-Muslims for execution by asking them the name of the Prophet’s mother: a test that I would not have passed.

I remain, however, unafraid of Somalis, least of all of Americanized ones. I spent time in Minnesota in 2011 — the Twin Cities is home to the greatest concentration in the United States of Somalis in exile — and uncovered this reassuring truth: hotheads inclined to support the Shabab may exist in Minneapolis, but they are a mere handful in a community of tens of thousands of Somalis who want nothing to do with extremist Islamism.

While Islamist recruiters remain active, officials report far less traffic on the route back to the terror war at home than there was five years ago. (The Justice Department contended in a terrorism-related trial last fall that more than 20 men had left Minnesota for Somalia since 2007 to join the Shabab.) Meanwhile, the diaspora in Minnesota sends a steady flow of remittances to relatives in Somalia, along with leadership and advice for the country’s fragile new government. Cedar-Riverside, the Minneapolis district known as Little Somalia, feels integrated and safe. In short, and despite the disaster in Nairobi, there is reason to hope that the generation of young Somalis whom some Americans fear may actually be one of Somalia’s best hopes for a stable future.

That transition is partly a result of changes in Somalia: African Union troops drove the Shabab from Mogadishu, the capital, in 2011 and remain as peacekeepers. (Kenya’s military involvement in the African Union operation appears to be the Shabab’s main justification for the Westgate attack.) An elected government rules with United Nations backing. Although the Shabab still control much of the countryside and an occasional bomb goes off in the capital, Mogadishu is being rebuilt; its beach-side restaurants have been full on weekends, as have been arriving flights.

But the main motor of change in Somalia has been Somalis themselves, and their links between home and exile. Tellingly, many of the new government’s cabinet ministers are returned exiles. Total remittances from diaspora communities, furthermore, dwarf international aid. In the Twin Cities the chief source for those remittances has been Somali-owned businesses: hundreds were operating there in 2012.

Not all is rosy in the Twin Cities, of course. Many Somalis there live in economically marginal communities and, as elsewhere, some teenagers join criminal street gangs. So law enforcement officials still watch to see if some will turn to jihadism. After all, in the words of Zuhur Ahmed, a woman in her 20s who used to host a Minneapolis radio show called Somali Community Link, the motives for joining a street gang and for signing on as a jihadi can be similar — typically, an alienated boy’s desperate yearning for identity and importance. The Shabab, she noted, means “the youth” in Arabic. “They’re just street boys who want to belong somewhere,” she told me.

But if young people are impressionable, their malleability can cut both ways. And there seem to be many more ambitious young Somalis who seize opportunities for work and education, and adopt Western values. Last spring, the online forum Open Democracy posted a Wake Forest University student’s account of a poll canvassing Somalis in their late teens and 20s in 38 countries. Of 700 respondents, 87 percent said they had a degree or were working toward one, and 37 percent said they had been back to Somalia in the last five years. Though unscientific, the study hints at the esteem in which aspiring Somalis hold learning, as well as at a persistent interest in their homeland.

One example is Mohamed Hassan, a principal planning analyst for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, who emigrated to the city in the early 1990s and is now in his 40s. With fellow exiles, he helped establish government services for his home district, Adado, in central Somalia. One of them, Mohamed Aden, better known by his nickname, Tiiceey, returned there to run the administration and focus on counteracting pirates. Mr. Hassan and the others have stayed on in Minnesota, sending financial and other support.

Or consider Nimco Ahmed, a Minneapolis official and a Democratic Party stalwart who works with marginalized communities, and whose office has a photograph of her alongside President Obama. She regularly returns to Somalia. Her enthusiasm to succeed as an American has made her locally famous. Yet she was a high-school friend of Shirwa Ahmed, before he turned terrorist.

There are comparable stories in Britain, home to hundreds of thousands of Somalis. Adam Matan, 27, is a “community engagement officer” in the local council in Hounslow, a London borough. Repelled by the traditional loyalties to clan and tribe that he blames for Somalia’s chaos, he began online an international Anti-Tribalism Movement for Somalia that now boasts more than 100,000 members, most in their 20s. A principal goal is to lower the average age in Somalia’s Parliament. The United States Embassy in London, meanwhile, has reached out to that city’s Elays (“Beacon”) network of young Somali activists, who produce films about dealing with obstacles that include prejudice and stereotyping. The embassy tutored them in publicizing their efforts with the slogan, “That’s not our jihad.”

Such early interventions — getting to the young before extremists do — is surely a key to countering radicalization. So Americans wondering how to address the marginalization of young Muslim immigrants might examine what their own country’s embassy in Britain, and many Somali-Americans in Minnesota, are already doing.

Both stake their hopes on a simple, visionary premise: Given opportunities, support, and acknowledgment that Islam and violence are not synonyms, the vast majority of young diaspora Muslims are likely to reject extremism on their own.


James Fergusson, a journalist,

is the author of “The World’s Most Dangerous Place

— Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia.”

    The West Need Not Fear Its Young Muslims, NYT, 23.9.2013,






Rabbi Philip Berg,

Who Updated Jewish Mysticism,

Dies at 86


September 20, 2013
The New York Times


Rabbi Philip Berg, whose Kabbalah Center International put a modern spin on an ancient Jewish mystical tradition, attracting celebrities like Madonna, Demi Moore and Britney Spears but also incurring criticism on spiritual and financial matters, died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 86, according to the center, although some news reports put his age at 84.

His death, from respiratory failure and pneumonia, was announced by the center.

A former insurance salesman, Rabbi Berg established the center in Queens with his second wife, Karen, in the early 1980s. The Los Angeles branch, now its headquarters, opened in the mid-1980s, and there are now branches in some 40 cities worldwide.

The rabbi suffered a stroke in 2004, and since then the organization has been led by Mrs. Berg and the couple’s sons, Yehuda and Michael.

In an e-mail message to The New York Times on Thursday, Madonna wrote of Rabbi Berg, “I learned more from him than any human I have ever met.”

She added: “This one concept that he taught me, and that kabbalah teaches, is that you have to take responsibility for your life. You can’t blame other people for what happens. You are in charge of your destiny.”

Kabbalah, which means tradition in Hebrew, arose in the 12th century among rabbinic sages in Spain and France. A body of commentary on sacred Hebrew writings, primarily the Torah but also early mystical texts, it aims to discern and illuminate hidden meanings within those works.

Rabbi Berg recast kabbalah in a late-20th-century light by combining it with a New Age focus on self-actualization. Classes offered at the center’s New York branch, for instance, include Power of Kabbalah 1, 2 and 3 and Creating Your Relationships.

Many mainstream Jewish leaders condemned Rabbi Berg as purveying a diluted version of kabbalah, which was historically considered so complex and powerful that only married men 40 and older who already possessed a deep knowledge of the Torah were allowed to study it.

But his admirers praise him as having made kabbalah far more widely accessible than it had ever been — to women, young people and even gentiles.

“It’s a mixed legacy,” Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass., said on Wednesday.

On the one hand, Rabbi Green said: “Both Orthodox and liberal Jews accused him of charlatanism and hucksterism. He sold bottles of supposedly blessed water called Kabbalah Water and charged hefty fees to people taking his classes and certainly became quite wealthy, unlike any prior teacher of kabbalah in history.”

On the other, he said, “There were people who derived great benefit from his teachings, who found their way back to Judaism through him.”

Besides Kabbalah Water, the center’s most emblematic product is a length of red string ($26); worn around the wrist, the string is said to ward off the evil eye. In 2003, Ms. Spears, wearing the string and a white bustier, appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

A major component of the Kabbalah Center is its book-publishing arm, which has released many works by Rabbi Berg, including “The Wheels of a Soul: Reincarnation, Your Life Today — and Tomorrow” (1984) and “Kabbalah: The Star Connection — the Science of Judaic Astrology” (1992).

“In medieval kabbalah, there’s definitely reincarnation and astrology,” Jody Myers, a professor of religious studies at California State University, Northridge, and the author of “Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest,” a 2007 book about the center, explained Wednesday. “But Berg gave it central billing.”

The center’s assets, The Los Angeles Times wrote this week, “are now believed to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Philip Berg was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn on Aug. 20, 1927, according to the Kabbalah Center; some sources give the year as 1929. The son of an Orthodox Jewish family, he received rabbinic ordination in 1951 from what is now the Lakewood Yeshiva in Lakewood Township, N.J.

But before long, wanting to steer a less traditional course, he Americanized his name and became a salesman with the New York Life Insurance Company. He became entranced by kabbalah in the 1960s, on a visit to Israel.

In 1971, after divorcing his first wife, with whom he had eight children, he married Karen Mulnick. Together they undertook a deep study of kabbalah, living in Israel for much of the 1970s before returning to the United States, where they started a modest incarnation of the center in their home in Queens.

The Kabbalah Centers functioned fairly quietly until 1996, when Madonna began attending the Los Angeles branch. Over time, they have been patronized by Elizabeth Taylor, Roseanne Barr, Monica Lewinsky and other celebrities as well as many ordinary men and women.

In 2006, the center became a partner in a charitable project of Madonna’s that sought to build a school in Malawi, in southeast Africa. But as Newsweek reported in 2011, “only $850,000 of the $3.8 million spent on the academy was paid out in Malawi.”

“The lion’s share, almost $3 million, was spent by the Kabbalah Center’s office in L.A.,” the magazine said.

In 2010, the Internal Revenue Service began an investigation of the Kabbalah Center’s finances; its scope included the center’s role in the Madonna project, Raising Malawi. An I.R.S. spokesman said the agency could not discuss the status of the investigation.

Madonna has continued the Raising Malawi project but no longer involves the Kabbalah Center in it.

Information on Rabbi Berg’s survivors besides Karen Berg and their two sons could not be confirmed.

In founding the Kabbalah Center, Rabbi Berg appears to have put his finger on a primal longing that is present in even contemporary sophisticates.

“He tapped into the fact that modern educated people can still be superstitious and still have insecurities and still have needs that were once filled by people who wrote amulets and gave blessings,” Rabbi Green said Wednesday. “And he was willing to do that for people in the modern world.”

    Rabbi Philip Berg, Who Updated Jewish Mysticism, Dies at 86,
    NYT, 20.9.2013,






In the Beginning Was the Word;

Now the Word Is on an App


July 26, 2013
The New York Times


EDMOND, Okla. — More than 500 years after Gutenberg, the Bible is having its i-moment.

For millions of readers around the world, a wildly successful free Bible app, YouVersion, is changing how, where and when they read the Bible.

Built by LifeChurch.tv, one of the nation’s largest and most technologically advanced evangelical churches, YouVersion is part of what the church calls its “digital missions.” They include a platform for online church services and prepackaged worship videos that the church distributes free. A digital tithing system and an interactive children’s Bible are in the works.

It’s all part of the church’s aspiration to be a kind of I.T. department for churches everywhere. YouVersion, with over 600 Bible translations in more than 400 languages, is by far the church’s biggest success. The app is nondenominational, including versions embraced by Catholics, Russian Orthodox and Messianic Jews. This month, the app reached 100 million downloads, placing it in the company of technology start-ups like Instagram and Dropbox.

“They have defined what it means to access God’s word on a mobile device,” said Geoff Dennis, an executive vice president of Crossway, one of many Bible publishers — from small presses to global Bible societies to News Corporation’s Thomas Nelson imprint — that have licensed their translations, free, to the church.

When Jen Sears, 37, a human resources manager in Oklahoma City, wants to pray these days, she leaves her Bible behind and grabs her phone instead.

“I have my print Bible sitting on my dresser at home, but it hasn’t moved” in the four years since she downloaded YouVersion, Mrs. Sears said.

The app, marketed simply as “The Bible,” has brought new donors to LifeChurch.tv. About $3 million was given by a handful of large donors to support development of the app last year; the church raised nearly $60 million over all, according to its financial statements. The church says it will have spent almost $20 million over all on YouVersion by the end of this year.

The church was founded in 1996 by a team consisting mostly of former business executives. It is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, a wider association of 850 congregations, which gives its members wide latitude in their operations. It has 50,000 weekly attendees in 16 locations.

The Gutenberg behind YouVersion is the church’s 36-year-old “innovation pastor,” Bobby Gruenewald, whose training was in business, not religion.

Mr. Gruenewald grew up in Decatur, Ill., in an evangelical church, where as a teenager he started a Christian rap ministry. Later, he moved to Oklahoma to join his sixth-grade crush, now his wife, who left Illinois to study at Southern Nazarene University.

Here at the church’s headquarters, Mr. Gruenewald wears the same tennis shoes, slouchy jeans and T-shirts that suited him as a Christian rapper and small-time entrepreneur who bluffed his way into building Web sites, then ran a Web hosting company out of his dorm room and later sold a pro-wrestling fan Web site for $7 million.

He joined LifeChurch.tv in 2001 after playing keyboard in its house band. Since then, the church has allowed him to experiment without an eye to profit.

Mr. Gruenewald’s early efforts for LifeChurch.tv included a virtual church for the online Second Life community and a Google ad campaign to lure pornography consumers to the church instead. But then he had a critical insight: if the church wanted to attract younger people, it needed both to be technically advanced and to offer its resources free.

“We have a generation of people that can’t fathom paying 99 cents for a song that they love,” Mr. Gruenewald said, “and we were asking them to pay $20 for a book that they don’t understand.”

He made YouVersion available in 2008, as the first Bible in Apple’s App Store. That early release contained only a few translations, like the King James Version, mostly in the public domain. When he began trying to persuade traditional Bible publishers to enter licensing arrangements with him, he encountered suspicion.

“People would say: ‘If people read it on YouVersion and they’re not paying anything for it, what’s going to happen to my pew Bibles?’ ” said Mr. Dennis of Crossway. “‘What’s going to happen to the thinline Bible that people carry to church?’”

Adam Graber of Tyndale House, another publisher that provides translations for the app, expressed some reservations about YouVersion’s strong position in the market for Bible apps.

“One major player emerges, whether it’s Apple or Google or YouVersion,” he said. “It has its drawbacks in the sense that it gives people fewer options and it definitely consolidates power and kind of clumps that power into a few people’s hands.”

But Mr. Graber also said he saw benefits in being part of the app; he said he hoped readers who use his company’s translation would later buy additional print or digital editions.

He compared the relationship between YouVersion and traditional publishers to the “freemium” strategy common in mobile games where the core content is free, but extra features cost money. In this case, those extras are things like devotional Bibles, study Bibles or gold-embossed heirloom Bibles.

As YouVersion became increasingly popular, other publishers also came to view the app as a positive force — less a threat than a marketing opportunity. Although there are no ads on the app and no plans to create any, Mr. Gruenewald said, YouVersion collects vast amounts of data on Bible readership patterns. That trove of data provides valuable information about the habits and preferences of Christians that YouVersion selectively shares with its traditional publishing partners, such as which verses are the most popular within their own translations.

Today, the app contains everything from the New International Version to “The Message,” an ultramodern interpretation that reads like a juicy novel. It also includes the so-called Orthodox Jewish Bible, which was actually developed for a religious sect known as Messianic Jews, who believe that Jesus is the Messiah that the Jews await.

And it has become a platform for evangelical leaders like Rick Warren to reach millions of people with custom reading plans; the pastor Billy Graham is the most recent addition. On Sunday mornings, as pastors around the country preach from iPads while congregations click on Corinthians, YouVersion’s servers track more than 600,000 requests every minute.

And lately the church has fielded a variety of requests, including from a Christian music Web site, a major Hollywood movie studio and television producers like Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who featured YouVersion alongside their biblical History Channel mini-series this year.

Scott Thumma, a professor at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, who studies large American churches, said YouVersion filled a longstanding vacuum for technological products aimed at a religious market. He called LifeChurch.tv “the most innovative congregation in the country in developing and using technology.”

The app has gained appreciation in the tech world as well.

“This is a remarkable tech start-up by any measure,” said Chi-Hua Chien, a partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and a Christian who has offered informal advice to Mr. Gruenewald. He compared YouVersion with well-known ventures like Pinterest or Path.

“It is certainly going to be the most important distribution channel for anyone who is creating Christian faith content,” he said. “Where else can you go and reach 100 million people?”

    In the Beginning Was the Word; Now the Word Is on an App, NYT, 26.7.2013,






The Faithful’s Failings


July 22, 2013
The New York Times


The men were spiritual leaders, held up before the children around them as wise and righteous and right. So they had special access to those kids. Special sway.

And when they exploited it by sexually abusing the children, according to civil and criminal cases from different places and periods, they were protected by their lofty stations and by the caretakers of their faith. The children’s accusations were met with skepticism. The community of the faithful either couldn’t believe what had happened or didn’t want it exposed to public view: why give outsiders a fresh cause to be critical? So the unpleasantness was hushed up.

This is not a column about the Catholic Church.

This is a column about Orthodox Jews, who have recently had similar misdeeds exposed, similar cover-ups revealed.

And I’m writing it, yes, because the Catholic Church over the last two decades has absorbed the bulk of journalistic attention, my own included, in terms of child sexual abuse. There are compelling reasons that’s been so: Catholicism has more than one billion nominal adherents worldwide; endows its clerics with a degree of mysticism that many other denominations don’t; and is just centralized enough for scattered cover-ups to coalesce into something more like a conspiracy. The pattern of criminality and evasion has been staggering.

But some of the same dynamics that fed the crisis in Catholicism — an aloof patriarchy, an insularity verging on superiority, a disinclination to get secular officials involved — exist elsewhere. And the way they’ve played out in Orthodox Judaism illustrates anew that religion isn’t always the higher ground and safer harbor it purports to be. It can also be a self-preserving haven for wrongdoing.

Early this month, 19 former students of the Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan filed a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by two rabbis in the 1970s and 1980s who continued to work there even after molestation complaints. The rabbis were also allowed to move on to new employment without ever being held accountable. School administrators, the lawsuit alleges, elected not to report anything to the police.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, the president of Yeshiva at the time, admitted as much in an interview with The Jewish Daily Forward. He said that when accusations against a faculty member were “an open-and-shut case,” he’d let the accused person “go quietly.”

Back then there was less alarm about, and understanding of, child molestation, he said. Back then he was also steering Yeshiva through grave financial hardship. A sex-abuse scandal wouldn’t have been a great fund-raising tool.

“The school made the conscious and craven decision to protect its reputation,” Kevin Mulhearn, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told me Monday.

Is such a defensive mind-set really a relic of a less enlightened past? Earlier this year a prominent scholar at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, was caught on audiotape at a conference in London telling Orthodox leaders that Jewish communities should set up their own review boards to evaluate any complaints of child sexual abuse and determine whether to bother with the police. This contradicts state laws on mandatory reporting for teachers, counselors, physicians and such.

Schachter further discouraged police involvement by warning that accused abusers could wind up “in a cell together with a shvartze, in a cell with a Muslim, a black Muslim who wants to kill all the Jews.” Shvartze is a harshly derogatory racial term. Yeshiva University condemned the remarks but seemingly didn’t discipline Schachter, who didn’t respond to my request Monday for comment. Neither did Rabbi Lamm.

Rabbi Schachter’s aversion to law enforcement isn’t isolated. The ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America has taken the position that observant Jews should get a green light from a rabbi before notifying police about suspected molestation. It’s precisely this sort of internal policing that the Catholic Church did so disastrously, leaving abusers unpunished and children in harm’s way.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in particular have prioritized their image and independence over justice. They have shunned Jews who took accusations outside their communities; in fact, Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, has cited that as a reason for minimizing publicity around child sexual abuse cases among Orthodox Jews. But over the weekend he changed tacks and gave The New York Post the names of some 40 convicted people.

Community intimidation is why 17 of the 19 plaintiffs in the Yeshiva case are identified only as John Doe, said Mulhearn, their lawyer, who mentioned another insidious wrinkle reminiscent of Catholic cases.

One of the abusers, he said, used religion itself to muffle a few abused boys. The rabbi allegedly invoked the Holocaust, which their parents had survived, telling the boys not to cause mom or dad any more suffering with a public stink.

    The Faithful’s Failings, NYT, 22.7.2013,






More Overreach by the N.Y.P.D.


June 23, 2013
The New York Times


The revelation in 2011 that the New York City Police Department was spying on law-abiding Muslims rightly attracted scrutiny from the Justice Department, which announced last year that it intended to review the program. The disclosure also raised troubling questions about whether the city was violating a federal court order that bars it from retaining information gleaned from investigations of political activity unless there are reasonable indications of potential wrongdoing. The purpose of that order was to discourage unjustified surveillance and prevent police from peering into people’s private affairs and building dossiers on them without legitimate cause.

Now comes a new federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Muslim citizens and organizations saying they have been subjected to illegal surveillance that has disrupted Muslim houses of worship, made it difficult for congregants and their spiritual leaders to worship freely, and inhibited Muslims from openly associating with lawful Muslim charities and civic groups and exercising First Amendment rights.

One striking case in the complaint involves Masjid At-Taqwa, a mosque in Brooklyn, where the Police Department is alleged to have installed a surveillance camera, clearly marked with the department’s insignia and pointed at the mosque door. This seems curious because the mosque’s longtime leader, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, was said in the complaint to be a clergy liaison for the N.Y.P.D. Community Affairs Bureau and a member of the Majlis Ash-Shura, also known as the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York.

The camera, which the complaint says was moved across the street but remains in use, raised fears among congregants that they were being targeted for deportation. Many refrained from attending communal prayer; some left the congregation. Concerned that their religious pronouncements might be misquoted by informants, the mosque’s spiritual leaders began recording sermons so that they would be able to defend themselves. They have said they avoided meeting with congregants individually because they feared the congregants might be informants.

Meanwhile, according to the complaint, a police informant who visited this and other mosques tried to lure congregants into inflammatory conversations that would then have been reported to the police. According to court documents, the informant tried the same strategy with a Muslim charity that distributed food to the needy. The group, which apparently did nothing illegal, lost credibility in the community once people learned that it had been a target of police scrutiny.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has responded to such complaints by insisting that the department’s surveillance program is perfectly legal and implying that critics are undermining public safety. This is the same response he offers when challenged on the stop-and-frisk program. This arrogant approach tries to discredit legitimate criticism while justifying further overreach by a department with a history of abusive behavior. It is up to the courts to determine whether the Muslim surveillance program and the stop-and-frisk program are constitutional. What already seems clear is that these surveillance policies create suspicion and mistrust, which does not help the Police Department or anyone else.

    More Overreach by the N.Y.P.D., NYT, 23.6.2013,






Caught in Methodism’s Split

Over Same-Sex Marriage


May 5, 2013
The New York Times


NEW HAVEN — It started out as a deeply personal act, that of a father officiating at the wedding of his son.

But it was soon condemned as a public display of ecclesiastical disobedience, because the father, the Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree, is a minister in the United Methodist Church, which does not allow its clergy to perform same-sex weddings.

Dr. Ogletree, 79, is now facing a possible canonical trial for his action, accused by several New York United Methodist ministers of violating church rules. While he would not be the first United Methodist minister to face discipline for performing a same-sex wedding, he could well be the one with the highest profile. He is a retired dean of Yale Divinity School, a veteran of the nation’s civil rights struggles and a scholar of the very type of ethical issues he is now confronting.

“Sometimes, when what is officially the law is wrong, you try to get the law changed,” Dr. Ogletree, a native of Birmingham, Ala., said in a courtly Southern drawl over a recent lunch at Yale, where he remains an emeritus professor of theological ethics. “But if you can’t, you break it.”

For Dr. Ogletree, the issues are not just academic. He has fully accepted, he said, that two of his five children are gay. His daughter married her partner in Massachusetts, in a non-Methodist ceremony. So when his son asked him last year to officiate at the wedding, he said yes.

“I was inspired,” Dr. Ogletree said. “I actually wasn’t thinking of this as an act of civil disobedience or church disobedience. I was thinking of it as a response to my son.”

The wedding of Thomas Rimbey Ogletree and Nicholas W. Haddad, held on Oct. 20, 2012, at the Yale Club in New York, incorporated readings from Scripture and the Massachusetts court decision legalizing same-sex marriages. A wedding announcement in The New York Times prompted several conservative Methodist ministers to file a complaint against Dr. Ogletree with the local bishop.

“This ceremony is a chargeable offense” under the rules of the church, wrote the ministers, led by the Rev. Randall C. Paige, pastor of Christ Church in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y.

In late January, Mr. Paige and Dr. Ogletree, accuser and accused, met face-to-face in an effort to resolve the dispute without a church trial. Mr. Paige, who declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the confidentiality of the proceedings, asked that Dr. Ogletree apologize and promise never to perform such a ceremony again. He refused.

“I said, this is an unjust law,” he recalled telling Mr. Paige. “Dr. King broke the law. Jesus of Nazareth broke the law; he drove the money changers out of the temple. So you mean you should never break any law, no matter how unjust it is?”

But ministers like Mr. Paige believe breaking church law is not the right way to bring about change, said the Rev. Thomas A. Lambrecht, the vice-president of Good News, a traditionalist Methodist group. “Reverend Ogletree is acting in a way that is injurious to the church, because it fosters confusion in the church about what we stand for,” he said. “And it undermines the whole covenant of accountability that we share with each other as pastors.”

The United Methodist Church is the third-largest Christian denomination in the country. Its clergy members pledge to follow the church’s laws as contained in its rule book, the Book of Discipline. The rules can only be amended via votes by clergy and laity that take place every four years.

Like many Christian denominations, the United Methodist Church has struggled over issues of gay rights. In 1972, the denomination added a line to its rule book declaring the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It bars the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as clergy, and prohibits clergy from officiating at same-sex unions. But it also calls homosexuals “persons of sacred worth,” and welcomes them as members. “We try to be nuanced about it,” Mr. Lambrecht said. “Although we disapprove of the practice of homosexuality, we believe that people who are gay or lesbian are loved and valued by God and worthy of the church’s ministry and welcome to participate in churches.”

The result is contradictory, Dr. Ogletree said. “The church’s official motto is open minds, open hearts, open doors, even though our rules on same-sex marriage contradict that claim,” he said.

Professor Ogletree is now working with Methodists in New Directions, a New York group that is part of a growing movement to change the church’s rules. More than 1,100 United Methodist clergy members — of about 45,000 in the nation — have expressed a willingness to perform same-sex ceremonies, even if it means they may face suspension or censure. But the issue is creating a deep rift with the church’s evangelical, conservative wing, which is being bolstered by the spread of the 12-million-member denomination internationally into Africa and Asia.

At the Methodists’ general conference last May, tensions reached a boiling point after an attempt to modify the church’s stance on homosexuality failed by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent.

“The time for talking is over,” one retired bishop, Melvin Talbert, declared in protest. “It is time for us to act in defiance of unjust words of immoral and derogatory discrimination.”

Five months later, Dr. Ogletree presided at his son’s wedding.

“He does the right thing because he believes in doing the right thing,” Mr. Ogletree said of his father. “And then, if there is any question about that, he is willing to stand up and place a claim for that in a public way.”

New York’s Methodists have passed resolutions supporting same-sex marriage, but the region’s bishop, Martin D. McLee, said he had no choice, once mediation failed, but to refer the matter to the equivalent of a prosecuting lawyer for the church, who will decide whether to hold a trial.

Bishop McLee noted that many United Methodist congregations have ministries that focus on welcoming gays and lesbians, and said that, “As is the case with most mainline Protestant denominations,” he said, “matters regarding human sexuality continue to evolve.”

However, he said in an interview, “If everyone can pick and choose the laws that they don’t particularly like, and choose to violate them, then you have a situation of pandemonium.”

Bishop McLee said the complaint against Dr. Ogletree was the first he had received since becoming the regional bishop nearly a year ago, even though there is anecdotal evidence that such ceremonies occur with some regularity.

In the New York area, 208 Methodist ministers have said they are willing to perform same-sex weddings. The Rev. Vicki Flippin, associate pastor at the Church of the Village in Manhattan, said she had performed two such ceremonies in recent years, and the Rev. Scott Summerville, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Yonkers, said he had officiated at two.

In the past, the Methodist denomination has punished pastors for officiating at same-sex weddings. When the Rev. Jimmy Creech, a Nebraska pastor, was found guilty in a 1999 church trial of performing at gay weddings, he was defrocked. In 2011, the Rev. Amy DeLong received a 20-day suspension for marrying a lesbian couple.

Dr. Ogletree said he was prepared for judgment by his fellow ministers. The stakes for him are largely symbolic, because he is already retired. He also has some standing among his peers as a theologian; he drafted a section of the Book of Discipline that explains how Scripture must be understood through tradition, reason and experience.

“That’s why I feel I have an advantage, because I have read the Scriptures so carefully,” he said. “Context matters.”

Caught in Methodism’s Split Over Same-Sex Marriage,




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