'Spirituality for Kids' class draws fire
The program, created by a leader of the L.A.-based Kabbalah Centre International, is promoted as a way to teach children how to make wise choices. Critics say it brings religion into public schools.

The Los Angeles Times | April 14, 2009
By Seema Mehta

In a light-filled classroom in Sherman Oaks, gregarious teacher Jenna Zucker dons a straw hat and, in an exaggerated Southern drawl, invites the gathered first- and second-graders to an imaginary picnic.

The children, taking part in an after-school program at Kester Avenue Elementary, must tell Zucker what they plan to bring; she will then decide if they can join her. Alex wants to bring apples; he gets the nod. But Athena and her offer of brownies are turned down, as are Samantha and her macaroni and cheese. Elijah suggests eels and Matthew melons; both are accepted. The students soon realize they must bring something that starts with the first letter of their name.

Zucker, 28, tells them that once they figured out the rules of the game, the reward was "greater satisfaction."

"What does greater satisfaction bring?" she asks. Matthew replies: "Spiritual power!"

Zucker asks him where the power comes from? "Your inner light," the boy answers.

And where is that light found? "In your heart," he says.

The exchange is part of "Spirituality for Kids," a class offered in several Los Angeles public elementary schools during the day or after school. Created by a leader of the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre International, a spiritual and educational organization, the program is promoted as a nondenominational effort to teach children to make wise choices. 

But it is drawing fire from parents and others who say it is illegally bringing religion into public schools under the guise of ethics training. 

"I think it breaches the separation between church and state," said Margie Mulder, a guidance counselor at Utah Street and Noble Avenue elementary schools. "I wouldn't send my children to the group."

But others say it provides children with essential skills.

" 'Spirituality for Kids' is not religious," said Karen Timko, who is in charge of elementary counselors for the Los Angeles Unified School District and has included the group in a resource fair for counselors. "It's tools for navigating your life."

Timko noted that school programs run by better-known faith-linked organizations, such as the YMCA, have not met with similar controversy.

The spirituality program was created in 2001 by Karen Berg, who leads the Los Angeles kabbalah center with her husband, Rabbi Philip Berg. Kabbalah is an ancient form of Jewish mysticism, but critics of the Berg center say it departs from many traditional practices.

The center's website says it offers a nonreligious "way of creating a better life," and that if students work to become more sharing, caring and tolerant, they will experience previously unknown fulfillment. The center has a deep roster of celebrity adherents, including Madonna and Ashton Kutcher.

The program is offered in schools and community centers around the globe, from New York and Florida to Mexico and Malawi. Since 2006, nearly 4,400 Los Angeles children have taken part. Its use in London schools has generated controversy. 

The Spirituality for Kids Foundation, which runs the program, listed nearly $18 million in assets on IRS disclosure forms for 2007, the most recent available. Celebrity kabbalah devotees, including Madonna, are among its funders. 

Public school students cannot legally be subject to proselytizing, although religious groups are allowed to sponsor school programming as long as it does not favor one faith. But programs linked to groups outside the mainstream often come under scrutiny. Others that have drawn fire include "study technology," a learning method created by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and Transcendental Meditation offered by the David Lynch Foundation.

This year, Spirituality for Kids has been offered at nine local elementary schools and three community sites. Children are taught that their actions cause reactions, and to allow their inner "light" to shine by overcoming an internal "opponent" who urges them to make bad decisions. 

The word "kabbalah" was not mentioned in the Kester class, but its presence seemed unmistakable. Zucker and a facilitator wore red knotted strings -- frequently used by kabbalah practitioners to ward off the evil eye -- around their left wrists. They also used terms -- such as "light" and "the opponent" -- that are found throughout the L.A. center's website and its IRS filings.

Officials with the spirituality program say such words are common to many faiths.

" 'Inner light' is a universal term," spokeswoman Esther Weinberg wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. "If you look it up, you'll see it is used by Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, many yoga practitioners, and it actually originated with the Quakers."

Karen Berg said she doesn't use the term "inner light" in her teachings, but said it may be used at the kabbalah center.

"There are clearly some similarities between the vernacular we of the Kabbalah Centre use and SFK," she wrote in an e-mail. "That is because both organizations strive for simple, universal language that makes sense to everyone, including children."

At Beachy Avenue Elementary, Principal Alan Lewis said the program's easy-to-grasp message is one reason he supports it. He said he saw improvements in children's behavior after it was used there last year.

Principal Priscilla Currie of 109th Street Elementary agreed. "When they come into the office, we talk about the good guy and the opponent," she said. When "they make the wrong choice, they [say], 'I should have listened to the good guy.' "

A 2008 Rand Corp. study funded by $80,000 from the spirituality program found that it improved children's social and study skills, leadership and communications, and helped with behavioral problems.

But others are skeptical, including Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, an adjunct chair in Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School, who doesn't believe the program belongs in public schools. He said that as the nation has grown more diverse and religion has been removed from the public square, there is a yearning for moral teaching. But he said the program's founders offer more hype than substance.

"Whenever there is a hunger, there is a danger that hucksters will feed the hunger with phony food," he said.

The program was discontinued at Stoner Avenue Elementary in Culver City. When asked why, Principal Pamela Williams said the school lacked funding. Reminded that the class was free, she declined to comment further and hung up.

When officials at Wonderland Avenue Elementary tried to expand the class into its magnet program this year, some parents were incensed.

"I think they're trying to spread [kabbalah] without using the word," said Carolyn McKnight, whose daughter is in fifth grade at the school.

Another mother, who asked that her name not be used because she works in Hollywood and fears repercussions and because her daughter remains at Wonderland, said she met with school and Spirituality for Kids officials. It did not assuage her doubts.

"It was really teaching a belief system as opposed to teaching situational ethics or ethics in general," she said. "It was a way of approaching life, which I just didn't feel was appropriate for a public school."

Donald Wilson, who said the program was approved before he became Wonderland's principal last year, was concerned about it but changed his mind after he read the curriculum and sat in on the class. Wilson said he saw no evidence the program was religious and found it pedagogically sound. "They are more than sound, they're engaging," he said. "The lessons are lessons that parents want their kids to have."

Wilson and other principals said they allowed the program only after notifying and meeting with parents. Still, some Wonderland parents -- including several conservative Christians -- remained opposed, so Wilson did not expand the program to their children's classrooms. He plans to have district staff review it before allowing it next year.

Meanwhile, at Kester Avenue Elementary, Zucker was marking the final session of the 10-week program. She presented each student with a certificate marking completion of Level One, "The Game of Life," and handed out cookies and red lollipops imprinted with "SFK."

As the children streamed out of the room, Zucker handed each a card with the suggested spiritual exercise for the week: "Find a friend with whom you would like to share the Rules of the Game of Life. Invite them to SFK."