“Self enhancement workshops? Course in Kabala? Meditation? Yoga? “The Israeli Center for Victims of Cults” doesn’t care: as far as they are concerned these are cults that should be fought. “7 Days” exposes the fact that the Center itself, operating under a secular appearance, is mostly funded secretively by the Ultra-Orthodox millionaire Rami Feller and through an Ultra-Orthodox Association “the Office for Charity”. The Center responds: we help hundreds of families every year.
By Shosh Mula
“7 Days” (Weekend Insert of Yediot Ahronot) (04.03.2011) / HRWF Int. (08.04.2011) – http://www.hrwf.net – The term “cult” associates in the Israeli public mind an immediate negative connotation: we immediately see in our mind the image of a charismatic guru, cynical and greedy, taking advantage of his followers economically and even sexually. What is the definition of a cult? This is a question that has never been resolved in Israel, also not in the legal sphere. But that doesn’t interrupt the vigorous activity of a body called “the Israeli Center for Victims of cults”, that acts under the banner of the fight against cults.
A research by “7 Days” uncovers for the first time that behind the activity of this “Israeli Center”, defining itself as “a secular body that assigned itself the goal of aiding the victims of mystical cults in Israel and their families”, stands from the day of its inception an Ultra-Orthodox element: “the Office for Charity” is its name. This organization, the research shows – is funding 98% of the total of donations for the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults (1,030,000 NIS out of 1,048,738.80 NIS in 2007).
In addition, the research uncovers that the person behind the Office for Charity is the millionaire and ultra-orthodox businessman Rami Feller, who is funding 80% of the total income of the organization (in numbers: 9.4 million NIS out of 11.7 million NIS that same year).
And this is not all of it: Feller and the Activity Coordinator of the Center, Rachel Lichtenshtein, have a thing in common: they both used to work for the ultra-orthodox organization “Yad Le’achim”, that is fighting missionary activities and cults for dozens of years, parallel to another association named “Lev Le’achim”.
And why this new name “the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults”? Maybe because the two former associations had suffered a bad image related to religious coercion and the push for repent. Fighting cults under the guise of a secular center can give them in the eyes of many a legitimacy to attack organizations and groups.
Even those close to Feller admitted to us this week: “the ultra-orthodox have a very problematic image and the fact that this is a secular center with secular chairman, manger and workers is important. If you connect the center with its supporter, you are going to harm the Israeli people”.
And who is defined as a cult by the Center? The detailed list in the Center’s website is a mix of different groups and corporations. They seemingly have nothing in common, apart from the fact that they are not accepted by the ultra-orthodox establishment and did not get a Kosher Certificate from the ultra-orthodox Court of Justice.
Examples? One can find in there philosophies and techniques regarded as legitimate and acceptable by many Israelis: the Center for the Research of the Kabala, Yoga groups, Meditation, Philosophy Studies, “Landmark Education” Corporation (“The Forum”) and Humanication Workshops for self-betterment; criminal elements such as Goel Ratzon or Rabbi Elior Hen; and also religious groups that are considered veteran and legitimate around the world such as the Messianic Jews and “Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
Some of the entities that are mentioned in the “black list” think differently on themselves, some filed lawsuits against the Center and others consider legal actions against it. But this will be detailed later.
The Threat: Two Bullies and Dogs
Rami Feller himself feels persecuted as well. He told his close friends that about two weeks ago two bullies appeared in front of his house with frightening Amstaf dogs.
Feller, his friends say, did not hesitate and went out to them immediately. The strangers – sticking out in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood where he is living – looked to him like private investigators sent to follow him. When they saw him they immediately stood with their dogs each one on one side of his luxury car. Just like that. “They didn’t say anything to him, they didn’t do anything and they didn’t touch him”.
Feller tried to check what the matter is, but the bullies, so say his friends, avoided any clear answer. He called the police but per his friends by the time the police got there the bullies disappeared.
Since then Feller suspects everybody. Scientologists included.
Scientologists? Of all people, why are you afraid of them?
Feller: “because we managed to stop them from coming in to the new center they built in Jaffa. They built a building, one of the most magnificent centers in the world, costing ten million dollars”.
Pardon, who is “We”?
“‘We’ is the Center for Victims of Cults, and I am also supporting it”.
In this part of our dialogue Feller loses his wits for a moment, and then reveals to me the fact that Rachel Lichtenshtein – the coordinator of activities in the Center and, as said above, a key activist in Yad Le’achim organization – is also listening in on the line with us all through the conversation.
Sefi Fischler, spokesperson of the Scientology Organization, gives in response: “I have nothing to say to these ridiculous innuendos. I just want to indicate that Mr. Feller has reached a pretty batty phase in his claims. There was nothing of a this kind”.
The Testimony: “There is an Ultra Orthodox Agenda in here”
Another testimony as to the connection between Feller and the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults comes from the veteran Media Consultant Amir Zemora, who had worked in the Center voluntarily in the first two years of its existence:
Per Zemora, he retired after he realized the Center’s agenda is an ultra-orthodox agenda. “It was clear to me that the line is not in the direction of treating victims, but persecution of what they call cults”.
Zemora got to the Center through Ayelet Kedem, former journalist and the first Executive Director of it. “I know Kedem from the days I was the spokesperson of the Israel Institute for Technology and she was a reporter. A few years later we happened to meet in the School for Buddhist Studies in Tel-Aviv. I was happy to volunteer for a cause that seemed a worthy one to me. I helped the Center in strategic thinking and planning”.
Did you know who is behind the Center?
“It was a secret, but I kept on asking: where does the money come from? After nine months Kedem revealed to me that after a series of articles she did on cults, Rami Feller contacted her and offered her the post of ED of the Center.
“She left journalism and turned to manage the Center for a salary. She explained that Feller doesn’t want to be in the front, because he is ultra-orthodox, and the advantage in the Center is that it is secular. All the funding, establishment and initiative – was his doing. I told her that in order for me to be able to help in the contents and legal strategy, I should get to know him. As far as I was concerned all that time, it was all about treatment of the victims and not the cults.”
And you met him?
“She took me to his office, and later I was also in his house. He looks ultra-orthodox and is dressed like one, but speaks in the language of the secular. It was fully clear to me from the minute I saw him that the Center and him are one. Only after the fact he recruited Kedem and all the secular team to stand in the front. I decided not to continue the relationship. It started bothering me that the list started to get in it all sorts of entities that I am not so sure are cults. The agenda was: anything that is not Jewish – is a cult. A short time after I left, Kedem retired”.
Ayelet Kedem refused to comment this week on the issue. The ones close to her said that she indeed connected Zemora and Feller. Per them, she only said, “I am not dealing with this anymore”.
The Method: Donation Recognized as Tax Deductable Expense
The Israeli Center for Victims of Cults is a relatively young entity, established in August 2006 under the name “Kav Lemaslul – Public Benefit Company Inc” and changed its name twice since then: to the “Center for Victims of Cults in Israel” and “the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults Inc”.
The company stated its purposes are: “to act on behalf of the Israeli oublic, regarding the activity of cults, organizations and spiritual study groups in Israel and around the world – that are acting in a way that harms the public and exploits it, physically, spiritually, economically etc.”
Factually, Rami Feller is supporting the Center since its inception. From company documents it is shown that all through 2007 – the first year of its existence – Feller supported it and lend an amount of a million NIS. How did he get his money back? On March the same year the Ministry of Treasury granted the Center a status of “Public Benefit Establishment” (Code 46 of the Income Tax Law), enabling it to receive tax deductable donations.
Thus it happens that Feller is donating moneys to the ultra-orthodox organization Office for Charity, and it transfers the donations to the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults, in the amount of about a million NIS. Feller himself, according to the documents, received from the center in October 2007 a partial loan return of half the amount he donated. In this way he actually got these donations to be recognized as tax deductable.
The Man: A Millionaire at the Age of 24
Who is Rami Feller? In the secular public he is virtually unknown. But factually, this is someone who was considered in the 70s and 80s to be one of the shining stars in the Israeli business world and became a millionaire already in the age of 24.
Today Feller (56) is considered as one of the biggest cellular traders in the world, and was the first to sell iphones legally in Israel. He keeps his privacy jealously. To his friends he explained: “I have no interest to be on the media, I hate the media and don’t want anything to do with it”. One of the few interviews he gave to the media was to this newspaper, in 85′ – after repenting back to religion.
His father, Ron Feller, was a professor in the Israeli Institute for Technology and one of the 12 who received the Medal of Valor in the War of Independence, and his mother was a teacher. Feller probably developed his touch for business during the military service, when he worked parallel to it as a door-to-door traveling salesman. After he finished his term in the army he became an insurance agent, and then he discovered the world of stereo devices.
The company he established, “RAMPAL”, grew quickly and was one of the first in Israel to sell color TVs and personal computers. The extent of Feller’s business was estimated then to be 3.5 million dollars. He became a hot name in the society columns: went to ski in Switzerland, flew to the Genesis concert in Amsterdam and was a familiar guest in first-class restaurants.
But the idyll ended in the beginning of the 80s, with the coming of Igal Horowitz into the Ministry of Treasury and the economic sanctions he enacted. Feller’s company collapsed and his suppliers became his creditors. Professor Feller had to bail his son out of jail. Rampal was allowed back to partial activity, under the supervision of the court, and Feller – estimated to have half a million dollar debt – was not in the headlines anymore.
Feller was searching for himself. He did a tour in the Eastern Philosophies and amongst others joined RC – an organization conducting social gatherings with drills for personal communication. After focusing two years in Buddhism he repented and became a critic of those doctrines.
In 83′ Feller married Debby in the United States, of a rich family from London, and they live today with their kids in Bney-Brak. During those years he joined the organization Yad-Lea’chim, that has as one of its main activities – so he himself explained in an interview to this newspaper – the fight against missionary activities and the various cults. “I have enormous quantities on internal knowledge on all the cults and a lot of material I accumulated”, he said back then. “I know full well what their weak points are and use them to discredit them”.
But his love to the business world grew stronger. In the mid 90s Feller recognized the cellular market as having a high business potential and started focusing on it. Very soon he established a virtual empire in this field, upon which he is ruling through several companies which are all branched to the mother company RCS – “Ram-Pal Cellular Stock Market Inc” – dealing with international trade in communication products. The company, as said above, actually funded 80% of the activity of Office for Charity in 2007.
The Face of Charity: the Needy and Victims of Cults
What is the Office for Charity exactly?
It is an ultra-orthodox organization, established in 2003 and attested its purpose is: “support of the needy and disabled families”. Rami Feller is personally signed on the statute. Three years later, on the 22nd of June 2006, in a general assembly of the share holders, it was decided to add to the company’s purposes: “monetary transfer and support to entities fighting the various cults”. Two months later the Center for Victims of Cults was formed, as mentioned above, which the Office for Charity is financing virtually all of its activity.
And so, for instance, it is reported by the Office in a report submitted in 2008, that 4.4 million NIS of the donations received by it were allocated to the ongoing activity: support of the sick and the needy, support of institutions for the study of Torah and help for the bodies operating against the various cults. In 2007, for instance, the Center for Victims of Cults received 1,030,000 NIS, but its ultra orthodox parallel “Lev Lea’chim” received from the same Office for Charity support of only 2,600 NIS.
And in 2009? It is revealed that during this year the purse of the Center for Victims of Cults suffered reduced income: only 22,000 NIS, half of them from donations and the other half from participation in conventions and consulting. But the research reveals that this same year Feller donated to the Center an amount of 204,000 NIS.
In 2010 the Office for Charity helped with a loan of 334,000 NIS. Here it is discovered as well that Feller donated the largest amount for the return of the loan.
The Question: Who is a Cult and Who is a Member of One?
The first attempt to check the subject of cults in Israel transpired in the 80s, by an inter-ministerial committee formed by the Ministry of Education, headed by MK Miriam Taasa-Glazer.
The second attempt to handle the issue was conducted in June last year, by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services that formed a committee “to check into the activity of cults in Israel”. This happened following the exposure of the Goel Ratzon Affair and the Ithaka Cult, whos leader Shay
Abrahamov killed himself in prison. The recommendations of the committee are due to be published in the next few days, but its mandate was also very specific: to check the methods of handling the phenomena and give directions to the social workers.
But what is not yet clear to the state, is fully clear to the Center for Victims of Cults. Per their definition: “a cult is a more or less closed group which leader or leaders use the technique known as ‘Mind Control’ (thought, emotional and spiritual enslavement), fraudulently and with brainwashing, to enslave its members and exploit their resources. The exploitation could be financial, mental and even sexual”.
Professor Benjamin Beit-Halahmi, Psychology of Religion scholar in the Psychology Dept in the University of Haifa and an expert on the subject, is not surprised by the exposed connection between the ultra-orthodox organization and the Center for Victims of Cults: I am familiar with the activity of Yad Le’achim and witness to it for dozens of years. If they would have come to the public as an ultra-orthodox organization they would have been taken less seriously and said to be bigots and fanatics. But if it is a secular entity, it looks better. I believe this is at least what they think.
How do you define a cult?
“I don’t have a definition. In my view a cult is a concept of the media. One can say some people are liars. Aren’t there enough of them in the market? A person in Britain or France can self proclaim himself as the messiah and lead a religion, and if he has three believers – it is a group. There are tens of thousands of people who wish to redeem the world. I don’t see any difference from a person calling himself the messiah and the Rabbi from Lubavitch who proclaimed himself to be one”.
There is no common denominator amongst those groups?
The mission of most groups is to take money from people. The Forum of Landmark was established 20 years ago, and I know it well. As far its ideas go it is a secular organization which is not similar to the study of Kabala – which is a religious idea. The difference between them is in the difference of beliefs. The Messianic Jews are well known as well. It is an interesting and important phenomenon. I don’t call any of these groups a cult.
Not even Goel Ratzon?
Ratzon is a man that seduced women to live with him. Others do that as well. The word cult doesn’t exist in the police or legal documents on him”.
On the other hand, Professor Ofra Maizels, Chairwoman of the “Israeli Convention of Research of Contemporary Spirituality” and Dean of the Education Faculty in Haifa University, is working vigorously to get the subject into academic institutions.
“To call some of these movements a cult is not necessarily accurate as far as research goes”, she claims. What seems to me very problematic is the attempt to de-legitimize and create a fear from the process, in my view a natural one, of spiritual seeking.”
“A cult employs manipulation, control techniques which are not ethical or acceptable, or the display of harmful values to forward unworthy purposes such as economical, mental, physical and sexual exploitation. Not any group that is forming is necessarily a cult.”
Tomer Persiko, researcher of “the contemporary New-Age spiritual culture” in the Dept of Contemporary Religions in Tel-Aviv University, believes that the Center’s list is generalizing. “it is obvious that not all groups mentioned there are cults. In Judaism there are many kinds of believers: strict, traditional, etc. In a cult there are no different shades of believers, but only one type of belief. All members are required to adhere to the same rights and obligations and once they transgress the rules they are expelled and are excommunicated”.
Does it seem to you proper that the Center decides who is belonging to a cult?
“The mere pretense of calling themselves ‘the Israeli Center’ – which is a name alluding to a national status, while it is actually a private entity – is problematic. If it is true that an ultra-orthodox element is behind them, it can be assumed that there definition of a cult is very broad and not precise. If they don’t show to the public the truth, it seems to me not proper.”
The Groups: We Are Not Cults
Some of the groups defined as “cults” by the Center for Victims of Cults gave notice today that they are preparing these days legal suits against the center. Amongst these are Landmark Education and the “Shemen Sasson” community of the Messianic Jews. Rabbi Michael Leitman, head of the association “Bney-Baruch – Kabala to the People”, already submitted a libel suit against the Center for 700,000 NIS.
Leitman, who has thousands of followers in Israel, is attacking the method of operation of the Center, which he claims defamed the reputation of his association. Bney Baruch, so the claim says, “is dealing with the study and dissemination of the wisdom if the Kabala in Israel and around the world, numbers some two million people and is not funded or connected to any government office or political element”.
Mooki Openheimer, the international head of the Center for the Study of the Kabala which was defined as a cult – is not too impressed. “Our center is operating since 72′. Tens of thousands of people studied with us, and in the world – four million people. Anybody entering the Center for Victims of Cults’ website and reads we are a cult, with no response from us, might think this is true. But did they ever ask our response? Madonna is studying with us. This strong woman seems to you like someone who can be exploited? Can somebody say to a movie star such as Ashton Kucher who is studying with us what to do? Or influence Donna Karen?”
“Defining us as a cult is preposterous”, says Dali Lihman, manager of the branch of Landmark Education which delivers the workshops of the Forum in Israel. “We are a worldwide educational center, where people are empowered and let realize what is important to them. Nobody asked us or gave us an opportunity to respond or explain if we are a cult or not. A cult has a doctrine, something one believes. We don’t have a doctrine. We have observations people are getting and see for themselves of they are true or not.”
So what do you intend to do?
“I checked this issue with the Chief Legal Advisor of the International Landmark, who told me we are considering a legal action against the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults.”
Transcendental Meditation is also considered by the Center as a cult. The manager of “the International Association for Meditation in Israel”, Alex Kutai, explains it is a technique to improve health and quality of life without any relation to a religion or a cult.
Dr. Daniel Glieker, a certified instructor, adds: “It is a simple technique, easy and natural, which does not demand any change in lifestyle, belief or form of clothing. It is a technique that works on improving the potential, brighter thinking and a brain functioning in an orderly, clear fashion”.
Why don’t you ask to have your name removed from the list?
“Because we prefer to nurture the positive than to focus on the negative. We have enough things to do apart from dealing with them.”
Who is them?
“The ultra-orthodox. It is obvious to me that they are behind this Center. During the 70s we had a center on Yavne St. and the ultra-orthodox tried to burn it down. They think they have a monopoly on spirituality.”
Response of the Center: We are a professional body
The response of the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults: “the Center for Victims of Cults is a secular and non-political entity. It is the only one dealing with the subject of mystical and destructive cults in Israel and gives aid every year hundreds of families, adults and children who were victimized by one of the dozens of cults operating in Israel. The Center was formed in 2006 with the aspiration of creating a secular alternative to the veteran ultra-orthodox organizations active in Israel on the subject of cults, out of the understanding that the aid for victims of cults and public warning are a public need that is not independent of religion, nation, race or gender.
Rami Feller helped with the funding for the establishment of the association which deals with a subject close to his interest and field of expertise. The Center doesn’t have a religious agenda and never had any, and the active decision-makers in it are secular. The professionals who are looking into and check the information received on any group, whether a cult or not, are secular.
“There is no ultra-orthodox organization behind the Center and there never has been. The Center finances all of its activity from donations, volunteers and loans. Indeed, amongst our donors and supporters is the businessman Rami Feller, whose activity is international-business and with no religious or ultra-orthodox character, and the Office for Charity, that donates to hundreds of institutes, widows and orphans.
“Amongst the other donors of 300,000 NIS in the last two years were other big donors and parents of victims. A loan of the Office of Charity – appearing in the Balance Sheet of 2009 for 334,000 NIS – was paid back by parents and other donors in 2010. This is the first the association managed to raise funds significantly by itself.
“The Center is lead by first-class professionals headed by Ronit Katz. One should be happy and proud of Feller being the important donor. Feller is a businessman, repented orthodox and philanthropist that has the cult issue close to heart and has authored a book on the subject. He donated to this day tens of millions to many institutions and entities.
“Feller volunteered 25 years ago in Yad Le’achim for a year by virtue of his expertise on cults, a subject he had studied and dealt with long before he repented. Rachel Lichtenshtein worked in Yad Le’achim six years ago and was recruited by the Center for Victims of Cults by virtue of her skills former experience in working on the subject of cults. It has no connection and/or influence on the activity of the association or the way it conducts itself.
Leitman did indeed submit a lawsuit against the Center, which is currently in a process of bridging between the two sides. In its conclusion it will be notified to the public, whether Leitman is defined as a cult or not. The Forum of Landmark was mentioned in the list of cults in the report of the Taasa-Glazer inter-ministerial committee from 1987. We define Landmark as: a Psychological Marathon with Cult-like characteristics”.
Response of the Center to the PR person Amir Zemora: “He has never volunteered in the Center. He did indeed meet with Mr. Feller in his house and discussed with him the possibility of being employed as a PR in Mr. Fellers private businesses, but the meeting ended without results. It is only left to guess what his interest to smear is”.
Zemora responds: BS.