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'Thank G-d for Madonna'
By Romina Ruiz-Goiriena

Madonna, Demi Moore and Britney Spears popularized Kabbalah, making it a fashion trend among Hollywood stars and singers. But for rabbis in Safed, the birthplace and beating heart of Kabbalah, it is a route to lure Jews back to their religion.

Tucked away from the mystical city's main streets, the Ascent of Safed hostel and education center recently organized a four-day conference offering "hands-on" Kabbalah workshops.

The participants - along with thousands of devoted pilgrims - flocked at midnight to the gravesite of the father of Kabbalah, Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the Holy Ari). They were there to commemorate his death and "absorb the energy of this supernatural place."

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"Safed is conducive to spirituality," says James Alexander, a 28-year-old "English Jew of liberal tendency," who has been backpacking around Israel and the territories for the last ten days, hoping to experience all it has to offer.

Ascent has a numinous allure, with its hundred-year old stones, hidden caves and interior gardens.

"Here, Chassidut [defined by the center as Kabbalah for the non-mystic] merges the literalist with the symbolic and has changed my perception of Orthodoxy," Alexander says.

Shira Schwartz, of the Chai Center in Los Angeles and a scholar in residence at Ascent, associates the growing interest in Kabbalah with the quest for spiritual values in a globalized world dominated by materialism. "Jews are hungry, they are searching and looking for a connection to G-d," she notes.

There is no doubt for Shira's husband, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, a Kabbalist for 40 years, that celebrities have made this mystical practice famous. "Thank G-d for Madonna-Esther or whatever her name is, for putting Kabbalah on the front page," he says.

Dressed in shorts, a black T-shirt emblazoned with the face of reggae singer Matisyahu, tziziot, and kippa with his long white beard, Rabbi Schwartz admits that sometimes, "You have to take advantage of what G-d puts in your way."

After all, "people are not listening to rabbis, they are watching Madonna on MTV."

His wife agrees. "Kabbalah is now a street word," she says.

But gratitude for the recent fame of Kabbalah has a downside. They both warn that many centers are not staying true to the teachings and are just spreading money-making "flaflalogy" in a cult-like manner.

"Ascent is about teaching real Kabbalah," Shira Schwartz insists.

Zalman Rothschild, one of the Ascent counselors, says that the center opens its doors to travelers from around the world who are interested in learning, but aims to "spread Judaism and Chassidic philosophy."

To many of those attending the conference, Ascent of Safed is responding to a void in the Jewish world by bringing together people of different places and different origins.

"I had a traditional Jewish education in South Africa, but I've always been interested in Kabbalah, for me it has further depth and meaning than traditional Orthodoxy," says 34-year-old David Skolni.

Madonna may have given Kabbalah its 15 minutes of fame, but for Sheree Sharkan, 31, visiting from Chicago, "there is a lot in Kabbalah that speaks to people from different backgrounds. Our generation seems to be searching for meanings, purposes, and answers."
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