Sacks, the TV star and the 'Kabbalah' meeting
Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks has unwittingly become part of an embarrassing wrangle involving the controversial Kabbalah Centre, its offshoot Spirituality For Kids (SFK) and Esther Rantzen. Sir Jonathan met the Childline founder while filming his Rosh Hashanah broadcast for the BBC. The theme was families and family values.
Ms Rantzen told him that her daughter Emily Wilcox - who works for SFK - had been concerned about newspaper articles that criticised the organisation's involvement in six central London schools. The stories had led to two schools ceasing to work with SFK.
The encounter led to a low-profile meeting last month between Ms Wilcox, an SFK colleague, two members of the Chief's staff and senior United Synagogue Rabbi Barry Marcus, a vehement critic of both the Kabbalah Centre and the SFK.
It is a meeting that never should have taken place, according to critics of the Kabbalah Centre, because its clear implication was that the SFK was seeking endorsement from the Chief Rabbi's office. Meanwhile, Mill Hill Synagogue's Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, who holds the family portfolio in the Chief Rabbi's cabinet, wrote privately to Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls, asking him to "nip in the bud" SFK's involvement with state schools.
He told him: "I truly believe this runs the risk of becoming a very real problem."
Both Rabbi Marcus and Rabbi Schochet have become implacable foes of the Kabbalah Centre.
Rabbi Marcus said: "When I helped the Panorama programme several years ago, I presented evidence to the Chief Rabbi and the Beth Din. I have been in touch with rabbinical authorities all over the world. There is not one legitimate Orthodox authority that has anything good to say about them.
"On the contrary, the alarm bells have been sounded in many communities to the dangers. I gained a lot of experience of cults when I was in South Africa, where I dealt with a number, including the Moonies and others. With the help of the late Rabbi Cyril Harris, I stopped the Kabbalah Centre opening there.
"There is always that fear that young Jewish people, who are naïve, will get caught up."
The meeting took place in St John's Wood, North London, between Ms Wilcox; SFK director Daniella Burani; Syma Weinberg, director of the Chief Rabbi's office; her colleague Paul Fabian and Rabbi Marcus.
Ms Wilcox, who has worked as the SFK volunteer co-ordinator since December 2006, had earlier sent the Chief Rabbi information about SFK, including details of its curriculum.
She said she had asked for a meeting "because I felt the work of SFK had been grossly misrepresented in a way that constitutes lashon hara [evil speech]" .
Rabbi Marcus said that the meeting had lasted "for about 40 minutes. For the most part, they talked to us and we listened. I was there as an observer, as the Chief Rabbi had two of his staff there."
Afterwards, he said: "Any organisation whose aim is to enhance children's lives will always have my support. But any organisation that is so closely linked to the Kabbalah Centre I would treat with the greatest reservation. SFK's founder is Karen Berg, the wife of the head of the Kabbalah Centre in America. Anything coming from there in a different package will always be suspect."
He would not say whether he gave his opinions directly to Sir Jonathan in the wake of the meeting.
Ms Wilcox said: "Recent comments about SFK, sadly made by rabbis, displayed absolute ignorance as to what we do, in contrast to the extremely positive references SFK receives from schools, children and parents who have direct experience of SFK".
She added: "I do not represent the Kabbalah Centre, but I am a student there, and I am shocked and saddened by how the Centre is often portrayed - my experience of the Kabbalah Centre has been exclusively positive. As an educated person with a background in journalism, I am not naïve or uncritical. I have only seen in the behaviour and attitudes of the Centre's staff kindness, a genuine desire to help others improve their lives and a commitment to study and personal growth."
Esther Rantzen's involvement seems to mark a volte-face in her view of the Kabbalah Centre.
Four years ago, she wrote an open letter in the Daily Mail to the singer Madonna, the London centre's most famous recruit, expressing a myriad of reservations about the Centre's methods and ultimately saying she was "relieved" that her daughter had stopped going.
That has now changed completely. At the end of July, Ms Rantzen was quoted in the Daily Mirror saying: "I get surprised by the venom that I hear expressed about Kabbalah. I think part of it is Madonna-envy.
"I was appalled at the comments by two rabbis who seem actually keen to disparage the Kabbalah Centre - and SFK - despite a lack of experience or understanding of either organisation."
This week, the former That's Life presenter said: "The criticisms made against SFK by Jewish religious leaders are based on doctrinal issues that they have with the Kabbalah Centre, and are quite unfair and inaccurate about SFK, and I say that as objectively as I can, since I am an agnostic who is not a follower of Kabbalah.
"I also find it particularly sad when SFK is falsely accused of ‘indoctrination' by Jewish leaders, and I know the Chief Rabbi is caring and tolerant, which is why I thought it would be worthwhile for a meeting to take place, but of course I was not there since I neither work for SFK nor am a student of Kabbalah."
Syma Weinberg said: "The Office of the Chief Rabbi meets many faith and non-faith charities, organisations, and individuals each year. Like many others, SFK asked if they could meet us to talk about their work. The Chief Rabbi was not present at the meeting."