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"God is speaking." This is how Shai Tubali chose to publicize a convention he held about three months ago in Tel Aviv. "For the first time, He is speaking to us as He has never done before ... Now an encounter is taking place with the Creator of connections, of communicating and connected beings. Now, God is speaking," he informed all who cared to listen.

God, as anyone who actually attended the event found out, did not speak at the convention. In his place spoke Shai Tubali himself, an Israeli-born mortal in possession of a national ID card, a bank account and a flock of believers who will do whatever he tells them. Tubali, 31, is a familiar, accepted figure in the Israeli New Age community. His crowning achievement was founding the New Sun (Shemesh Hadasha) community about two years ago on Kibbutz Moran in the Lower Galilee. At the start, the group of about 30 men and women, mostly in their thirties, gathered around the man who called himself a "spiritual teacher" and began to live their lives as he instructed.

Over time, the community, which hitherto enjoyed sympathetic media coverage, appears to have developed the characteristics of a secretly-run cult. Members run their lives according to Tubali's instructions, are required to come to the lectures he gives in the center of the country and, according to some testimony, to transfer monthly payments to him. Recently, Tubali initiated a mate-swapping episode in the community, which led to the break-up of several married couples. But Tubali was satisfied: He obtained the mate he wanted, and also made him his deputy.

It is hard to imagine what goes through the minds of dozens of adults, many of whom are well educated, with academic degrees, who have chosen to follow blindly the whims of a young man, to give up family, work and their places of residence, and say how happy they are. Every adult has the right to choose his own path, be it independent or otherwise. But their parents also have the right to be terribly worried.

The end of suffering

On Friday afternoon two weeks ago, a few dozen people gathered at ZOA House in Tel Aviv. In one of the smaller rooms, the "Third Galactic University" workshop was about to begin. For NIS 300 each, participants were to hear Tubali speak as a conduit for broadcasts from beings from other worlds, who would address human suffering and ways to cope with it. The workshop had a clear program, distributed to attendees beforehand. The first being to speak from Tubali's throat was Ivara, providing an introduction to the weekend. Also on the bill was the first appearance in 2,600 years of the Gautama Buddha; Jesus and Karwan of Sirius were also to be among the featured "speakers."

The god from Kibbutz Orion, who sometimes calls himself the Buddha from Orion, grew up with an adoptive family in Ramle. In the army, he served on Army Radio and he has been well connected with the media ever since: He has written numerous articles that appeared on the Y-Net and NRG Internet sites, and some years ago he published an article in Haaretz magazine. In recent years, Tubali has published several books, some of which made it to the best-seller lists. He is also a (paid) member of the board of Essence of Life, a nonprofit company dedicated to public benefit that deals with spiritual matters, founded by businesswoman Shari Arison. "He's a very special young man," says Irit Atzmon, who ran Essence of Life until recently, though she wouldn't say anymore than that.

The workshop two weeks ago was attended primarily by members of Tubali's community. They don't wear colorful, flowing pants or grow long hair and beards; they look utterly ordinary. And yet, one can still pick them out with relative ease: Whenever a community member arrives, he greets other members with a long embrace and then clusters with them in small groups.

It is four in the afternoon now and Tubali is due to arrive at any moment. The audience is asked to sit down and keep silent. The windows are closed to keep out the noise from the street. The air conditioner was a little distracting, so it is turned off, too. The audience sits quietly for a few minutes and then Tubali enters the room. Wearing a blue shirt and dark pants, he strides onto the stage accompanied by the emcee, his partner Ayalon Lester, and they both take their seats. Even though most of the people in attendance live with Tubali in Moran and have been to numerous events of this type, they eagerly await his first words.

"Welcome to the workshop that is entitled 'The End of Suffering Workshop' ... I'm taking a good look at you, because for the next two days I'll have my eyes closed," Tubali says, explaining that in a few minutes, other beings will begin to speak from his throat. On the walls of the hall where the lecture is taking place, there are pictures of Judy Garland and Bette Davis. Tubali thanks them for coming to the lecture and most of the audience laughs. From here on, the audience will react with the same kind of almost mechanical laughter to every joke Tubali makes.

Now Tubali closes his eyes and so do most of the people in the audience. Some of those present sit cross-legged on the uncomfortable chairs and try to enter into a meditative state. After three minutes of sitting in silence, with his eyes closed, Tubali opens his mouth. When he begins to speak he uses the feminine form, for Ivara is a female being. "Welcome to Galactic University Number Four," he says. Someone from the audience corrects him and says that this is the Third University. "It depends from where you start counting," he answers, and the crowd giggles.

"I suppose," says Ivara, "that you have plenty of philosophies on your small planet. Therefore, the objective of the university was and will always be to provide new tools for coping with old problems ... Our goal is to enlarge your angle of vision and then give you tools with which you will be able to deal with these new angles of vision."

When Ivara bids everyone farewell, saying, "May you have an exciting two days," the crowd murmurs back in unison: "Thank you and goodbye."

At the break, most of the believers went to eat together. After all the ingredients that the guru has forbidden them to eat were removed, not much was left of whatever they ordered. Tubali and his deputy went off somewhere else and did not socialize with the others.

The workshop continued after that and for hours, various "beings" spoke through Tubali. The messages they conveyed were quite simple. Serenity is an important thing; suffering ruins serenity and therefore in order to be serene, we much rid ourselves of suffering. Most of the crowd did not seem bothered at all by the superficiality of the messages, but toward the end of the message from Karwan of Sirius, one young woman who was not a member of the community had the temerity to pose a tough question to Tubali. "Unlike what you declared at the start, there is nothing new in what you're saying," she said. The audience appeared stunned and shot her hostile glances. Tubali was unfazed. And didn't really answer.

Thanks for the mushrooms

One organization to which relatives of members of Tubali's community have turned is The Israeli Center for Victims of Cults (Hamerkaz Hayisraeli Lenifga'eh Catot), which was founded last August. The center was established by Ayelet Kedem, a former journalist, who had been examining the subject of cults in Israel for the past few years.

"There were a lot of inquiries from parents who were seeking help," says Kedem. "Both the parents and I felt that some destructive processes were being experienced there by the people in the name of spirituality or in the name of progress. In this case, since there are no seemingly criminal acts being committed by the cult, it's very hard to say what to do, because you can't forcibly remove people from the cult."

In recent months, the concern felt by relatives of New Sun members has grown substantially, following certain structural changes within the cult. In order to understand what is happening now, one must go back two years to an interview Tubali gave to the mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he said he had found a way to overcome his homosexual tendencies. He married Tamar, a lawyer, and the couple had a daughter. A few months ago, Tubali informed the members of the community that messages he had received indicated that for certain cosmic reasons, the members of the group must swap mates. The guru himself dissolved his marriage, as well as those of at least two other couples, and at the end of all the mate-swapping, found himself with a new partner, Ayalon Lester, who up to then had been a married family man. The third couple that separated had married just a short time before.

Within the community, it seemed no eyebrows were raised and the mate-swapping went off smoothly - greeted with acceptance, though perhaps not love. Tom, 22, joined the cult about a year and a half ago. At the workshop in Tel Aviv he described himself as the youngest member of the group. "You have to remember that this isn't a person who's living a standard life, but a person whose commitment is to the truth," he explains. "There was a kind of thing where messages arrived about potential pairings between people, that if a very specific constellation occurred, then they could serve as a very specific tool that would bring about a strong potential ... There were some who agreed to go along with it, out of choice, and some who didn't agree."

Parents of the cult members find this explanation less than convincing. "This person is an incredible charlatan. He takes care of his personal interests and doesn't care about anyone else," says the father of one young woman in the community, who like the rest of the parents interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous. The main reason for requesting anonymity is the parents' fear that their coming out openly against Tubali could be used as a weapon against them and lead to a total break in relations with their children.

The father has no doubt about Tubali's motives. "This is an organization that is so clear and simple that it took me all of two hours to understand the whole picture," he says. "It doesn't take the most brilliant mind to know exactly what you're dealing with. One fine day this guy decided to fulfill his sexuality again and fell in love with Ayalon. Both he and Ayalon are married with families. And now there's a situation in which pairings have to be arranged. How is it done? Very simple. You do this and that, say that for some reason they must undergo all kinds of experiences, and that the necessary experience is to live for a period of time with other partners."

Everyone took part in this?

"Everyone, or at least most of them, took part. It really infuriated us parents. We asked how it could be happening. There's a couple there who just got married and should be building their relationship and now they just separate them and stick them with other people? What sort of experience is this? It's just devoid of all reason."

How did he explain it?

"I don't know, because evidently there was a period when our children deliberately concealed it from us." The mother of another community member: "Shai is fulfilling himself, his fantasies, through these people. It drives me mad because these people in this community are intelligent and talented. They aren't people with problems who were searching for alternatives. I know some of them and their families and they're really great. So we just don't understand. I don't get how he is able to grab them with this nonsense, unless there's something else that they're doing there that we don't know about."

One possible answer to this question is supplied by the father of another community member. He sighs deeply at the mention of the name Shai Tubali. "No one really knows what goes on there," he says. "There's more we don't know than we do know. There were some very serious things there that only I know about. I was once in my son's apartment, with his consent, and I got to see things that I wasn't supposed to see ... I found pieces of paper that were supposed to be distributed to the members of the community, which they were supposed to sign, saying that they take responsibility for the mushrooms that Shai would distribute to them. He wouldn't even take responsibility for that."

The father's statements are reinforced by the activity of Tamar, Tubali's wife, who was written up a year and a half ago for a lecture she was going to give at the Lev Tahor ("Pure Heart") festival on the topic of 'A New Look at the World of Sacred Plants: From Mushrooms to Iveska (an Indian hallucinogenic plant). Tamar Tubali is also the name that was used by a satisfied customer who made a purchase from an online store selling hallucinogenic products from Holland. "Just wanted to say that it was a wonderful journey. Thank you for selling such high quality, this is great," says her testimonial on the store's Web site. Tubali declined to comment for this article.

A monarchic-type government

Mate-swapping is just one extreme example of the lifestyle followed by Tubali's community on Kibbutz Moran. His faithful also adhere to a radical vegan regimen and for a long time were also forbidden to eat any cooked food. They have kept totally silent for days at a time, refrained for weeks from sexual relations and even fasted for an entire week, during which they were also treated with enemas for cleansing the body. Each member of the community pays Tubali from NIS 300-500 a month, say the parents, which adds up to a hefty monthly income for him. "Shai doesn't work," one of the parents says sarcastically. "They work for him."

Tubali also expects his believers to attend all the workshops he gives almost weekly in the center of the country. Tom is confident that he learns new things from every workshop in which he takes part. Asked whether Tubali tells the members exactly how to live, Tom replies that "there is that dimension. You recognize him as you would a monarchic kind of government, as an enlightened king. Out of your own will you accept his authority, so that over time, and with his wisdom, you, too will be able to attain authority."

How is this expressed?

"In the past, he was a spiritual teacher and it was just like a monastery. Silences, and periods where we were only allowed to have sex twice a month, very specific drills, real restrictions."

Rami Mehalel, 51, is another member of the community. About two years ago, he left his home in the center of the country and since then he has lived on Moran with his wife Yehudit and their two children. "It's very characteristic of Shai to reinvent himself. He never looks back," he says during one of the breaks at the workshop.

What goes on in the community?

"Ordinary life. It's not a commune. It's just people who live near each other and go on with their regular lives, and also meet several times a week. Of course, within a group like this, there are relationships."

Shai was married and now he's living with a man from the community.

"Yes, but things were happening even before this. All the time, ever since I've known him. I've been with him for over four years now and he's always reinventing himself."

Does it affect you?

"Yes. It's not like being with a spiritual teacher whom you know has an orderly doctrine, that he said such and such yesterday and that he'll say the same thing tomorrow and the day after that. When he goes through changes we have to go through them with him, otherwise it pulls the rug out from under you."

So if he switches partners, it means you have to do so, too?

"No. He doesn't tell me what to do. When he does a thing like that, it's not on a superficial level of who his partner was yesterday and who will be his partner today. It has far-reaching meaning. Because of the partner, he is able to have this encounter today. Everything is done in the context of connections, of communication. He's only interested in what serves that purpose. If being in a couple ceases to serve that, then he'll stop it at that moment."

Are you all supposed to understand these things on your own?

"No, he specifically talks about it. If, for example, we were talking about the importance of being vegan, then he has expectations that people will be vegans. If someone doesn't get this, then he won't last long."

In what other ways does he influence your daily life?

"It's very dynamic, because the answer to your question changes from week to week. There were times when there were more expectations, and times when he had no expectations at all. Today he's not a spiritual teacher anymore."

Just a transition period

Kibbutz Moran will soon be bidding farewell to Tubali and most of his followers, who are due to move to the center of the country. The members of the cult are certain that Tubali made the decision to leave the kibbutz as part of the process he has been going through lately. But that isn't exactly true. It seems that the guru didn't bother to tell his believers that the kibbutz administration did not look fondly upon the community's tendency to insulate themselves, which had grown more pronounced in the last months, or upon the mate-swapping that occurred there. Because of this, the kibbutz decided not to extend the rental contract for some of the community members. One kibbutz member who wished to remain anonymous said that Tubali heard about it and decided to announce that he was leaving the kibbutz of his own initiative, so it wouldn't look like he was being thrown out.

Haimke Ganiram, the kibbutz secretary, says: "There are some members of the community whose contract we would definitely not extend. We wouldn't let this thing continue in the current formula." He adds, "We thought the community would be much more involved in the kibbutz. They came for the holidays, but they still maintained their own separate communal character, to which we barely connected."

As soon as the community members learned that this article was being written, they wrapped themselves in silence. Sigal Shavit, the community spokesperson, said that right now, New Sun is not interested in cooperating with the media. "There's no hiding going on here, it's just a transition period and we don't want to come out with something that's not fully formulated," she explained. An attempt to speak with Tubali by telephone was also unsuccessful. Phone calls to him are answered by Lester, who screens out unwanted callers. Lester did not consent to pass the telephone to Tubali and declined to respond to any claims about what is happening in the community.

On Kibbutz Moran, too, it was not possible to speak with Tubali, Lester or other members of the community.

It was only shortly before this article was to go to press that community members agreed to provide their detailed response (see box). Mainly, it is: We are independent adults, let us live our lives as we see fit. One former member of the group expressed this quite well in a personal letter she sent to the newspaper: "We made a free choice to live a communal life with a teacher. We chose to grow and blossom along the marvelous pathways exemplified by this teacher, and that does not for one minute mean that we are brainwashed, hypnotized and so on. On the contrary, we have sharp minds and love inquiry and development. Shai has always said and continues to say that he does not want students, he wants partners, and this is the essence of the bond with him ... There is one question that perhaps everyone has forgotten to ask themselves and I would be pleased if you'd all consider it: Are you missing something here? Maybe we are truly happy? I can tell you - the answer is yes!"

"We are surprised and even amused at the big fuss surrounding our spiritual work and our personal lives. We are aware that Haaretz's objective is to present its readers with a 'shocking document,' but we are sorry to inform you that such a publication is without any foundation. We view this type of media occupation with our spiritual work and our personal lives as religious, spiritual and faith-related persecution; as a kind of intimidation campaign that has no connection whatsoever with the positive, pure-intentioned and love-filled way of life that characterizes our community.

"As for the 'sensation' of 'mate swapping' in the community, all of those involved are adults of clear and sound mind, who by their own will and out of full choice decided to change their spousal structure and their manner of living, as other people outside the community may also do. All of them, without exception (and to the great dismay of the complaining parents), are living peacefully and happily with their choice, a choice that occurred without 'instruction from above' or any trace of coercion. Today, all of them, without exception, are living with one another in friendship and love. And so, we wonder, what is all the fuss about?

"A spiritual community is, by its nature, a hothouse for inner work, and also a kind of social experiment. Such an experiment, when it is propelled by a group of people who value honesty, truth and liberty, may lead a person to all sorts of changes in his life. The attempt to ascribe to these changes a cult-like and insane character is completely baseless, which is why all of the people involved in it find it amusing.

"In our world there are enough murderers, rapists, users, violent people, blackmailers and manipulators. We are a small community made up of adult members who are choosing their lifestyle, a community that does its spiritual work within itself, without anyone getting hurt by it. Therefore, we see this article as an attempt to 'set us up.' We stand before the world without fear and ask: What, in God's name, are you looking for?

"In a few weeks, the community will break apart naturally, but still out of a desire to continue and grow together. We will continue with creative collaborations whose sole objective is: to find ways to improve the world within us and around us. We will continue to do this out of the love, the ecstasy, the joy and the pure-heartedness that have always characterized our activity and our way of life.

Signed: All the members of the community

Dr. David Green, an expert in clinical psychology and director of the Green Institute for Advanced Psychology in Tel Aviv, has studied the subject of cults for 25 years. Over the years, he has treated dozens of people who joined or left cults, and their families. He stressed that his assessment here is general and does not apply specifically to Shai Tubali's community.

According to Green, the word "cult" is perceived as a stigma that is used by people outside the group, and therefore cults do not describe themselves as such, but rather as a "group," an "organization," a "community" and so on. By definition, a cult is a group that organizes around a charismatic leader who attracts disciples who submit to his authority. In most such groups, joining occurs through a gradual process of seminars or courses.

"It's all under the guise of study. It's called an 'institute' or a 'school' or a 'seminary' and it advances the process of brainwashing or of reforming thought. Usually, the leader draws his religious or moral power from an outside higher power. This is what provides the absolutist basis for the leader's statements."

In the next stage, says Green, the leader transforms the messages he has transmitted orally into sacred writings, which are not to be questioned. Later on, there is an organizational consolidation that turns the group into a very hierarchical and compartmentalized structure, from the leadership on down. In addition, there is a financial basis that includes raising money from people who join the group; in some cults, the assets of those who join are handed over, and money is also raised in the general community.

At this stage, there is already "total surrender by the believers to the authority of the leader or of the leadership. The group gradually develops a common worldview and a certain lifestyle. The ideology, whether it is religious or of any other type, is extremely rigid. The strengthening of the group requires a gradual detachment from the people's previous world and this, usually, requires a detachment from the family."

In other cases, he says, "the parents' anger at the children is so great and the antagonism on both sides is so strong that, at some point, the parents just give up on the kids. Many of the groups use a technique called 'love bombardment.' Parents need to do the same exact thing, in the hope that one day their children will return to thinking independently and be able to become productive members of the community. Forgoing the relationship during the time of crisis is certainly not the appropriate thing."

Is a cult necessarily a bad thing?

"The level of destructiveness can range from mild to severe, with the criterion being to what degree the person who joins the group ceases to be active in the community from whence he comes. As long as a person can still maintain the previous relationship with the family, can maintain his lifestyle and his previous worldview and function at a reasonable level both professionally and within the family, the group is considered to be less destructive."

Dr. Green is pessimistic about the possibility of convincing people to leave a cult, especially if they have passed what he calls the point of no return, in which the cult leader's control of their thinking is absolute.

So what can be done?

"It's very difficult to get people out of this, but if they have still retained the ability to exercise their critical faculties, then often there is some point that will undermine their confidence in the leader. Sometimes, things come to light that cause some of the people to open their eyes or to realize that they may have been tricked."