Friday, Aug. 24, 2001 | 11:22 a.m.
The word "cult" is burrowing through the Las Vegas faith community on the eve of a visit from an international specialist in controversial religious groups.
Rick Ross, a longtime cult watcher based in New Jersey, says Southern Nevada is riddled with "destructive" religious groups -- whose followers combined total more than 1,500. He has been invited to speak about them at Temple Beth Sholom on Saturday and Sunday.
But not everyone is welcoming Ross.
Among those cited by Ross as "groups to watch" are the Kabbalah Centre, Chabad of Southern Nevada, the Greater Las Vegas International Church of Christ, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification Church, Falun Gong and others.
"I don't want people to be sucked into money-sucking or dangerous groups," Conservative Rabbi Felipe Goodman, who invited Ross, said. "In the search for spirituality many people are misguided, and I think if we stick with the traditional groups, it would be better."
But Rabbi Moshe Omer of the Kabbalah Centre, a not-so-traditional take on ancient Jewish mysticism, said the invitation to Ross was meant to slander his organization.
"There are some politics and power games going on here," Omer said. "We are taking a lot of heat from Rabbi Goodman. I am not happy he has invited this man here to say we are a cult."
Goodman, whose synagogue is the largest in Las Vegas, said he did not invite Ross specifically to address the Kabbalah Centre, and he would not comment about his personal opinion of the Kabbalah Centre.
But Ross, who prefers to say that he "raises the question of whether they are a cult" rather than declaring them a cult, devotes several pages on his website to articles that accuse the Kabbalah Centre of cultism.
"The general definition of cult is any group of people who are intensely devoted to a person, place, or thing," Ross, who is Jewish, said. "But that would include Elvis fans, Trekkies, and many other groups ...
"So when talking about religious cults, the key word is 'destructive.' There is a single characteristic that makes the group destructive -- usually, that is the existence of an absolute totalitarian leader who has no meaningful accountability and no meaningful boundaries. Any area of the member's life can be intruded upon, and they are not allowed to make independent decisions," Ross said.
Omer said students of Kabbalah are free to do whatever they want and are encouraged to ask questions about the faith.
"We are not a cult," Omer said.
The Kabbalah Centre was started in 1969 by charismatic leader Philip Berg, a rabbi and former insurance salesman from Brooklyn. The Centre claims more than 150,000 students and dozens of centers around the world. The Centre teaches that the way to connect with God is to be like God; the goal is to reach peace through meditation.
However, some former students allege the Centre urged them to hand over chunks of their life savings or even to quit taking psychiatric medication, according to Ross's website.
"I have received very many complaints from people who have had personal pain and financial loss as a result of involvement with the Kabbalah Centre," Ross said.
Omer said Ross is an unreliable source.
"Rick Ross is a convicted felon with a history of psychiatric problems," Omer said.
True enough, says Ross.
"I was convicted of a felony when I was 22," Ross, now 48, said. He assisted in a jewelry embezzlement scheme at a retail store in Arizona and was sentenced to probation.
"I made a mistake. I had been in trouble as a young man, and I turned my life around," Ross said. "I never again in my life made another mistake like that."
And, he said, although he has had counseling on several occasions in his life, he has never been hospitalized for psychiatric care.
Ross served as a consultant to the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms during the Branch Davidian incident in Waco, Texas. He became interested in extremist groups in 1982 when his grandmother was recruited by a religious group that was targeting the elderly in Phoenix nursing homes.
The Las Vegas Kabbalah Centre was involved in a neighborhood dispute two years ago when it was holding religious services in a residential area, causing neighbors to object to traffic. Omer was arrested for ignoring citations and complained about being arrested on the Jewish holy Sabbath.
After receiving a telephone call from prominent developer and Kabbalist Irwin Molasky, Mayor Oscar Goodman made a personal appearance at the Kabbalah Centre, which claims about 100 students, to apologize on behalf of the city.
"I will incorporate your ideology into what we are trying to accomplish in the city," Oscar Goodman told Omer.
Also at the top of Ross's list of allegedly destructive religious groups in Las Vegas is the Las Vegas Church of Christ, which is affiliated with the International Churches of Christ and is not the same as the traditional Church of Christ.
"It is perhaps the fastest-growing group that's been called a cult in the world," Ross said. "They are very big in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Church has spun off other churches."
The International Church of Christ claims more than 200,000 members worldwide and about 400 worshippers every Sunday in Las Vegas.
The church was created in 1979 by Kip McKean, an evangelist who lived in Lexington, Mass., but who has since moved to Los Angeles. Under McKean, the followers focus on strong, one-on-one recruitment.
The group has been present here since 1989.
The church is Bible-based, and teaches followers that only devout members will be saved, and everyone else is going to hell. "We hold the Bible to be inspired and inerrant," Church literature says. "After baptism, every new Christian needs to be taught or discipled by another Christian to obey all of Jesus' teachings."
Members are allowed to date only within the church after couples have been approved by church elders or "disciplers." Disciplers allegedly advise new members on more than just religious issues -- former members report that they were told where to live and work and how to dress.
Additionally critics charge that the disciplers encourage new members to confess their sins in private, but the lists of sins are then shared with others as a way to shame members into staying in the group.
The Rev. James Counts of the Las Vegas Church of Christ denies sin lists and high-pressure discipleship, but he says the one-on-one teaching is key to the group's study of the Bible. In fact, he says, it's why he joined the church.
"I feel like the church really helped me to look at and study God's word," Counts said. "Most churches study the Bible, but here they helped me personally."
"If you say 'cult' means a group who follows one person, well clearly we follow Jesus and that's one person," Counts said. "I don't have time to worry about what other people call us."
Banned at UNLV
The International Church of Christ is known for evangelizing on college campuses, and has been banned from dozens of university campuses worldwide -- and has twice been banned from UNLV.
UNLV's Campus Community Development department withdrew recognition of the church group, which was using the name Campus Advance, in 1993 for "manipulation of the membership with regards to sleep, dating, social life and studies," according to the Rebel Yell campus newspaper. The church attempted to return to campus in 1996 using the name The Cutting Edge, and was denied recognition by campus officials.
"I'm not aware of them being on campus now," Phil Burns, director of Campus Community Development, said.
Other groups Ross is monitoring in Las Vegas include Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, Falun Gong, and the Unification Church, or "Moonies" -- all of whom deny charges of cultism.
More controversially within the Jewish community, however, is Ross's assertion that Chabad Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish organization, is a "questionable" group because of its reverence for the deceased Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Chabad has organizations in more than 100 countries and enrolls millions of children in Jewish education classes, and Rabbi Goodman does not share Ross's views about Chabad being controversial -- he says it is a valuable part of the local Jewish community.
But Ross said the group believes Schneerson was the Messiah, which is a "characteristic of cultish groups."
Rabbi Shea Harlig of Chabad of Southern Nevada does not deny the messianic charge, as Schneerson is part of a line of rabbis that dates to the Hasidic group's 18th century origins.
"I would say definitely he (Schneerson) was the potential messiah in our generation," Harlig said.
Chabad draws criticism because it is an evangelical organization. The local Chabad has more than 400 members and is growing, Harlig said.
"My concern is not whether people call us a cult, my concern is to get more people aware of what Judaism is all about."
Symptoms that appear in a person when he has become involved in a "destructive cult," according to Ross, include losing spontaneity, loss of interest in previously held goals and interests, loss of a sense of humor and "clonish" behavior.
Las Vegas vulnerable
"Probably the one characteristic of Vegas that makes it vulnerable to this sort of activity is, like other cities in the Sun Belt, that there are many new residents coming to a new area where they may not have a good support system. These groups can be appealing because they provide a network of support and friends, but in reality their friendship is conditional," Ross said.
Ross recommends that anyone who in considering joining a religious group of any kind do Internet research about it to get an understanding of its history.
Ross will be giving two speeches at Temple Beth Sholom, 10700 Havenwood Lane, this weekend. The first, "Why Do Our Children Join Cults?" will be presented Saturday during services at 9 a.m. The second, "The Most Dangerous Cults in Our Midst Today," will be presented Sunday at 9:30 a.m. For information, call 804-1333.