In a light-filled classroom in Sherman Oaks, gregarious teacher Jenna Zucker dons a straw hat and, in an exaggerated Southern drawl, invites the gathered first- and second-graders to an imaginary picnic.
The children, taking part in an after-school program at Kester Avenue Elementary, must tell Zucker what they plan to bring; she will then decide if they can join her. Alex wants to bring apples; he gets the nod. But Athena and her offer of brownies are turned down, as are Samantha and her macaroni and cheese. Elijah suggests eels and Matthew melons; both are accepted. The students soon realize they must bring something that starts with the first letter of their name.
Zucker, 28, tells them that once they figured out the rules of the game, the reward was "greater satisfaction."
"What does greater satisfaction bring?" she asks. Matthew replies: "Spiritual power!"
Zucker asks him where the power comes from? "Your inner light," the boy answers.
And where is that light found? "In your heart," he says.
The exchange is part of "Spirituality for Kids," a class offered in several Los Angeles public elementary schools during the day or after school. Created by a leader of the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre International, a spiritual and educational organization, the program is promoted as a nondenominational effort to teach children to make wise choices.
But it is drawing fire from parents and others who say it is illegally bringing religion into public schools under the guise of ethics training.
"I think it breaches the separation between church and state," said Margie Mulder, a guidance counselor at Utah Street and Noble Avenue elementary schools. "I wouldn't send my children to the group."
But others say it provides children with essential skills.
" 'Spirituality for Kids' is not religious," said Karen Timko, who is in charge of elementary counselors for the Los Angeles Unified School District and has included the group in a resource fair for counselors. "It's tools for navigating your life."
Timko noted that school programs run by better-known faith-linked organizations, such as the YMCA, have not met with similar controversy.
The spirituality program was created in 2001 by Karen Berg, who leads the Los Angeles kabbalah center with her husband, Rabbi Philip Berg. Kabbalah is an ancient form of Jewish mysticism, but critics of the Berg center say it departs from many traditional practices.
The center's website says it offers a nonreligious "way of creating a better life," and that if students work to become more sharing, caring and tolerant, they will experience previously unknown fulfillment. The center has a deep roster of celebrity adherents, including Madonna and Ashton Kutcher.
The program is offered in schools and community centers around the globe, from New York and Florida to Mexico and Malawi. Since 2006, nearly 4,400 Los Angeles children have taken part. Its use in London schools has generated controversy.
The Spirituality for Kids Foundation, which runs the program, listed nearly $18 million in assets on IRS disclosure forms for 2007, the most recent available. Celebrity kabbalah devotees, including Madonna, are among its funders.
Public school students cannot legally be subject to proselytizing, although religious groups are allowed to sponsor school programming as long as it does not favor one faith. But programs linked to groups outside the mainstream often come under scrutiny. Others that have drawn fire include "study technology," a learning method created by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and Transcendental Meditation offered by the David Lynch Foundation.
This year, Spirituality for Kids has been offered at nine local elementary schools and three community sites. Children are taught that their actions cause reactions, and to allow their inner "light" to shine by overcoming an internal "opponent" who urges them to make bad decisions.
The word "kabbalah" was not mentioned in the Kester class, but its presence seemed unmistakable. Zucker and a facilitator wore red knotted strings -- frequently used by kabbalah practitioners to ward off the evil eye -- around their left wrists. They also used terms -- such as "light" and "the opponent" -- that are found throughout the L.A. center's website and its IRS filings.
Officials with the spirituality program say such words are common to many faiths.
" 'Inner light' is a universal term," spokeswoman Esther Weinberg wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. "If you look it up, you'll see it is used by Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, many yoga practitioners, and it actually originated with the Quakers."
Karen Berg said she doesn't use the term "inner light" in her teachings, but said it may be used at the kabbalah center.