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Across the Former Soviet Union Chess Champ Joins Moscow Elite in Leading Weekly Torah Seminars

Gary Kasparov is used to being in the spotlight, but less used to discussing Torah in a public forum. But that’s exactly what the former world chess champion did on a recent evening at a Moscow Jewish community center.

The talk on the weekly portion by Kasparov, 43, was part of a weekly seminar called Dvar Torah. Each Thursday night, the seminar brings together a group of businessmen, journalists, academics and professionals for that reason.

The seminar — now in its second year — is the brainchild of Yevgenia Albats, one of the best-known names in Russian political journalism of the last two decades and a professor of political science.

Kasparov, whose father is Jewish, said when Albats first approached him with the idea of speaking on what looked like a purely religious subject, he was inclined to say no.

“At first, I was shocked,” he said. Until he found out what the portion was about.

Last year, Kasparov retired from a professional career in chess to devote his time to politics and pro-democracy activism.

So it was no wonder that he turned his talk about a portion from the Book of Numbers into a debate about freedom and slavery, mass thinking and society’s ability to take responsibility for its own future — subjects that are relevant in today’s Russia.

The weekly seminar started in September 2004 with 15 people and has grown since then.

The list of speakers reads as a who’s who among the Russian business, journalistic and intellectual elites: from leading business tycoons and prominent lawyers to television anchors and a former Russian foreign minister. Some spoke out of curiosity, others were captured by Albats’ enthusiasm and, in the words of many of them, could not afford to say no to her.

One of the participants on a recent Thursday said he has missed only a handful of sessions in nearly two years.

“To me, this is the most meaningful event in the life of the Jewish community of Moscow,” said Mikhail Berger, a leading financial journalist.

To him and many other regulars, the seminar is particularly valuable because it is a rare grass-roots Jewish initiative in Russia.

“Most of other events are more of a formality, being part of someone else’s agenda,” Berger said. “What’s happening here touches me personally. It brings me back to reading the text.”

Albats has 170 people on her mailing list, and her weekly e-mail announcements on upcoming session include Web links to different Torah commentaries — from the most traditional to contemporary ones. Those who come to the seminar “can be whatever they want, from Jewish Orthodox to atheists,” she said.

“But before you make your judgment, you first need to read the book,” she said.

In fact, speakers and participants don’t necessarily have to be Jewish, although she thinks that “98 percent of those who come are Jews.”

Of course, celebrity speakers like Kasparov get the highest number of attendees — as many as 70.

But Albats says she never strived for numbers. In fact, she shuns excessive publicity, does not allow photographs to be taken at the meetings and has refused several television requests.

She is running this activity on a zero budget, and the only organization that has some input is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides space for the seminar in its Nikitskaya JCC in Moscow.

Albats says for many of her speakers — especially the well-known figures — it is often not an easy step to accept her invitation, given that most Russian Jews are not even remotely familiar with the Torah.

She is not sure whether her project can be replicated. But her own initiative is modeled after what she saw at Harvard University a few years ago when she was completing her post-graduate studies there.

Some 30 years ago, Rabbi Ben Zion Gold of Harvard established a worship and study group at Harvard’s Hillel, and Albats said attending these sessions was one of the best experiences she had at Harvard.

Each session opens and closes with a traditional Jewish blessing in Hebrew on reading the Torah.

When it fits the portion, Albats organizes a mini-lecture on subjects like Jewish dietary laws, liturgy or cantorial tradition and invites knowledgeable speakers.

And at almost every session, there is a rabbi or even two in attendance: Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, who is Orthodox, and Russia’s first and only woman rabbi, Nelly Shulman, from the Reform movement, attend nearly every week. They always have the privilege of making the final comments on the portion.

Albats, who authored many articles and a book on issues of anti-Semitism and tolerance in Russia, sees the seminar as a vehicle to help people define their Jewishness in positive terms.

“It’s the most important thing here: to stop think of yourself as a zhid, persecuted and resentful, and start feeling like the People of the Book.”

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