Sunday, May 24, 2015

Chess Program on Upper West Side

[photo by Kevin Hagen]

14-year-old Zachary Targoff [pictured] used his bar mitzvah money to start a chess program on the Upper West Side.

May 20, 2015 8:15 p.m. ET

Zachary Targoff is a better man than I am. I doubt I’d have used all my bar mitzvah money to do what Zach did with his nest egg. 

He started a chess program a year ago in April at Dorot, a Jewish social services organization on the Upper West Side that works to make older adults less socially isolated. To that end, and with the support of Zach and his parents, Dorot brings together teenagers and seniors to play chess. 

“We used the money I got from my bar mitzvah to fund this program,” the 14-year-old Zach said as he looked around the room where the young and old were hunched over chess boards. His donation paid for staff, refreshments, transportation for the seniors, and chess equipment and training. 

“I’m thrilled you’re teaching me chess,” Florence Chasen, 97, told the teenager as she moved her knight two spaces rather than the customary three. 

“The knight goes two spaces and then one space,” Zach explained patiently. 

A more dangerous opponent was 91-year-old Herman Bomze, who was engaged in a match on the other side of the room and who helped inspire the program. Zach and Mr. Bomze have been playing against each other since before Zach’s bar mitzvah in November 2013. 

“I was nervous the first time,” Zach recalled of his formidable opponent. “I expected we’d talk for five minutes about normal things. I knew once we started playing that the game would speak for itself.” 

So who wins? 

“When I first started playing with him, we would be splitting games,” said Zach, an eighth-grader at the Trinity School. “I thought I’d have to be giving up games. 

“As people get older things happen,” he added, choosing his words carefully. “He’ll still win games.”

The players meet weekly during the school year. The timing is different during the summer, explained Judith Turner, Dorot’s director of volunteer services. 

“Teens go to seniors’ homes and bring the chessboard with them,” Ms. Turner said. “We were so amazed by the outpouring of interest.” 

Zach and Mr. Bomze ended up talking about more than chess. The nonagenarian shared some of his personal history with the boy. 

“He told me a lot about his family,” Zach said. “How they came over from Europe. He showed me pictures of his family.” 

And as a bar mitzvah gift, Mr. Bomze gave Zach the chess set his father, who didn’t survive the Holocaust, had given him. 

“Unfortunately, his father couldn’t get a visa to America,” Zach explained as Ms. Chasen moved one of her pawns straight ahead—a move that would be acceptable in checkers but not in chess. “He was forced to stay in Europe and killed during the war.” 

“Remember the pawns capture diagonally,” Zach reminded her. 

I thought it best to let Ms. Chasen and Zach finish their game without further interruption and made my way to Mr. Bomze, who was in a spirited contest with 13-year-old Mason Sklar, a student at Hunter College High School. 

“Technically I’m winning,” Mason explained. “But I’m in a bad situation.” 

Since Mr. Bomze apparently had his hands full, his daughter, Bracha Nechama Bomze, a poet who accompanied him to the program, shared a bit of her father’s story. 

“He fled the Nazis in 1939,” she said. “He was 15. But his father was deported to Buchenwald.” 

Ms. Bomze said her dad had learned to play chess when he was 6, on the set he gave Zach. By the time he was 8, he was beating his father. 

“I said, ‘Why not use this set, Dad?’ ” Ms. Bomze recalled of Zach’s visits to their home. He wouldn’t “because it was so emotionally laden.” 

There were discussions about whether to give the set to Zach as a bar mitzvah gift. It could just as easily have gone to a member of the younger generation of Mr. Bomze’s family. 

“He was touching it with such sensitivity,” Ms. Bomze recalled of Zach and the hand-carved pieces. “Caressing it actually. Herman and his sister agreed Zach would be the most appropriate recipient of this precious heirloom.” 

Ms. Bomze tried to ask her father a question regarding the chess set. “I’m in the middle of chess,” he told her. 

He was simultaneously eating a piece of cake. 

I should mention this was the last session of the school year; to celebrate the occasion, a chess-themed cake was rolled out. Between the cake and the chess, Mr. Bomze had little bandwidth for extraneous conversation with his daughter or with me. 

“It takes precedence, I guess,” his daughter said. 

She went on to explain that her father, a retired structural engineer —“I still am a structural engineer,” he stated briefly, correcting us—had suffered a near fatal heart attack in December. 

“So this whole relationship is amazing,” she said of the program in general and her father’s relationship with Zach, in particular. “When he’s playing chess, he’s at his best.” 

“He won,” Mason announced. 

“It was a big struggle, though,” Mr. Bomze admitted. 

Zach dropped by after his game, or more accurately after the free lesson he gave to Ms. Chasen. 

“Do you want to play?” he asked Mr. Bomze. 

The question wasn’t a difficult one: “I’ll play again,” Mr. Bomze said.