At first glance, the Moscow Kabbalah Centre on Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya Ulitsa could be any trendy cafe in the busy Russian capital. Black polished tables and chairs are placed neatly around the room and a coffee machine puffs away in the corner.
It seems a strange setting for a movement that specializes in teaching an ancient branch of Jewish mysticism.
But the Kabbalah Centre, which has come to be associated with wealth, success and celebrity endorsement, has strayed far from its roots since it was established by an American insurance salesman almost four decades ago. In Moscow, with its billionaires and hoards of ambitious young professionals, the movement is thriving.
"With seven teachers and an average of 300 students per week, we are now almost as big as the Kabbalah Centre in London, which has been running for 15 years," head teacher David Mats says.
Traditionally the complex teachings of Kabbalah, which come from an ancient text called the Zohar, were reserved for a select number of Jewish scholars only after they had turned 40 and had an advanced understanding of Jewish law. Subjects taught at the centre range from the relatively straightforward (the power of wisdom, the importance of giving) to the very obscure (mystical instruments, understanding time zones.)
The Kabbalah Centre opens the teachings up to the masses, marketing them as a "universal system for self-improvement." The 10-week courses on offer aim to teach students how to achieve their goals through the most direct routes; improving business performance has come to be seen as a secondary effect of study.
Although it claims to be a non-profit organisation, the movement has come under fire, especially among Orthodox Jews, for being primarily a money-making scheme.
"The so-called ‘Kabbalah Centre'...seems to be more concerned with retail sales and protecting its market share than spirituality," U.S. cult expert Rick Ross says.
At face value, the Moscow centre certainly seems to have more in common with a business than a spiritual institution. Books and various other trinkets on display for sale include: "The Power of You" (600 roubles); "72 Names of God" cards (760 roubles); red-string bracelet (500 roubles); and a 23-volume Zohar text (12,500 roubles). The centre's website, located at http://www.kabbalah.ru, also lists a range of products, although prices are not available.
While Mats insists that the centre attracts a wide range of students from a variety of backgrounds, there are some telling signs that the movement is especially popular among the capital's ultra rich residents. The centre will soon begin holding courses in English for Moscow's high-earning expat community; it also plans to hold lectures at Rublyovka, a famous residential area west of Moscow which boasts some of the highest residential prices in the world.
Numerous Russian celebrities are also rumoured to have links with the organisation, according to the Russian media. Big names include singer-cum-actress Lolita Milyavskaya, musician Stas Namin and Armenian-Bulgarian pop singer Philipp Kirkorov.
"Being a Kabbalah member is seen by many as a sign of affluence and glamour," Russian anti-cult activist Alexander Dvorkin says. "A lot of people swallow the bait out of vanity to show that they have reached a certain level of achievement or success.
They want to show that they make enough money to be a member."
Dvorkin describes the movement as a dangerous cult, but admits that his anti-cult centre has never received a single complaint about the Kabbalah Centre, which has been operating in Moscow since 2006.
Advocates of the centre say its objectives lie deeper than money-making schemes. "Before the crisis everyone was obsessed with making more and more money and showing off what they had. But people tired of that, and the idea of modesty, intelligence and self-improvement started to hold more weight," says Mariya Filonova, a 24 year-old entrepreneur who began attending courses at the Moscow centre this year.
Mats says the core group of his students are well-educated Muscovites who want primarily to change the way they live and think about the world.
"I started studying Kabbalah because I needed an incentive to move forward. I found I was getting too comfortable and I needed to start thinking in a different way," Filonova says.