by Marcia P. Neeley
Special To The Jewish Week

Moscow — For Elizabeth Gundiskaya, a 19-year-old student from St. Petersburg, the first-ever Limmud FSU conference was about feeling connected to the “big” Jewish world.

“I can really talk with people like myself about being Jewish,” Gundiskaya said about being among the hundreds of young Jews, both secular and religious, from other FSU countries that gathered in Moscow last weekend for several days of intensive learning. Maxim Yudin, a young community leader from Minsk, echoed his colleague’s sentiments.

“This conference is all about learning from others. It’s fun to try new ideas and to figure out how to think about my Judaism and Jewish life.”

“Here,” Yudin continued, “we can express our beliefs in a spirit of open debate and not be put down.”

Yudin and Gundiskaya were two of some 800 young people that took part in the inaugural Limmud FSU, a weekend educational conference that brought together Jews from across the religious spectrum.

“To build an enduring future for the Jewish people of the former Soviet Union, we need to bring them under our tent,” said Chaim Chesler, founder of the event, which took more than two years to put together and cost about $1.2 million, almost all of it from foreign donors.

Some 30 local FSU Jewish organizations and community leaders worked with Chesler and co-founder, Sandra Cahn, a New York philanthropist, to create a unique Jewish learning experience, adapting the Limmud International paradigm — a dynamic, pluralistic model of Jewish education — to meet the needs of the Russian Jewish community. Limmud (Hebrew for “learning”) began 26 years ago in London and has spread around the world.

Limmud FSU 2007 focused on bringing together and empowering young Jewish adults who are reviving and revitalizing the Jewish communities and cultures of their respective countries.

At the opening event, Zeev Bielski, chairman of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), a key supporting organization, reaffirmed Limmud’s goal: “putting people together, building community and connecting the younger generation.”

Just 20 years ago, almost 250,000 American Jews demonstrated in Washington, D.C., demanding that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev free the refusniks and allow Russian Jews to make aliyah. At that time, few people believed that Russian Jews would ever have a viable Jewish community in their own land. Today, they number roughly 1.3 million, according to recent estimates.

Recalling when the Soviet Union collapsed and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) returned to work in the FSU, Steven Schwager, CEO of the JDC, said: “It was a dream of JDC to have the Russian Jewish community take its rightful place among the global Jewish people. Limmud FSU is the fruition of that dream, and we are proud to be a part of its success.”

Some 13 years ago, philanthropists Edgar Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman invested in a Russian Jewish future by supporting Hillel International’s efforts to build Jewish identity on the campuses of FSU colleges. Today there are 27 Hillels in the FSU. And birthright israel has enabled thousands of the FSU’s Jewish youth to experience Israel for the first time. Many of the Limmud attendees had ties to one or both groups.

With an academic perspective rather than a skills-based thrust, Limmud FSU 2007 assembled an impressive roster of 130 presenters, including rabbis from all streams of Judaism, Judaic scholars, noted philanthropists, journalists and international organizational leadership, who participated in 160 sessions, dialogues and discussions.

Major themes included reinforcing Jewish life within the social and cultural structural norms of FSU countries; understanding Israel, i.e., history and present concerns; and learning the history of the Russian Jewish people, as well as discussing the place of Russian Jewry in today’s global Jewish world. This choice of topics reflects the interests of local Jewish communities and differs in focus from Limmud New York 2006, for example, which placed emphasis on individual spiritual development and deepening personal, rather than collective, Jewish identity.

One might have expected that rising contemporary anti-Semitism would be a pressing issue at Limmud FSU 2007, but the session, “Fighting Anti-Semitism,” attracted only about a dozen people, only six of whom were Russian, while the session, “Israel/Russian Relations,” attracted approximately 100 people.

Contemporary anti-Semitism occurring in Western Europe, predominantly incited by the leftist intelligentsia and Arab Muslims, is not currently being felt in Russia, according to several Limmud participants. Some speculate that this is because the Russian Muslim population is not Arab and for the most part, the Russian Jewish community has reasonably good relations with the Muslim community.

While Cahn, a co-founder of Limmud, stressed that it was up to American Jews to continue to support Jewish causes in the FSU, Alexander Pyatigorsky, chairman of the Organizing Committee of Limmud FSU and executive director of the Moscow Jewish Religious Community, said his goal was to make the local Jewish community “less dependent” on others for funding.

He said the local Jews “must begin to take a greater role in supporting their communities and assume communal leadership roles,” he said.

The plan is for mini-Limmuds to be held throughout the year as local Jewish organizations seek to restore the traditions of lifelong Jewish learning.

Marcia Neeley is former communications director of UJA-Federation of New York.