by Walter Ruby
Special To The Jewish Week

Moscow — The Israeli and American Jewish establishments have passed the Limmud torch to a new generation of Russian Jews. At the second annual conference of Limmud-Moscow, held last week at a utilitarian hotel in a wooded setting outside the Russian capital, many of the nearly 300 participants in the event, mostly young urban Jewish professionals between the ages of 23 and 40, spoke glowingly of this international movement of informal Jewish education that began in England 26 years ago. It’s the form of Jewish expression, they said, best suited to the needs of secular young Russian Jews, who are largely allergic to synagogue life and in need of creative and idealistic outlets in a country where the political sphere is largely off-limits.

At the same time, local Limmud leaders exulted that they had managed to pull off a successful conference without the hands-on involvement of Chaim Chesler, former regional director of the Jewish Agency in the FSU, or Sandra Cahn, a New York-based fundraiser for UJA-Federation and other causes. In April, 2007, Chesler and Cahn launched the first-ever Limmud-Moscow, which drew 130 local participants and followed up that success last October with a rousing first annual Limmud FSU conference, which drew about 700 people to Moscow, including Jews from around the FSU and top leaders of organizations like the Jewish Agency, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, World Jewish Congress, UJA-Federation of New York and the Claims Conference.

Yet, unlike last year’s events, which was largely choreographed by Chesler and Cahn and mainly funded by Jewish organizations and philanthropists in the West, last week’s Limmud-Moscow event was almost completely organized and run by local volunteers. The conference was funded with contributions from FSU-based oligarchs and registration fees of about $130. The two-day conference included sessions on Israeli politics, Russian Jewish theater, the cuisines of Jewish communities around the world, reflections on a spiritual approach to daily life and an open mike for people who wanted to sing and strum guitars.

According to Dmitri Maryasis, a 26-year-old senior research fellow in Israel Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences and one of the principal organizers of the event, “Naturally, in the early days of Limmud FSU, Chaim [Chesler] and Sandra [Cahn], who had raised the money for the creation of Limmud FSU and were responsible for its success, tended to tell us Russian Jewish activists how to run things.

“Yet at a certain point we said to them, ‘We deeply respect all you have done, but we are local and understand best what will work here.’ In time, they came to see that we are a capable team and can rely on us.” Maryasis said proudly, “This time, we Moscow Jews planned the event and raised most of the money. Chaim and Sandy received copies of the program several days before the event just like everyone else. It was our show from beginning to end.”

Chesler, a white-haired dynamo who held a series of whirlwind meetings with Maryasis and others immediately after the conference to assess the results, said he was pleased with what was achieved.

“The story of this conference is that the local people have declared independence, which is exactly what we wanted to happen. The whole concept of Limmud is based on voluntarism, pluralism and local people deciding what works best for them. What was accomplished was extraordinary considering that voluntarism was almost a nonexistent concept in Russia until very recently.”

According to Maryasis, “Limmud is unique among Russian Jewish organizations in that everyone involved is a volunteer with the exception of one staff person. People decide for themselves which lectures they wish to offer; we provide them a platform, and then people decide with their feet which lectures they want to attend. There is no political or organizational agenda here. Instead there is pluralism and free choice.”

“Many of the participants in Moscow Limmud, like myself, grew up in programs run by the Jewish Agency, in which there was constant pressure to make aliyah. Hillel, which also ran wonderful youth programs, had those pressures as well, though in a more subtle way. In Limmud, however, no one is told, ‘You ought to be in Israel.’ Rather, Limmud is throwback to the old Jewish traditon where each student chose his own teacher according to his interests.”

Maryasis also sees Limmud as suited to a time of growing political authoritarianism in Russia, in which, paradoxically, Jewish life is allowed to develop freely.

“Young Jews are politically uninvolved these days, because they — like everyone else — understand that they can do nothing to impact what happens in the corridors of power. Yet, at the same time, we feel confident that [President Vladimir] Putin, [President-elect Dmitri] Medvedev and their teams are not anti-Semitic and are not giving the slightest encouragement to Russian nationalist and xenophobic groups. Young Jews in Moscow today are free to build thriving careers, enjoy living in this cosmopolitan city, which has truly become a world capital, and to get involved in groups like Limmud. No one prevents me from doing exactly what I want to do with my life.”

Alexander Pyatigorsky, a 26-year-old Limmud organizer who recently founded his own high-tech firm, contended, “Limmud is perfect for the thousands of young Russian Jews who took part in Jewish youth groups and went on Taglit [birthright israel] trips to Israel, but now have gotten a few years older and have launched successful careers. They have less time for Jewish activities, but feel a void in their lives that Limmud has been created to fill.” Until now, he noted, Jewish programming in the FSU has concentrated on working with children and youth and with the elderly, all of whom are provided with services delivered top-down by international Jewish organizations. “Limmud is trying to do something much harder: create programming for busy and successful people who have to pay their own way to take part in events like this one. We are gratified that it seems to be working.”

After attending a session on the acting techniques of renowned Jewish actor and director, Solomon Mikhoels, who was murdered by Josef Stalin in 1948, first-time Limmud participant Yelena Berlin said, “It was fascinating for me to realize during the session that many of the modes of expression in modern-day Russian theater and film in fact were pioneered by Mikhoels and other stars of Jewish theater of the 1920s and 1930s.”

Berlin, a 23-year-old marketing professional, endured anti-Semitic taunting throughout much of her adolescence and sometimes sought to avoid it by pretending to be Greek, not Jewish. Then she went on a Taglit trip to Israel, which she called “the happiest two weeks of my life. I was amazed by the vitality of Israel.” Berlin, who makes about $3,000 a month after taxes, enjoys traveling abroad and recently returned from visiting relatives in California. Yet for now, she plans to continue living in Moscow. “The economy is very good here and I can advance professionally more rapidly then anywhere else.”

Still, according to Berlin, “What I have been missing since coming back from my Taglit trip several years ago is a connection to Jewish life. I am not at all religious and don’t feel comfortable in synagogue. Here at Limmud I feel like I have found that connection again. I may only attend one or two conferences a year, but I plan to stay in touch with many of the wonderful people I have met over the past several days.”

Anna Feeveskaya, a 23-year-old psychology student who works part time in a recruiting agency, spent half a year in a study program in Israel and “had a wonderful time.” Still she says, she felt deterred from staying there permanently by concerns about the security situation and because “I understood I could do better professionally in Moscow. It’s always easier to make it in your own country.”

Still, Feeveskaya said, “The truth is that no one knows what the [political] situation will be here a year from now. Yet here at Limmud I was reminded that I have something special that other Russians do not have: a connection to my Jewish identity and to other Jews. Having taken part in this weekend gives me a sense of security and belonging as I move forward with my daily life in Moscow.”