By Raphael Ahren
A massive two-day Limmud conference for Russian-born Israelis will take place for the first time later this month in Ashkelon, Haaretz has learned. About 1,200 Russian-speakers from all over the country are expected to attend the event, which will take place on September 25 and 26. “We will discuss everything from Jewish identity to Jewish culture to Jewish heritage to the Holocaust,” said Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union), one of the many daughter programs of the educational organization that operates across the globe. “Really everything. It’s like the biggest cholent you’ve ever seen. It’s a Jewish kaleidoscope.
“There will be 150 session in 26 hours,” Chesler added. “We have eight events in every given hour. This never happened in Israel before. Neither for Russian-speakers, nor for English- or Hebrew-speakers.” Chesler, who headed the Jewish Agency’s Moscow office from 1993 to 1997 – a time when some 300,000 Jews immigrated to Israel – said this month’s conference is modeled after two successful Limmud events held in Moscow since 2006. “Many Israelis participated in Russia, so I asked: Why don’t we have Limmud in Israel? We need quality, we need pluralism – and everybody is in: secular and Orthodox, young and old, Reform and Conservative. We want to enhance Jewish identity, and we want to enhance young leadership in [the Russian-speaking] community.”
Limmud was founded 25 years ago in the U.K. and its model of volunteer-based educational events has since been imported to 35 Jewish communities all over the world. Limmud’s flagship event is a five-day conference with 900 sessions that draws more than 2,000 people to a British university campus every year.
The Jews of the former Soviet Union constitute the third-largest global Jewish population, and even more than a decade after the end of Communist rule, many still struggle with their Jewish identity. The effectiveness of Limmud in countering that trend is illustrated by Alex Kreindlin, a 26-year-old filmmaker who took a six-months leave of absence from his day job to become the executive director of this month’s conference, overseeing the entire organization in Israel. Born in Moscow, he came to Israel when he was nine and like many others he couldn’t care less about his religion – that is, until he participated in a Limmud conference in London.
“I was a secular person, anti-religion and anti-Judaism, and here [at Limmud] I felt this is a project that could speak to someone like me. And it did,” Kreindlin told Haaretz yesterday during a training session for the volunteers in Ashkelon. “Israel needs a program like this. All of Judaism was taken over by the Orthodox and the secular people were left with nothing. And this conference is something for them.”
While Limmud events also include Orthodox lectures, Kreindlin views them primarily as an attempt to bring the secular population closer to Judaism. “Especially the Russians,” he said, noting that most other immigrant groups live some sort of traditional Jewish life before they arrive in Israel. “In Russia, people didn’t have Jewish traditions within their families – until I came to Israel I didn’t even know I was Jewish.” This disconnection from their origins is true for all Russian-speakers who came here, “and to bring them closer is a very good thing,” he said. “Because if you come to Israel only to look for a better life financially, it’s not the best place. But if you get connected to the essence of it, the essence of why we’re here, then it can happen for you.”