“I feel good about this festival because it’s the first time young Russian-speaking Israelis have come together to learn about Jewish identity and Jewish culture. It’s never happened before,” explained Reform Rabbi Gregory Kotler, a Russian émigré from Moscow who co-chaired the Limmud FSU in Ashkelon Program Committee with Ira Dashevsky, a young Orthodox woman. Continuing, Kotler said, “We represent a true pluralist balance!”

Gathering for an innovative festival of Jewish learning, September 25-26, 2008 at Ashkelon College, Limmud FSU launched its first program for Russian-speaking Israelis. A kaleidoscope of programs with 160 outstanding presenters and over 130 lectures, panels, performances, and discussions, all with Jewish themes, framed the content the for the two-day event. Many of the sessions were broadcast live over the Internet.

Why a Limmud FSU in Ashkelon? “Throughout Israel, the Russian-speaking population tends to live across the country and they are not necessarily connected to one another as a cohesive group. Limmud FSU in Ashkelon provided an opportunity to bring a young generation of émigré Israelis together to explore, to connect, and to talk about Judaism in an open, pluralistic, and welcoming environment,” Mark Chais, honorary chairman, Limmud FSU in Ashkelon, carefully described the situation.

A 22-year-old activist who made aliyah in 2000 from the Russian Far East, Nikita Paderin, explained, “Here everybody feels they can talk about their Jewishness in a freedom and open setting.”

“We feel it’s important to bring the Russian-speaking Israelis closer to their Jewish heritage and connect them with their own history,” say Matthew Bronfman, honorary chairman, Limmud FSU.

“Young people today are searching for themselves. Many explore Eastern cultures and religions. We feel very strongly that the Limmud FSU experience will offer these young Russian-speaking Jews an alternative and help them to realize the value, meaning, and substance of Judaism and help them become more comfortable with their own Jewish Identity,” offered Svetlana Nemkov, chair, Limmud FSU in Ashkelon.

High points of this all-volunteer, mega-Jewish happening included a performance by the Gesher Theater, directed by Lena Krendlin, a Rock concert, Jewish-themed documentary films, torah study and discussions, as well as a sessions on Israeli winemaking and Jewish expression in the art of Chagall. Of particular note, two Russian-speaking Knesset Ministers spoke about ensuring that Russian-speaking Israelis are represented with a greater voice on important national issues, as well as working hard to find appropriate employment opportunities for professionals and training for under-skilled workers.

Sandra F. Cahn, co-founder, with a huge smile and sense of satisfaction said, “Thankfully, Limmud FSU has been blessed with farsighted, generous individuals and global Jewish organizations, such as UJA-Federation of New York, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which understand the importance of strengthening Jewish identity and community building among the young Russian-speaking Jews, particular in the countries of the former Soviet bloc and in Israel, too.

We are pleased that the faces of the crowd of 1,600 participants here in Ashkelon, included 300 Russian-speaking members of the IDF; young professionals, representing every area of the Israeli economy; families with children, as well as activists, and students. And, we’ve been able to add a little to the beleaguered economy of Ashkelon.”