ASHKELON, Israel (JTA) — In the 1840s, Shmeylin Valentin’s great-great-great-grandfather was a student of the Vilna Gaon.
But Valentin, the son of a staunch communist, says he grew up in Lithuania with “no Yiddish and no religion” at home, even though his grandfather had been a rabbi.
Now living in Israel, Valentin is curious to know more. Last week he joined some 1,600 fellow Russian-speaking immigrants at a conference in Ashkelon to explore the Jewish roots that history almost washed away.
“It’s important to me to learn,” he said.
Valentin and his family, including his non-Jewish wife, spent two days learning about Jewish texts, culture and history at Israel’s first Limmud extravaganza, a Jewish learning event for Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel organized by Limmud FSU.
Among the sessions were talks on the image of the Jew in Russian classical music, wine-making in Israel, the role of animals in Jewish texts and women in the Jewish tradition. As at other Limmud gatherings, programming and organization was undertaken by volunteers, most of them young, Russian-speaking immigrants.
Interest in the event, which had to be expanded after hundreds more than expected registered for it, reflects a growing curiosity among immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union about their Jewish heritage. Almost 20 years since the historic immigration of some 1 million Jews to Israel began, immigrants both old and young are examining their Jewish identity as they try to make sense of their place in the Jewish state.
“During the beginning of the great wave of aliyah in the early 1990s, people were busy with surviving and making a living. But now people want to know about their Jewish identity and why we are living in Israel,” said Rabbi Gregory Kotler, the first immigrant from the former Soviet Union to be ordained in Israel as a Reform rabbi. “Maybe attending an event like this is the beginning of their way back to their Jewish roots.”
Kotler, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1991, was among those who organized the two-day Limmud gathering in Ashkelon. Similar Limmud gatherings take place all over the world every year, but this was the first major Limmud conference in Israel.
In recent years, Jewish text-study groups and other Jewish-related programs have sprung up for Russian speakers in Israel.
The interest in Judaism among Russian-speaking Israelis mirrors increased Jewish activity in the former Soviet Union by Jews who have remained in their home countries. The Limmud FSU gathering here, for example, followed a similar event held outside of Moscow last fall and is to be followed by another large Limmud gathering in Yalta next month.
Sandy Cahn, co-chair of Limmud-FSU, said the Limmud model is “a diverse, pluralistic environment where everyone can find their way.” It’s “a virtual supermarket for people to connect to their Jewish roots and their Jewish identity.”
Vadim Manov, 29, who came to Israel from Russia in 1994, said he only began to understand what it might mean to be Jewish when he was a 13-year-old attending a camp in Russia run by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Until then, all he knew was that he was Jewish and that an organization would send his family matzah for Passover.
Manov, who today works at the IT department of a major bank, says he feels like he’s still playing catch-up on his Jewish identity. That’s why he found it so beneficial to be able to choose between 150 lecture sessions during the two-day conference, he said. He attended sessions on Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, investing in Israel and strategic threats facing Israel.
He also led a workshop on black humor during the Holocaust, discussing how Israelis use black humor to get through some of the country’s darkest moments.
“I think that in the big picture, the fact that we have this country is not to be taken for granted,” he said. “It was created only with monumental efforts and such efforts are needed to ensure it exists in the future. We need to be able to stop and find the source of strength for continuing to be here,” he said.
In the former Soviet Union, religious identity was considered an ethnic or cultural affiliation more than a religious one.
Despite the perception that the majority of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union are anti-religious, surveys indicate otherwise, according to Zeev Chanin, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University with an expertise on Russian-speaking Jews in Israel and in the former Soviet Union.
Citing recent research, Chanin said the overwhelming majority of Russian-speaking Israelis define themselves as secular but have nothing against religion. About 25 percent see themselves as traditional when it comes to religious observance, he said.
The problem many have is with the Orthodox religious authorities, who control marriage, conversion and divorce procedures through the Israeli Rabbinate. Because as many as 250,000 Russian-speaking immigrants are not considered Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law, or halachah, immigrants from the former Soviet Union have a hard time dealing with Israeli rabbinical authorities, who suspect their religious credentials or reject them outright.
“There is a conflict with the traditional religious establishment and a sort of unwillingness to be labeled within the existing frameworks,” Chanin said. “But on the other hand, there is an interest in traditional roots and culture and Judaism in the broader meaning of the word.”
For a group that feels increasingly Israeli, some Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel still feel unaccepted when it comes to their Judaism. This sense was expressed at the Limmud event at a session on conversion for young soldiers who are studying about Judaism as part of an army program called Nativ.
“I feel like I’ve paid my entrance to the Jewish world,” said one of the soldiers at the session who immigrated to Israel at the age of 3 but said he was frustrated that he is still made to feel like an outsider.