The organizers of the biggest informal educational conference in the former Soviet Union states, which wrapped up on Thursday, are amazed with the success and scale of an operation that has seen more than 1,000 people from across the FSU learn about a broad range of subjects of Jewish interest.
Over the four days of the Limmud FSU conference, over 13,000 kosher meals were served, 8,000 sausages eaten and 24,000 bottles of mineral water consumed. The Yalta, a 2,000-bed mega-hotel, taken over by the event. The lobby was full of participants between lectures, using laptop computers, updating profiles on Facebook, swapping stories and socializing.
Many participants had little to do with Jewish life back home.
The kosher food came from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine’s third largest city situated 600 km. north of Yalta. With it came seven kashrut supervisors recruited from the Chabad community in Dnepropetrovsk, who had the arduous task of koshering the hotel’s kitchen in 24 hours.
“One of the principles of Limmud is to have a Jewish program and kosher food, it’s very simple,” said Galina Rybnikova, project manager for Limmud FSU.
The Jewish Agency was integral to the operation – responsible for all the technical and electronic equipment, flights, buses and cars for lecturers. This included buying and transporting 5,000 plates, cups and bowls from Kiev.
“Our lives are very intense and deal with the urgent and not the [merely] important. Limmud is an amazing opportunity to stop time and do the important things – connect to Judaism and Israel,” said Bilana Shakhar, head of the Jewish Agency in Kiev.
Also vital to the success of Limmud FSU was the army of volunteers.
Julia Belilovskaya from Kiev has been a volunteer for a year.
“The first time I came to Limmud in 1999 in London, I saw how this huge machine works. I was really shocked when I saw young people with walkie-talkies and checking if every thing was working and in order. Then I saw a person around 60 years old cleaning tables who was clearly a volunteer – this really impressed me. When I heard about Limmud FSU I knew it could not work without volunteers, thus I got involved as a volunteer,” Belilovskaya said.
Other logistic challenges included getting participants to lecture halls on time. With most lecture rooms on the 16th floor and only five elevators, it was like rush hour in the London underground.
Limmud FSU was a great success. More than 170 sessions were offered by 150 presenters, and all organized by a committee of 20. This added to logistical problems as they were in different parts of the FSU.
One of the most important panels was the Program Committee, in charge of fixing the entire content for the conference. The committee was made up of Dima Maryasis from Moscow and 11 volunteers, from Odessa, Kharkov, Minsk, Kiev and Lugansk; the distances between them were huge.
“We never dreamed that Limmud FSU would be such an outstanding success,” said Andrew Gilbert, chairman of Limmud International. “This spectacular gathering of over 1,000 people means that Limmud FSU is now a firm and established part of the Limmud international family.”
In another testimony to the success of Limmud FSU, organizers ended up having to reject hundreds of applicants.
“The main difficulty was how to refuse people, as we ended up with more people than places,” said Galina Rybnikova, Limmud’s project manager. “It was very serious problem for us. In the end we had to ask them why it was important for them to attend Limmud and we chose the best responses.”
With Thursday set aside for a summary and feedback session, much was crammed into Wednesday. The morning included an art session, making Shabbat candle sticks; a look into how Israel went from poverty to become an economic power; and Jewish genealogy as found in the archives of the former Soviet Union. Singer Neshama Carlebach gave an insight into the musical journey of her father, the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, while Ukrainian historians looked into the Ukrainian national movement and the Jews during World War II.
The afternoon session kicked off with lectures on the role of women in Judaism; the Jewish religion through the eyes of Christianity; and a look at the remaining Jewish community in the Crimea.
The ideology and doctrines of Israel’s political parties seemed a very apt topic at this time, and a lecture on the paradoxes of the artist Marc Chagall, and an in-depth look at Jewish cinema were some of the other choices.
A grand finale concert on Wednesday night by Neshama Carlebach went into the night, with participants dancing and singing in the aisles.
Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud, shared future plans for Limmud FSU with The Jerusalem Post.
“The next Limmud will be called Limmud Chagall and we will concentrate on the art and culture in the FSU and the Jewish influence in both. It will be held in Vitebsk, southern Belarus, the birthplace of Marc Chagall, next June, and will be sponsored by the Jewish Museum in New York, Jewish Museum in Paris, the Israel Museum and the Chagall Museum in Vitebsk.
“Next October’s Limmud FSU will be called Limmud Shalom Aleichem to commemorate 150 years since the birth of the best-known Jewish writer and will held in Odessa, where [Haim Nahman] Bialik, [Ze'ev] Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, [Simon] Dubnov, [Meir] Dizengoff, and [Isaac] Babel came from. We will also be bringing the grand-daughter of Shalom Aleichem as our guest.”