From left, Gene Rachmansky, a UJA-Federation Board member , David Roitman, director of EZRA-USA, Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ and Sam Kliger, director of Russian Jewish Community Affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
by Walter Ruby
Special To The Jewish Week
Inna Gorn, a 23-year-old who immigrated to Riverdale from the Siberian city of Tomsk at the age of 6, doesn’t normally hang out in synagogues. Yet she spent the entire day last Sunday at the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach with nearly 400 other Russian-speaking Jews in their 20s and 30s attending a program called “A Taste of Limmud, Celebrating 150 Years of Sholem Aleichem.” She said she found the juxtaposition of the setting and the content of the event to be “refreshing.”
“It feels appropriate to me that this exploration of Russian-Jewish identity takes place in a synagogue, but at an event that was much more cultural than religious,” Gorn explained about the first-ever Limmud event geared specifically to young Russian-speaking American Jews. It was defined by its organizers as “a unique day of education, community-building, networking and entertainment.”
Gorn explained, “I attended a session on kashrut, but the speaker put no pressure on any of us to keep kosher. Rather, we learned that much of what we think of as Russian Jewish food in fact has its roots in the Middle East. So for me this event is about learning and celebrating our common Jewishness.”
For Inna’s twin sister, Rika Gorn, who, unlike her sister, rarely socializes with Russian-speaking contemporaries, the appeal of the program was “reconnecting with my Russian roots.”
She said she lives in “a totally American environment, and I speak much better English than I do Russian. Yet as soon as I got here and began talking to people, I realized I had forgotten how much I enjoy hanging out with other Russian Jews of my generation. We went through so many of the same experiences that we can intuitively feel each other.”
The range of topics at the daylong event included the nuclear threat of Iran, the impact of the Madoff scandal on Jewish philanthropy and the history of Jewish gangsters in early 20th-century Odessa.
A highlight for many was an appearance by Bel Kaufman, the 98-year-old Odessa-born and Russian-speaking granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem and author of the popular 1960s novel, “Up The Down Staircase.” Speaking in a commanding voice, she delivered a mesmerizing rumination on her famous grandfather and her own life that seemed to unite the lost world of Tevye the Milkman, the 20th-century American Jewish experience and the wave of Russian Jews who arrived in New York almost a century after her grandfather and herself. “He was devoted to Yiddishkeit and loved the sound of laughter,” she said. “He was not really an author like Tolstoy or Dickens, but rather like a close friend of the great Jewish family.”
Sandy Cahn and Chaim Chesler, founders and organizers of Limmud-FSU, first brought the model of the international Limmud movement— informal conferences of pluralistic and volunteer-driven Jewish learning — to the Jews of the FSU in 2006. Over the past three years, Cahn and Chesler, former top leaders of UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Agency for Israel, respectively, have helped launch Limmud FSU conferences not only in major cities like Moscow, but in Minsk, Vilnius and the Ukrainian resort city of Yalta as well. In 2008, Limmud FSU held a successful conference in Ashkelon, giving Israeli Russian-speakers a chance to express their own perspective. With A Taste of Limmud in Westhampton Beach, Limmud-FSU has now succeeded in reaching members of the third-largest community of Russian-speaking Jews in the world: the more than 300,000-plus living in greater New York, and as many as a million spread across the United States.
“We feel like we are now on the threshold of creating a global Russian Jewish community,” said Cahn, who praised the approximately 40 young Russian-speaking volunteers who spent months helping to plan the event. One of those volunteers was Liz Mirovich, a 19-year-old Boston University student, who is serving as an intern this summer in the Russian Jewish Affairs department at the American Jewish Committee. She said she was “appalled” to see how many of her American-born Jewish peers at school were “totally apathetic” about their Jewishness. “So it really revs my engines to see this big and enthusiastic turnout of Russian Jews at Limmud,” saying it offers evidence that they “don’t want to lose the connection with their roots.”
Roman Shmulenson, executive director of the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, said the event was “a breakthrough” because for the first time it brought the grass-roots work of those in the Russian Jewish community here “onto the radar of the American Jewish community.”
He noted that Russians did the bulk of the organizing, with much of the funding coming from Russian Jewish philanthropists. “This event makes clear that the Russian Jews are here as equals, not as clients or needy immigrants.”