By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

Birobidzhan, Russia – Sept. 12, 2009 – This city was supposed to be the center of Jewish life in what was the Soviet Union, and for a few days in September, at least for some there, it was.

From throughout the Russian Far East they came, about 300 Russian Jews who gathered in this most historic of cities to celebrate and learn about Jewish heritage and history and culture and community, and to move forward as stronger and more engaged Jews.

The promise and energy of this two-day Limmud FSU event here was evident, in spirit and numbers and testimonials, in a place where, 75 years ago, the Soviet vision of a Jewish homeland within a socialist framework began, faltered and expired.

The event itself was Limmud FSU Far East, as the Limmud model of informal Jewish education and leadership development through volunteerism and social and religious engagement took root for the first time in the far reaches of Russia, seven time zones east of Moscow.

Participants from across generations noted that Limmud FSU was feeding an intense hunger for such engagement among Jews in this part of the country.

“I and so many of us just can’t live without talking about and exchanging ideas about Jewish life and history and traditions,” said 18-year-old Evelina Kaluzhner, who traveled from Khabarovsk, about 150 kilometers east of here along the Trans-Siberian railway line. “We are learning from each other and from presenters from America and Israel and other parts of Russia who have come here to be with us. This is meaningful, and especially to happen in Birobidzhan, important in Russian-Jewish history.”

The two-day conference included dozens of seminars, lectures and workshops, covering a wide range of topics designed to illuminate issues and educate Russian Jews in this region on their history, current affairs, the Jewish homeland, and Judaism.

At more than 60 sessions, participants delved into everything from Jewish prayer, feminism in Judaism, and Israel’s political situation, to Jews of the Russian Far East, architecture in Israel, Jewish cooking and Israeli films. And add to this everything in between.

By offering such a program, officials said, Limmud FSU not only engages this important population, but also prepares them with knowledge and perspective to take leadership roles and ensure community continuity.

“To be here in Birobidzhan is important and hugely symbolic considering the history here,” said Chaim Chesler, Limmud FSU founder. “We are touching, involving and educating Jews who have a deep desire to know about their community’s past and present and move forward equipped with knowledge to secure its future.”

Anna Nikolaeva, 26, who traveled from Khabarovsk and brought her 78-year-old grandmother with her, noted that Limmud FSU was filling a huge need for Jewish-related learning in a remote area.

“In the Russian Far East, we are so very far away from centers of thought and so it is hard and somewhat limited to be involved in Jewish life,” she said. “With this conference, the Jewish people who are not involved can understand what it means to be a Jew and learn how to do everything they can to be one. For me, my relatives never told me about my history, so I am very interested in it and here my knowledge and understanding is deepening.”

Katya Polyakova, 25, also from Khabarovsk, agreed.

“Since this is the first Limmud FSU event in the Russian Far East, I do know many of the people who are here, and presenters from different parts of the world are here with us and we can very easily in person speak to them about their ideas,” she said. “Being here, we can now take this knowledge with us and more seriously think about what it means to be Jewish and act on it.”

The remoteness of this area cannot be understated, as many of the participants and organizers noted. Although Birobidzhan is considered the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region, it is situated, by Soviet design, far from Russian centers of thought and learning.

The Jewish population is today measured in the hundreds, and although a synagogue and Jewish community center exist, and remnants of a more robust Jewish presence here remain on signs and statues and such, it is difficult for residents of the region to feel connected to a larger community.

“The Birobidzhan project failed from a Jewish point of view,” noted Viktoria Romanova, a professor of political history at Khabarovsk State University, who delivered a lecture on the Jewish history of Kharbin. “The Jews came, they saw, and they left, and so there was no success in developing a deep Jewish culture here.”

Which makes the presence of Limmud FSU here all the more valuable to the Jews here and from throughout the greater region, participants said time and time again.

“This may be the Jewish Autonomous District, but you don’t see anyone wearing kippot on the street,” said Alisa Zilbershteyn, 25, of Khabarovsk. “So it’s important for us to be here. I don’t want us to disappear, especially here in Russia, where that could happen.”

Like all Limmud FSU events, this one was built and organized by a group of local volunteers sensitive to the interests of the local Jewish population. Zilbershteyn was one of dozens of volunteers who gave time in the months leading up to and during the conference itself.

“I want to be involved in every Jewish organization that I can,” she said, “and to help in educating people about their history and Jewish identity. By being an organizing volunteer, I am learning how to do just that.”

Limmud FSU officials said it was by design to hold this event in Birobidzhan during the 75th anniversary year of the founding of the Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934, as the city marked the occasion with official concerts and festivals of its own.

“We are now part of the Jewish presence here, and we are strengthening it, and the Jewish culture and knowledge being shared here means we are replanting Jewish observance and culture in this remote yet significant place for the Jewish people,” Chesler said.