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Answering with a Question

Every year hundreds of young Jewish Russians gather together for four days – not just to enjoy themselves, not to pray, but to consider questions concerning their Jewish identity. They set their own content; the establishment stays outside. The new face of Russian Jewry

Maya Bengal, Moscow

Welcome to Moscow. Full of action yet traffic-snarled. Anyone not stuck in the traffic can live through it. That was our reception in the city as guests of “Limmud Moscow,” an exciting project and the baby of Chaim Chesler, who for five years was the representative of the Jewish Agency in Russia. We got off the plane and crawled through traffic for three hours; under different circumstances, it would have been possible to traverse the distance in half an hour. “That’s just routine” smiled our hosts. “Internally we are moving ceaselessly and asking endless questions, while around us everything is at a standstill.”

Funny yet sad, I thought to myself. In Israel we are stuck both internally and externally – the same frustrations, the same occupied territories, the same people in power, the same rabbinate, the same corruption, the same problems. Few questions are asked and there is a feeling that there is nowhere to go, that we are not moving. But in Moscow, in order to be a Jew you have to ask questions. Many questions and not just about Judaism. Judaism here is not a religious issue but a world in itself and the Limmud project gives young Jewish people a focused and exciting platform to do just that – to search for their identity as Jews. The process is more important than the result; the hundreds of young people who thronged to the Polyany health resort, previously a holiday village for members of the Communist nomenclatura, are not willing for someone else to dictate to them the nature of their Jewishness. They do it for themselves, and the establishment stays outside the gates. Why? Because they have no one answer. They are not searching for a rigid framework that will define their identity. They want to open up the issue in depth and expand it in all directions.

Our Nobel

Judaism here is not just Orthodox, Reform or Conservative, but it is also not just secular. It is both that and that and that. “In the US, for example the process is over,” explains Dima Zicer, an educationalist and one of the project volunteers. “The difference between us and American Judaism is that here we are still watching the process, while in the US there is already a result. Here we are considering all the time ‘who is a Jew.’ In the States that has already been decided. In the US everything is clear; here we are still in the midst of questions and answers.”

And indeed, with these young Russian Jews, it is the process itself that gives meaning to their search for their Jewish identity. That is the reason why they are not prepared to reach one single bottom-line conclusion, but rather to have several possible answers at one and the same time or even to come to the conclusion that there is no answer. “I am a Jew not because my mother or grandmother were Jews, or because my great-grandfather was an important rabbi, but because I ask questions,” says Dr. Zicer. “In other words, the search itself is the reality. I pose questions: that is the indication that I am Jewish.”

The Israeli delegation was joined by Dalia Rabin and Zvia Walden (the daughters of…), very much in their own right, who had come to Moscow to represent Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, both of whom were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This year’s Limmud conference was held on the theme of Jewish and Israeli Nobel prize winners, of whom there are more than a few. According to Wikipedia, up to 2009, people of Jewish origin accounted for 176 winners out of the 804 laureates, a statistic which represents 21.9 percent of all the prize winners – approximately one hundred percent more than the proportion of Jews within the world’s population.

Several of the young participants lived in Israel for different periods of time, but most of them have returned to Russia. The heart ached to see these wonderful intellectual people in Moscow and not in Israel. Why did they return and why did they not integrate into Israeli life where they could have contributed so much? It would seem to Dr Walden that in addition to cultural differences, the Limmud conference is evidence of one clear and painful answer: “One of the difficulties is that in Israel, Judaism and the establishment go hand-in-hand and what is even worse, Judaism goes hand-in-hand with politics. So it is that people in the establishment and politics determine the nature of Judaism and exploit it. However, Judaism is by nature pluralistic and springs from below. In order to understand Judaism, you must study the sources by yourself and not through intermediaries.”

Walden continues, “Something extraordinary is happening here. Young people are taking their fate into their own hands and are making their own decisions about themselves as Jews. They are doing this by themselves and without the establishment. The wide range of subjects with which they are dealing here are ones that concern young people in general: birth and child-rearing, the seven days of creation, ceremonies of Jewish life passage, Jewish history, theater, literature. The lectures and the workshops in Limmud cover all these and much more.”

Walden was thrilled by the encounter with the participants. “They say, ‘we are tired of the analysis and the arguments of the establishment. We want to discover by ourselves the meaning of being a Jew.’”

Religious, Lesbians and Beer

Even in Israel the concept of being a Jew is not self-evident to all. For many Russian-speaking Israelis, this is still a painful issue. The Israeli establishment and at its head, the monopoly of the Rabbinate over marriage, divorce and burial, does not welcome all would-be guests into the fold. “The establishment, which, on the face of it has the role of protecting Judaism, is actually causing it the most damage,” explains Walden. It causes people to reject Judaism because of its inability to show true tolerance to different versions. It discourages those who would like to be involved. Here (at Limmud) there are people who genuinely wish to learn. The reality of being Jewish is not blindly accepting the religious texts but to preserve – a process that can be accomplished through learning. Preservation of Jewish identity is not the same as preservation of the Jewish religion; rather, it is the preservation of the culture, the tradition and the heritage.”

And indeed, the hundreds of people who come to the Limmud conference each year await it with great anticipation. The event is not just held for the purpose of “brothers seated together,” but is full of solid content. More than 600 (sic) young people, with many older people among them, came to participate in absorbing lecturers given by Israeli and Jewish-Russian intellectuals. Israel as a topic is situated only on the margins. The audience does not need Israel to define their Judaism. They can do that for themselves. Judaism for everyone. A new, young and effervescent Russian Judaism. For Jews in the way they wish it to be. Everything is open: there are glatt secular Jews, orthodox, homosexuals and lesbians, as well as those who choose to spend most of the time in the hotel lobby with a bottle of beer. But within each and every one of them is a Jewish spark that absorbs them. The options of breathing life into Judaism through established means – synagogue, Jewish summer camps, the Taglit or MASA programs – attracts them less. They have come here in order to probe. And if there was nothing here to probe, they would not have come.

“Only a small percentage of them are interested in immigrating to Israel,” explains Jenya Malkina, the director of Limmud FSU and the only person who receives a salary. All the tens of others who helped to mount the project this year, did so on a purely volunteer basis. Malkina, who immigrated to Israel ten years ago, explains why she did not find her place in the Jewish state. “Israel did not give me the intellectual stimulus for which I was searching.” But in Limmud she flourishes. She and her colleagues send a battery of emails one to the other in which they determine what to include in the program. No one interferes in establishing the criteria.

Chesler is convinced that this is the Limmud secret.” Many people attempted to decipher the Russian code but did not succeed. We succeeded. Had we dictated to them what to do and what to learn, we would have failed. The reason for success is that we don’t interfere. There is no one single body that donates to us or dictates the content. This world is theirs only. The fact that there is not one dominant donor and that the participants themselves cover 50 percent of the costs, and that no buses come from Dimona, means that there is no power of veto on the content.”

Cookery Workshops and Herzl

The millionaire and successful businessman Matthew Bronfman, who is a generous donor to Limmud and helps in raising funds from other sources, gives Chesler unconditional encouragement and backing. “Turbo. Energizer, The guy with chutzpa. A man rich in life and stories. A mover of mountains. There is not a gram of cynicism only a ton of Zionism within him. I wish there were many more like him, but there aren’t.” These are just a few of the sobriquets that have stuck to him with affection. Chesler approached Bronfman and placed his plans on the table. Bronfman, who had never met him before, said, “Here is 10,000 dollars. If you succeed in what you are planning, I am with you all the way. But you should know that with me there is no room for even one manipulation.” Chesler succeeded. Bronfman kept his promise and the rest is history.

Limmud has become a stronghold for the elite of Jewish intellectualism. “We broke many existing frameworks,” says Malkina.” Participants pay from $150 to $600 for a room. We have many sponsors who support us but we invite the speakers we want and not those that the Joint (Distribution Committee) or some other body in Jerusalem would suggest. There are speakers here whom we would never have dreamed that we could get four years ago, and now they are all here – without our paying them a cent.” “We ask what interest us our friends and our parents, and not what interests the establishment,” Dima Maryasis, one of the more prominent volunteers sums up. “There are people here for whom their only contact with the Jewish community is Limmud.”
Roman Kogan, who recently joined the volunteer staff (sic), is convinced that the reason such people come is because of the element of choice. “The concept is in the lack of concept. Here we can study whatever we want and not that of the establishment.” And indeed we can find in the program cooking classes, lectures on the heritage of Herzl, modern Russian poetry, music, Talmud and even natural childbirth and child rearing. Judaism is the divine spirit hovering over it all

So as to fully comprehend that I was surrounded by young intellectuals, I circulated among the tables during breakfast. Together with a Russian girl who acted as my translator from Russian to Hebrew. I heard with my own ears what the young participants were talking about – and it was not the latest TV show or a shopping spree. They were conducting lively conversations on literature, Jewish philosophy; they were arguing about lectures they had attended; they were scribbling reading lists which they collected during the lectures on scraps of paper.

“Here in Russia it is important for us to understand theater, read books, to appreciate music, Jenya Malkina sums up. “Is this unique to Jews or is it a characteristic of Russian culture?” I asked. “Jews in Russia are intellectuals. In the Russian-Jewish family if a son or daughter doers not attend university, it is seen as a tragedy. There is no such thing as a child not going to university.”

Translation: Asher Weill