By Asher Weill
If anyone was in doubt that there is a resurgence of Jewish life in the Former Soviet Union, they would certainly have thought otherwise had they spent a few hours in the occasionally exhausting but often exhilarating atmosphere of the Limmud FSU Conference in Moscow that came to a triumphant conclusion recently. The Russian organizing committee was headed by Alexander Pyatigorskiy, Chair of Limmud Moscow, who declared at the opening ceremony that “this is the largest of all Limmud FSU meetings to date and it has attracted the elite of potential lecturers and presenters from Russia.”
Nearly 600 young Jews from Moscow and other parts of Russia had gathered together in the Polyana, a large rather forbidding resort hotel that, in a previous life, had been a vacation getaway for members of the Communist nomenclatura and their families, for three intensive and packed days of learning, participating and socializing with like-minded Russian-speaking people. And if one of the unwritten motives was to find a soul mate, then that in itself would have justified the event. As it was, the range of topics that participants could choose from was enormous. At any one time, from 9.00 breakfast to three or four in the morning on the dance floor, Limmudniks were so busy that the major problem was deciding what session to attend.
At any given moment, there were as many as eight sessions taking place simultaneously, most of them presented (on a purely volunteer basis) by members of the local Jewish community – whether academics or teachers, businessmen, artists, writers or musicians – or just plain enthusiasts. Well-attended sessions included social topics such as Jewish orphanages in Russia, how philanthropy in Russia works, anti-Semitism, rituals of the Jewish life cycle; the future of Jewish theater, meetings with writers, Israeli dance;, Yiddish – does it have a future in Russia?; or for the political enthusiasts, the influence of terrorism on Russian nationalism; the impact of Russian immigrants on Soviet society; Russia-Israel relations, and, of course, the Arab-Israel conflict. A lively panel on the role of Jewish journalism today included one of Russia’s iconic television presenters, Lev Novozhenov, Yelena Lagutina from Israel Television’s popular Channel 9 Russian program, together with other leading Russian and Israeli journalists.
The locals were amply supported by a phalanx of Israeli Limmud enthusiasts, including the prominent journalists Eitan Haber from Yediot Aharonot, Yaron Deckel, one of television and Israel radio’s top political reporters, Shaul Mayzels, presenter of a popular television program on the Jewish world, Maj.Gen. Elazar Stern, former head of manpower of the IDF, Dr Tsvia Walden, a psycholinguist developing literacy programs based on Jewish texts (and not incidentally, the daughter of President Shimon Peres), Micha Yinon, former director of the Culture Authority of the Ministry of Culture, Anna Azari, Israel’s ambassador to the Russian Federation and Dalia Rabin, former Knesset member and daughter of Yitzhak Rabin
One of the theme’s of this Limmud Conference was that of Jewish Nobel prizewinners originating in Russia and Israel. At the opening ceremony, Tsvia Walden and Dalia Rabin spoke about their fathers, as did two of the aides closely associated with them, Eitan Haber, head of Yitzhak Rabin’s bureau and Yoram Dori, senior advisor to the president. They were joined by Herzl Makov, Director of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center who spoke about Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Begin, Rabin and Peres are all Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Video messages to Limmud were also received from two other Nobel laureates, Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1981, and Eli Wiesel, Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986. Eilat Leiber, the director of Agnon House in Jerusalem, the house in which Shmuel Yosef Agnon who won Israel’s first Nobel Prize – for Literature – in 1966 spoke about the contribution of Agnon to world and Israeli letters.
Limmud – founded in England 30 years ago – has grown exponentially and now takes place in many parts of the world in English and other languages. In 2006, Limmud FSU was founded by Chaim Chesler, who had been head of the Aliya Delegation to the FSU and treasurer of the Jewish Agency, together with Sandy Cahn of New York (who has just become the first non-Russian to be honored by CJECO, the Council of Jewish Émigré Communities,) and Michael Chlenov, president of Vaad – the Federation of Jewish Organizations of Russia. The role of Limmud FSU is to bring the Jewish learning experience and a heightened sense of Jewish identity to Russian-speaking Jews wherever they may live. In 2008, at a meeting with Chesler, Matthew Bronfman, chief stakeholder in the Discount Bank and owner of the IKEA chain in Israel, became enthused with the concept of Limmud in the Former Soviet Union and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation has become a major supporter. Bronfman is chair of the Limmud International Steering Committee and was a keynote speaker at the opening ceremony in Moscow.
Limmud FSU Conferences have now been held four times in Moscow, as well as in Yalta, Odessa, Birobidjan in the Russian Far-East, Truskavets, near Lvov in Ukraine, in Jerusalem and Ashkelon and in New York. This year, additional conferences are planned for Jerusalem and Odessa, Ukraine and on 22 August, for the second time, a one-day “Taste of Limmud” will take place at the Westhampton Synagogue, Long Island, New York (additional details of this event can be had from the coordinator, Karina Polonskaya at firstname.lastname@example.org).
One participant from Moscow, 26 year-old Julia Fidelgots says, “Limmud is a very special event where you feel a deep sense of Jewish community. I’m here for a second time, first time as a participant, and now as a volunteer on the organizing committee, because I enjoy being among people like me!”
A midnight study group, Truskvets, Ukraine
US-Russian Summit of Top Philanthropists in the Jewish World
on the eve of the opening of Limmud Moscow 2010, at a meeting to discuss ways and means for increasing informal Jewish education for young Russian-speaking Jews throughout the FSU.
l to r: Chaim Chesler, chair and founder of Limmud FSU;Mikhail Fridman, Chair of the Alfa Bank and the Genesis Philanthropy Group; Matthew Bronfman, Chair, Limmud FSU Steering Committee.