When Chaim Chesler left his job as treasurer of the Jewish Agency five years ago following a power-struggle in which he was on the losing side, it brought his 28 years with the organization to an abrupt end.
Chersler bounced right back with an idea that had been brewing in his mind for a while.
“In 1995, when I was the head of the Jewish Agency in Russia, I was flown to London to take part in a Limmud conference, and I remember being in awe when I arrived,” he recalled in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. “I saw a beautiful voluntary organization dealing with Jewish education, and I thought immediately that this would be even better suited to Russian-speaking Jews.”
After leaving the Jewish Agency in 2005, Chesler adapted the British-hatched Limmud model of holding large educational conferences organized mostly by volunteers to the Russian-speaking Jewish world.
The first Limmud conference catering specially to Russian-speakers was held in March 2006 and there have been dozens since.
Now, four years since he embarked on his new enterprise, Limmud has become a fixture in the lives of many Russian-speaking Jews around the world. Each year thousands attend the seminars and retreats in places as far and wide as Birobidzhan, in the far east of Russia; New York, Moscow and Jerusalem. They touch on a myriad of Israeli and Jewish themes in fields like politics, music, literature and cuisine.
Starting on Wednesday, about 1,000 people including dignitaries such as President Shimon Peres, Canadian businessman and philanthropist Matthew Bronfman and a plethora of MKs, rabbis and musicians are expected to take part in the three-day 2010 Jerusalem Limmud Festival for Russian speakers, to be held at the Kiryat Moriah Educational Campus and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, both in Jerusalem.
The conference’s main theme will be honoring the accomplishments of Russian-speaking Noble laureates.
However, in the Limmud tradition there will be a wide array of lectures on different fields to choose from.
For instance, Israeli celebrity chef Gil Hovav will talk about Russian food; a panel of rabbis and lawmakers will discuss the explosive issue of conversion; and opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima will be interviewed by the Post’s own editor- in-chief David Horovitz.
None of the conference’s 200 lecturers are paid, Chesler said.
In addition, ticket sales pay for a significant part of the budget.
The rest of the money is provided by 25 organizations and philanthropists, with Bronfman the biggest private donor, Chesler said.
Leonid Ptashka is an example of the kind of person who regularly attends the Russian-speaking Limmud conferences.
An award-winning Israeli pianist born in Baku, Azerbaijan, who made aliya in 1990, he has taken part in four Limmud conferences so far and will give a concert at the conference this week.
“What I like about Limmud is its focus on Israeli pride,” Ptashka said over the weekend.
“In Russia there are many Jews who live much like I lived when I was there. I knew what Israel was, but it was always far away. Being Jewish and being Israeli are two separate things and what’s important to me is to reach out to these places in Russia, Ukraine or the US.”
Limmud will hold its next conference in New York from August 13 to 16. Chesler has promised to produce an interesting lineup with the hope of drawing members of the city’s large Russian-speaking Jewish community.
Looking back at the organization he left after 28 years of service, Chesler has only kind things to say about the Jewish Agency, its new boss and his decision to deemphasize immigration to Israel in favor of building Jewish identity.
“I’m very happy [Natan] Sharansky has been chosen, because he’s an educative and moral role model,” Chesler said. “I hope that in the future we can work together to bring Jewish education to the forefront.”
As for himself, Chesler seems to have landed on his feet, if there was ever any doubt.
“When I left the agency I decided it’s about time to fulfill a dream,” he said. “And I knew then that bringing Limmud to Russian-speaking Jews was what I wanted to do.”