A Record Number of Attendees Explore and Connect to Jewish Identity
Figures from Philanthropy, Education, Science, Jewish Organizations and Government Join Attendees in Second Limmud FSU in New York
Westhampton Beach, NY – Aug. 15, 2010 – Roman Sidler, a young Ukrainian native living in Brighton Beach, came to the East End of Long Island on Sunday to find even more connection to his Russian-Jewish community than he could find in his own neighborhood, at least on this day.
“I am trying to find something real here,” said the 26-year-old, who came to the United States just over a decade ago and now works in an engineering firm. “There can be a lot to separate Jews. I am here to find what unites us. Everyone here comes from all over the area, and all over the world, and all of us have different stories and different backgrounds. But we are all Russian-speaking and Jewish and we want to connect with what we have in common and explore that.”
Sidler, was one of a record 800 young Russian-speaking Jewish Americans who gathered in force here on Sunday at Limmud FSU New York to collectively explore their Jewish identities, renew friendships, form connections, develop leadership skills and enhance community engagement.
The event was the second Limmud FSU gathering ever in the United States, and participants from throughout the New York area and beyond exchanged ideas, thoughts and perspectives with more than 100 educators, lecturers and expert panelists at nearly 65 sessions covering a wide variety of subjects, from the movement to delegitimize Israel to American-Israeli relations, and from Jewish cooking and Russian-Jewish poetry, to Muslim-Jewish relations and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Among the presenters were prominent philanthropists, Russian, American and Israeli scholars and educators, communal leaders, American officials and high-ranking Israeli ministers and government representatives who joined participants at formal panels and informal gatherings as they explored their backgrounds and futures as engaged and active members and leaders in the Jewish community.
“The fact that we nearly doubled the participation from last year tells you how successful this program is,” said Matthew Bronfman of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and Limmud FSU’s International Steering Committee chairman. “It is successful because we are pluralistic. Everyone’s Jewish journey is personal. We try to supply and provide a forum for everyone to connect in some way and in a way that motivates participants to engage for life and to become leaders in their communities.”
The one-day event, which took place on the grounds of The Hampton Synagogue here and was hosted by Rabbi Marc Schneier, was inspired by Limmud FSU’s 2010 theme celebrating the lives, accomplishments and contributions of Russian-born Jews awarded the Nobel Prize.
The opening session featured Dr. Zvia Peres Valdan of Ben-Gurion University, daughter of Shimon Peres, the president of Israel and 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner. And Herzl Makov, director-general of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, represented the former prime minister who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978.
Among the nearly 100 presenters were a variety of well-known and accomplished figures from Russia, Israel and the United States, a majority of them Russian-born. Among them were Leonid Blechman, a founder of Channel Nine, a Russian-language television station in Israel; Israeli singer and actress Marina Maximilian Blumin; Yaron Deckel, a leading broadcast journalist in Israel; professional Russian boxer and rabbinical student Yuri Foreman; David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee; Daniel Hershkowitz, Israeli minister of science and technology; Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Seva Kaplan, one of the most popular Russian-born radio hosts in the United States; Shlomi Kofman, deputy consul general of the State of Israel in New York; Diana Kogan, program officer at the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany; Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York; Roman Polonsky, senior advisor to Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel; American astronaut Garrett Reisman; John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York; Michael Schneider, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress; and, Amir Shaviv, assistant executive vice president for the Joint Distribution Committee.
In a keynote speech that earned sustained applause and a standing ovation, Reisman, a native of New Jersey and the first Jewish astronaut to travel to the International Space Station, described his indoctrination into the Russian community, cross-cultural understanding and scientific cooperation offered by the space program and his particular experiences in the space shuttle program, on the space station and as a spacewalker. He returned from his last voyage three months ago.
“I had no idea that it would involve strengthening my ties and learning a great deal about the people of Russia as well as the people of Israel,” he said, describing his interactions with Russian and Israeli science and space officials. “That was something unforeseen and a very, very welcome addition to my trip to space.”
He described how he called Israeli President Shimon Peres from space during the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state to send greetings and congratulations. And he told tales of living with a family in Russia in order to learn the language before his interactions with Russian cosmonauts.
The vast amount of subject areas offered in one day and the record turnout reflects the growing popularity and strength of Limmud FSU, officials said.
“The young Russian-Jewish community has the energy to look inwards and explore their identity and Jewish roots and share it with the mainstream Jewish community,” said Chaim Chesler, Limmud FSU founder. “Every fourth Jewish-American in the New York area is from Russia and they are happy to give their energy and talent to the entire Jewish community and that is why we are so successful.”
“We are a growing movement across five countries,” said Sandra Cahn, co-founder of Limmud FSU, citing the United States, Israel, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. “Wherever there is a Limmud FSU event, I see increasing numbers and connections being made for lifetimes of Jewish engagement and leadership. These young people are looking to be active and involved in a Jewish way, and we are filling a void for them to be part of the mainstream Jewish community yet at the same time maintain their very individual and special heritage. It is wonderful to see the dream of Limmud FSU develop so successfully in our first five years.”
An organizing committee comprised of nearly 50 young adult Jewish volunteers from the Russian-American community designed the program and all aspects of the day, from logistics to entertainment, underscoring a key value of the Limmud movement, volunteerism. Co-chairing the event was Yigal Kotler and Fiona Kuchina, both young Russian Jewish-Americans who live in New York City.
The event attracted young Russian Jews from beyond the New York City area, including about two dozen from Philadelphia who had heard the buzz.
“This is a tremendous event,” said Dmitriy Moverguz, 30, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia who now lives in Philadelphia. “I have a strong Russian cultural identity and the combination of many Russian speakers helps me to be in touch with this identity and to experience the Jewishness within me. It is who I am. I am an immigrant here in the United States and we face questions of how we grow within our identity as Russian Jews and this helps us to see there are others like us on the same journey.”
Limmud FSU brings together and empowers young Russian-speaking Jewish adults who are reviving and revitalizing Jewish community and culture and restoring and maintaining the tradition of lifelong Jewish learning and a strong Jewish identity. Dynamic events, seminars, lectures, workshops and discussions focus on an enormous range of topics from social and political trends within Jewish communities and around the world to Israeli politics; from dilemmas to Jewish cooking; from traditional texts to Jewish theatre. This successful and unique model of informal Jewish learning in a pluralistic setting, combined with volunteerism, networking, empowerment and leadership development, is ensuring a vibrant and sustainable Jewish future.