Having been to a great many Limmud events in the UK, Israel and Argentina, I was delighted to attend Limmud Odessa earlier this month both for the event itself and also to be in this city rich with Jewish history and culture. I was not disappointed by either. In fact I can honestly say that Limmud Odessa was nothing short of a pilgrimage for me.
I will start with Odessa. Having been a Jewish history student for 25 years, I had a very strong mental map of how Odessa fits in. Achad Ha’am, Haim Bialik, Shalom Aleichem, Shimon Dubnow, Meir Dizengoff and Jabotinsky (among many others) lived in Odessa and were an integral part of its culture. Their influence on both Israel and the Jewish people worldwide has been massive and it was a tremendous feeling to visit their houses and courtyard and imagine them writing, walking and arguing about the great Jewish debate of whether the Jewish future would be ‘doh’ (here) in Russia/Ukraine or ‘dortn’ (there) in Palestine or America.
Walking in Odessa one is immediately struck by how major boulevards are similar to those in Tel Aviv. The legendary mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff lived in Odessa and one can imagine how he and others saw the city as a blueprint for the first Hebrew city that was established in 1909.
However wonderful it was to walk in Odessa, it was surpassed by the Limmud event. This was my first Limmud in the FSU and my first chance in over 20 years to talk with young Jews who have made the choice not to move to Israel or the US, but to stay and build their lives and local Jewish communities in the CIS. I taught a class in the opening hour and had no idea what to expect. Over 40 people crammed into a room to study about Moses’ identity crisis in English with a Russian translation. After the session, at least half the group stayed behind to discuss their own Jewish identity issues in the Ukrainian/Russian context.
And so it went on for three days. I had countless conversations with young Russian speaking Jews in both English and Hebrew about Limmud, Israel and Judaism. The thirst and enthusiasm is self-evident. I saw young people who are proud of their Jewish heritage but concerned about the gaps in their Jewish education. I encountered a fascination with Israel and a connection made deep and relevant by their friends and family who live there. I did not discover a big desire to make Aliya. In this way, young Odessa Jews are just like their peers around the Jewish world.
Limmud suits this environment. It does not seek to push an agenda. It provides a framework to debate, discuss and engage. It also enabled a group of young volunteers to be more than participants. They became to owners and creators of a rich Jewish experience in their own city. We felt their pride and they merit the accolades received.
I am thrilled with Melitz’s educational partnership with Limmud FSU and very grateful to the ASSOCIATED Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore for helping fund Limmud Odessa.
Michael Wegier is the Executive Director of Melitz, the educational partner of Limmud FSU.