September 13, 2011
I like knowing that people are paying close attention to what I write in my column. Some of you have recently emailed me, noting that in the last year I have rarely written while sitting in one of my favorite locations—cruising in an airplane at an altitude of 35,000 feet.
So I’m happy to report that my doctors say I have fully recovered from my cardiac incident last Rosh Hashanah; they’ve given me the green light to resume a much more active travel schedule. And I’ve followed their instructions; consequently, I wrote this column 35,000 feet up in the sky while flying back to New York after spending 48 hours on the ground in St. Petersburg, Russia.
I began my visit in Pushkin, a municipal town in Pushkinsky District on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, attending and speaking on behalf of JDC at a memorial service commemorating the start of the 900-day siege of St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) by the Nazis 70 years ago. The key speaker was an 88-year-old Hesed client who lived through the siege. She spoke in Russian about the lack of basic human needs during the siege and the fact that several million Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the city died from disease, lack of food, or the continuous artillery attacks. After the ceremony I went over to the woman with a translator to chat. She surprised me by telling me she spoke Russian, German, and English. And then she surprised me again by thanking JDC for establishing the Hesed movement, for she said that without her local Hesed, she would not be here today.
I subsequently made a home visit to an elderly Jewish woman served by Hesed. Joining me on the visit were the Israeli Minister of Absorption, Israel’s Ambassador to Russia, and the Israeli Consul in St. Petersburg.
This woman has lived more than 50 years in the same 200-square-foot apartment. She shared her life story with us, including the fact that the Soviet authorities had killed her father for anti-Communist activities and that today she has no living relatives anywhere. Like that elderly woman at the ceremony in Pushkin, she thanked JDC for establishing Hesed, which she asserts meets all her needs.
I’ve made many home visits to FSU elderly. And yet, the people I meet never cease to amaze and re-energize me. It’s always a wakeup call—a loud alarm that reminds me that we truly are a global Jewish family. And as a family, we must never forget our obligation to these elderly members.
But the primary purpose of my visit was to attend Limmud FSU, which was held September 8-10 in a modest hotel just outside St. Petersburg.
Over the past five years, the global Limmud network has managed to bring many thousands of young participants around the world to its conferences, which provide opportunities for Jewish learning and touch on Jewish themes and issues. An estimated 13,000 people have attended Limmud conferences held in places as far apart as Moscow, Kiev, Jerusalem, and New York City.
Limmud in the FSU is precisely what the FSU’s Jewish adults need—a supportive framework that will meet them wherever they are in their relatively new Jewish journeys and help them further explore the rich world of their heritage.
For this Limmud conference near St. Petersburg, the organizers had reserved hotel space for 400 participants. Registration filled up within ten days and many people were turned away for lack of space. Participants paid $70 each to take part in the two-day retreat and hear the likes of foodie Gil Hovav talk about Israeli cuisine and journalist Ben-Dror Yemini analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, there were more than 50 separate sessions, covering such topics as conversion and its problems, new initiatives for Jewish charities, and even a session on Kabbalah. Perhaps more importantly, participants came to meet each other and, in truth, the people attending primarily represented the next generation of Jewish leadership.
People were attentive, eager to learn, and they asked good questions. JDC has supported these Limmud programs from their beginning years ago. These events are a pleasure to behold, and I truly believe they will lead to new and emerging leadership across the former Soviet Union.
It is now almost 20 years since the official dissolution of the Soviet Union. Irv and I can affirm that in that period JDC has planted the seeds of a vibrant Jewish life. Now we are seeing local Jews deliver the fruits of our work. And that’s a reward that was only a dream when we first set foot again in the Soviet Union in January 1988.
Until next time,