More than 40 Russian-speaking leaders of Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union) from Russia, Ukraine, USA, Belarus, Moldova, and Israel participated in a four-day conference which took place in Jerusalem from 14-18 December, 2011.
The international Limmud movement, founded in Great Britain 32 years ago, has become one of the most successful and important educational enterprises in the Jewish world. Pluralistic, egalitarian, non-political and volunteer-based, Limmud events take place in more than 60 countries across the globe. Limmud FSU for Russian speakers was founded six years ago and thousands of young people have taken part in its conferences and festivals.
The founders of Limmud FSU, Chaim Chesler and Sandra Cahn, had been hoping for a long time to organize a Limmud FSU summit for the worldwide leadership, the goals of which would be professional training, team building and joint study. This year, thanks to the support and sponsorship of the UJA-Federation of New York, it took place in Jerusalem from 14-18 December.
Among the specially-invited guest speakers were Clive Lawton, a distinguished educator and one of the founders of Limmud in Britain and today its senior consultant, and Carolyn Bogush, the Organizational Chair of Limmud International. A series of professional training master-classes and workshops were held on various aspects of topics such as the use of the Internet for organizational purposes, data base management, public relations and publicity, quality as the cornerstone of successful Limmud presentations, fundraising and working with volunteers. As a part of team building the participants took part in various discussions on peer-learning and strategic planning for future Limmud FSU events.
In addition to the learning program, the group held a series of meetings with several key individuals which gave them an opportunity for question and answer sessions in an open and frank atmosphere.
Among the individuals they met was the Minister of Information and Diaspora Affairs, Yuli Edelstein, himself an immigrant from the Former Soviet Union, who was refused permission to immigrate to Israel from 1979 to 1984 and was imprisoned for three of those years on a trumped-up drugs charge, in a labor camp near Lake Baikal in Siberia. He was born in Chernovtsi, Ukraine, which was also the birth place of the writers Yitzhak Manger, Paul Celan and the historian Zvi Jabetz. Edelstein’s father converted to Christianity and became a monk in the Russian Orthodox church. Edelstein applied to study languages but because of his outspoken political views he was expelled from college. Eventually released from prison, he immigrated to Israel in 1987. He was elected to the Knesset in 1996, where he serves today as a member of the Likud party.
Edelstein explained his ministry’s attitude to hasbara (information) and spoke about the sometimes complex relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. He explained his ministry’s approach to hasbara among Jewish communities, and referred to the controversial campaign in the United States which aimed at persuading Israeli families to return home. In response to a question, he told the audience that there was a preference for hasbara to be carried out by people active in the field rather than by government representatives. Members of the group expressed satisfaction that they were able to share thoughts with the minister in an informal and direct contact.
Edelstein has attended several Limmud FSU conferences in the past, including that in Beersheba in May 2011 when he was delighted to have the opportunity of speaking with the Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who was the first person to walk in space and the American Jewish astronaut, Garret Reisman.
The next Limmud FSU conference to be held in the United States is scheduled for May 2012 in Princeton University and will celebrate the life and work of Professor Albert Einstein. Einstein left Germany in 1933 after the rise of the Nazis to power, and made his home in Princeton where he worked until his death in 1955. Summit participants were enthralled by a fascinating talk given by Professor Hanoch Gutfreund of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. A Prof. Gutfreund is director of the Hebrew University Einstein Center and is the University’s appointee responsible for Albert Einstein’s intellectual property.
Gutfreund told the audience that Einstein was probably the most influential scientist of the modern era. As a pre-eminent physicist, he radically transformed our understanding of the universe. As an ardent humanist he took an active and outspoken stance on the significant political and social issues of the time. As a committed Jew (although he had refused to have a Bar Mitzva), he advocated a distinctive moral role for the Jewish people. Throughout his life, Einstein felt a close affinity with his fellow Jews. He defined Judaism as a culture with a shared historical past and common ethical values rather than as an institutionalised religion. For him the main values of Judaism were intellectual aspirations and the pursuit of social justice. Like Spinoza, he did not believe in a personal god but that the divine reveals itself in the physical world. Einstein supported the creation of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. However he stipulated that any solution of the Arab-Jewish conflict had to be based on mutual understanding and consent. Einstein was one of the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his unique relationship to the University found lasting expression in his bequest of his literary estate and personal papers to the University. To facilitate editorial work, the papers were transferred from Einstein’s home to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 1982, all the personal papers were transferred to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem.
Gutfreund told the rapt audience that after the death of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel in 1952, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion decided to offer the position of president of the state to Einstein. Yitzhak Navon, who was at the time, secretary to Ben Gurion (and was himself to become fifth president of the state) recalled in his memoirs that Ben Gurion told him, “I have to offer the position to Einstein but what will we do if he accepts?…”
Prof. Gutfreund has held the Andre Aisenstadt Chair in theoretical physics since 1985. He previously held various academic and administrative positions at the University – head of the Physics Institute, head of the Advanced Studies Institute, rector and president of the university. He was among the initiators and founders of the Center for Neural Computation. Gutfreund received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1966 from the Hebrew University.
Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency is no stranger either to Limmud FSU or its co-founder, Chaim Chesler. Sharansky told the group that he had first met Chesler when he landed in Israel. Chesler was then director-general of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry which was one of the the main activist organizations in support of the refuseniks’ attempts to leave the Soviet Union. Sharansky himself was denied an exit visa to Israel in 1973. The reason given was that he had been given access, at some point in his career, to information vital to Soviet national security and could not now be allowed to leave. After that Sharansky became a human rights activist and spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group and English-Russian interpreter for Andrei Sakharov. Sharansky was one of the founders of the Refusenik movement in Moscow. In 1977 he was arrested on charges of treason and spying for the United States and sentenced to 13 years of forced labor in Perm 35, a Siberian labor camp. As a result of an international campaign led by his wife, Avital, he was released in 1986 and immediately immigrated to Israel.
Sharansky explained the major organizational changes that are taking place within the Jewish Agency, with the emphasis being placed more and more on Jewish education, peoplehood and identity, as well as his particular vision for Jewish education for Russian-speaking Jews. He expressed the hope that he would be able to attend the next Limmud FSU USA which will be taking place at Princeton University in honor of Albert Einstein (see above).
In his talk to the participants in the Limmud FSU summit Rabbi Dr. Julius Berman, chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, explained the source of funds from which the Claims Conference makes allocations to welfare and education projects. He noted that when East and West Germany wished to reunify in 1990, the two countries required permission from the four Allied powers, the USA, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France. “We pressured the US government to ensure that with reunification, East Germany, which had never restituted Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis, would be required to do so. “The Germans did their work very well,” he said, “so that the owners, and even the heirs of many properties, were no longer alive. The Claims Conference, acting as the Successor Organization, reclaims these properties and uses the money for humanitarian aid to Holocaust survivors and education on the Holocaust.
“We want to make sure that history can never be rewritten,” explained Berman, “and that at no time in the future can people say that the Holocaust did not take place. So we place an emphasis on teacher training, so that fully knowledgeable and highly-trained formal and informal educators, can teach future generations about historical truth and reality and what actually took place during those dark years.” The Claims Conference is one of the major financial supporters of Limmud FSU.
Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, vice-president of the Conference for Material Claims against Germany, was previously Chief Chaplain of the Israel Navy, a member of Knesset and Chief Rabbi of Romania. Today Rabbi Hacohen is associated with the Sapir Center in the old City of Jerusalem, part of the Yeshivat Harova, a study center of Judaism for women. He has participated in several Limmud FSU conferences. At a meeting at the Sapir Center, he spoke to the Summit participants about “The State of Israel and the State of Religion – can and should they be separated?” He addressed the question as to whether Church and State can indeed be separated in Israel and posited that this cannot be entirely done because within the confines of Judaism one cannot differentiate between religion and nationhood.
He expressed himself as being extremely concerned about the growing wave of religious intolerance in this country, as evidenced by the recent incidents of harassment of women, trying to impose separate seating on buses and even in public areas, spitting at foreign priests, etc. “We have never known such a period of extremism and intolerance by religion and religious leaders. When someone tries to force you to act in a certain way, it is natural to rebel against it.” On the issue of conversion, he expressed the opinion that it takes more a year’s course to learn about in Judaism – “Personally, each day I am learning anew,” he said. At the same time, he called for supporting every attempt to make the process of conversion easier and more appealing. “While in theory I would love people to enjoy Shabbat in the way that I do, I realise that this is unrealistic and we must accept that everyone is or is not observant in the way they choose. Israel as a nation must learn to be more tolerant of the other, more open-minded, and must strenuously reject every manifestation of intolerance and extremism.”
In an abrupt change of pace, the Summit participants enjoyed a talk by the noted Israeli short-short story writer and playright, Etgar Keret. Forty-four year-old Keret was born in Ramat Gan, to parents who survived the Holocaust. He lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, Shira Geffen, sister of the teaches creative writing at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and film at Tel Aviv University. His first book was Pipelines, a collection of short stories which was largely ignored when it was published. His second book, Missing Kissinger), a collection of 50 ultra-short stories, immediately hit a chord with the public – especially the younger hip generation for his compact, almost staccato everyday language, replete with slang, dialect and army jargon. His work has influenced many younger writers and has led to a renewed surge in popularity for the short story genre in Israel. Since then his stories and plays have appeared in profuse succession, have been made into films and translated into several languages – including Russian. Keret has worked in television, including writing for a wildly popular satirical series, The Cameri Quintet. Together with his wife Shira, he directed the 2007 film Jellyfish, based on a story written by her. He has received several national and international awards, including the Prime Minister’s award for Literature and the Ministry of Culture’s Cinema Prize. In 2006, he was chosen as an outstanding artist of the prestigious Israel Cultural Excellence Foundation and in 2010, he was appointed a Chevalier of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Keret expressed the hope that he would be able to participate in a future Limmud FSU event. He told the Summit participants that he considered himself to be very much a “Jewish writer,” and that he felt close to the Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Keret’s family roots are in Baranovichi (Branowitz) a Polish stetl in what was then the Jewish Pale of Settlement and is now in Belarus. Soon after the beginning of World War II the town was occupied by the Soviet Union. The local Jewish population of 9,000 was joined by some 3,000 Jewish refugees from the Polish areas occupied by Germany. After the start of Operation Barbarossa, the town was seized by the Wehrmacht on June 25, 1941. In August a ghetto was set up in the town. Between March 4 and December 14, 1942, the entire Jewish population of 9,000 souls (some 30 percent of the total population) was deported to German concentration camps and killed in the gas chambers. Only about 250 people survived the war. Chaim Chesler said that Limmud FSU would be happy to hold a future conference in Branowitz, which had been a typical Jewish stetl with a large number of Slonim hassidim.
In addition to the packed program of lectures, workshops and discussion groups, the participants also spent some time getting acquainted with Israel’s cultural scene during a literary excursion in Tel-Aviv, walking through the first neighborhoods of Jerusalem built outside the city walls, seeing a play in the “Nalaga`at” Center for the deaf and blind, attending exhibitions, visiting the renovated Hurvah synagogue in the Old City and dancing to the tunes of the “Groovatron” band.
At the close of the Summit, Clive Lawton and Carolyn Bogush said how impressed they had been by the group and the discussions. “We are proud to see the change that Limmud FSU has made to Jewish identity and education among young Russian-speaking Jews and we look forward to deepening even more the bonds between Limmud International and Limmud FSU.”