An all-female musical ensemble calling themselves “Maidelach” (girls in Yiddish,) sung at the opening of Limmud FSU for Russian speakers which took place recently in Moscow. Dressed in a range of eclectic gear typical of young Russians today, they sung in Russian, Hebrew, English and Italian. This sense of informality is typical of Limmud FSU in general and especially among young Russians. It is especially acute as they wait impatiently for another Limmud to get underway.
Here in the resort center of Klyaz’ma, 15 kilometers outside Moscow, we encounter young Jews who see Limmud as a cultural haven from their day to day life. Yulia Shypkova is a typical example. She attended Limmud in Odessa and Moscow a year ago and was determined to come back. An accountant by profession, she arrived with a good friend in tow and they are thoroughly enjoying the presentations especially in mystics and sessions on achieving success in life. Anna Fokeeva, who came with a colleague from work is here for the first time “ because of all the good things I heard about it.”
The women were enthusiastic about the opening act at which many families with small children could be seen dancing in the aisles. Many of them are self-confessed Limmud addicts and never miss an opportunity to attend the conferences. At a packed session, a noted Russian economist, Mark Urnov analyzed the political and social situation in Russia, which led to a lively discussion with the audience. Among them was Ilya Birman, who is active in Russian politics and is a parliamentary assistant to the Chair of the State Duma – the Russian Parliament. “I see Limmud as excellent training for increasing my knowledge of those subjects that concern me,” she said.
Michael Podberezin is responsible for the European programming of “Ka’et”. He immigrated to Israel as a child and is now back here in Moscow meeting old friends and students. He says: “Because the annual Limmud FSU event is probably the largest intellectual and social event in the Jewish world of Moscow, the audience here is looking for ways of helping the Jewish community within the Russian community at large. “We are looking to extend help to young entrepreneurs to create lasting structures in various business fields,” he said.
The Jewish community here is undergoing a renaissance. At least 300,000 Jews (depending on how you count) live in Moscow and they are seeking ways of reconnecting to the Jewish heritage and culture. Global Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Agency have a great interest in Limmud as they see it as a crucible for increased Jewish community involvement.
I had met Anastasia Rosenberg before, when she participated in a cultural tour I had led in Jerusalem. She immigrated to Israel but is now back in Moscow looking for a job in the arts field after she failed to find something suitable in Israel. She tells me in excellent Hebrew, “The dream of moving to Israel does not affect my coming to Limmud here: especially to renew my connection with Russian Jews and its heritage and culture.” Like her, there are many others, including some who have left to live in Germany but are back here so as not to miss the Limmud experience.
The 1000 participants, who have paid a not inconsiderable sum to be at Limmud, moved from lecture to lecture, especially showing an interest in the condition of the Jews in Russia today, such as those by a leading Russian journalist, Nicolai Svanidze, or historian Leonid Gozman who discussed Russia since its foundation in the ninth century AD. Svanidze chose his words carefully in front of an audience of several hundred, explaining that the problem in Russia is the growth of nationalism that cannot be ignored. He also spoke about promises given by Vladimir Putin that have not been honored, such as political reform and the inauguration of a social television channel. “The economic situation has improved but corruption is rife.” Other popular if controversial speakers included Anton Nossik and Demian Kudryavtsev, who immigrated to Israel and have now returned to work in Russia. After and before the various sessions, the hot topic of conversation among the participants was “The Situation” – what is going to happen in Russia? What does the future hold in store for the Russian Jews?
Prof. Michael Chlenov, the president of the Vaad –the Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Russia. He is also a Member of the Presidium of the World Zionist Organization, and Secretary General of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress; more to the point, he was a cofounder of Limmud FSU six years ago, together with Chaim Chesler and Sandra Cahn. He tells me that one of the aims of the Vaad is to prevent any legislation which would endanger minority rights in Russia, including those of the Jews. He maintains that the present situation of the Jews is very good although no one knows what might happen in the future. He was most impressed by the program here that was put together solely by the Limmud Moscow volunteers. He especially singled out presenters such as Sergei Ryahovsky, a protestant bishop who spoke about the Crusaders of today, the well-known radical journalist Victor Shenderovitch and Yevgeniy Guntmacher who was close to the Russaian authorities in the 1990s and is now a prominent opposition member who choose as his topic “Does Russia have a Future?”, Alexei Simonov, son of the prominent Soviet poet Konstantin Simonov whose poems are known in Israel through the translations of Avraham Shlonsky, and the writer Linor Goralik, who lives in Israel but writes in Russian.
This interest in Jewish heritage and culture manifests itself in several ways here. One well-attended and interesting lecture was given by Eliezer Lesovoy on a comparison of the poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg to that of Yehuda Amichai; the second a secular Jew with deep Jewish roots and the first, the scion of a long line of hassidic rabbis – two names that convey far less to Russians than Pushkin and Lermontov. Even if the names were new to the audience, the session was, nevertheless, packed from wall to wall, with people listening in the corridor.
In response to a question, Chaim Chesler says, “I often ask myself why did I – a Jew born in Israel – become so involved, together with Sandra Cahn, Michael Chlenov and Matthew Bronfman, in the fate of Russian Jewry? My answer, I suppose, is a deep desire to see and help promote a feeling of Jewish identity and pride especially among young Russian Jews who are a vital and indispensable component of the worldwide Jewish family.”