Just a few days ago at the highly successful Jerusalem Post Conference in New York, Matthew Bronfman, Dr Nona Kuchina & Moshe Shneerson on behalf of Limmud FSU were honored to receive the Post’s award for their contribution to strengthening Jewish identity from the paper’s editor Steve Linde.
Apparently the success of Limmud FSU struck a spark with The Jerusalem Post readers. The Limmud educational phenomenon that began in Britain nearly 32 years ago is well-known. This intensive 5-6 day intensive learning experience attracts over 2,500 participants who immerse themselves in a packed program of lectures, workshops, discussion groups, poetry and book readings, music and the arts. The program has been so successful that it has been exported from Britain all over the world, and today Limmud activities take place in some 60 countries in almost as many languages.
As Secretary-General of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, the Jewish Agency’s senior aliyah emissary to the United States and then the Soviet Union, the chair of the Jewish Agency Aliya and Absorption Committee, and then Treasurer of the Jewish Agency (from1999 to 2002), I became intimately involved with the plight of Soviet Jews. Six years ago, together with Sandra Cahn from New York and Prof. Michael Chlenov, President of the Va’ad - the Federation of Jewish Organizations in Russia and Secretary-General of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, and by agreement with Limmud in the United Kingdom, I founded Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union) specifically to reach out to the tens of thousands of young Russian-speaking Jews still in the countries of the FSU. We discovered an enormous and unsatisfied thirst for Jewish knowledge among young people who, after 70 years of Communist rule, knew virtually nothing of their own heritage, culture and national identity. From the first tentative Limmud FSU in Moscow in October 2006, which attracted 700 participants, we have now held events in Yalta, Kiev, Vinnitsa and Odessa in Ukraine, in St. Petersburg and Birobidzhan, in addition to an annual event in Moscow in Russia, and we are now planning conferences in Moldova and Belarus.
On a visit to a major Limmud event in New York, Sandra Cahn and I were astonished to see that virtually no young immigrants from the former Soviet Union were taking part. On enquiry, they made it clear to us that even if they knew English well, they would really prefer to hear the lectures in Russian and on topics that are specially relevant to them, as well as to have the opportunity to be able to mingle with other young people like themselves – for social as much as for study reasons. Moreover, it was important for them to create and lead by themselves a framework for their Jewish education To respond to these special needs, we launched the first annual Limmud FSU USA in New York in 2009, which attracted more than 400 participants. In the same way, Limmud FSU Israel conferences have taken place in Ashkelon, Jerusalem and Beersheba which together attracted some 3,000 Russian-speaking young Israelis. We now have our eyes on other possible conferences in Canada and Australia as well as new venues in the former Soviet Union.
So what is so special about Limmud in general and Limmud FSU in particular? In the first place, it is a volunteer-led organization. There is no central body that determines curricula, chooses program, or hires speakers. This is all done in every case, whether in Moscow, Odessa or Jerusalem, by local enthusiastic volunteers who build and run every stage of the event, and are entirely responsible for its nature and character. Second, Limmud is completely pluralistic, liberal, free of ideology or religious or political trends. Third, no one is compelled to attend any particular lecture or presentation. Everyone is free to choose from the wide program offered – one person may choose to attend morning prayers (Orthodox or Reform) or enjoy a morning yoga class instead, attend a lecture on the Talmud and then join the audience for a talk on Jewish humor, the Arab-Israel conflict, the art of Jewish paper-cuts, and watch a film on a Jewish theme or learn Israeli dances in an evening workshop. Limmud FSU conferences attract the best of speakers – leading academic figures, politicians from every side of the spectrum, writers and poets, historians and sociologists, soldiers and farmers, rabbis and scholars, musicians and entertainers, and all of them appearing without remuneration.
The concept of volunteering for no tangible reward except for the intrinsic cultural satisfaction is new for Jews from the former Soviet Union but they have accepted the principle as a duck takes to water. Everyone pays a participation fee and this is one of the sources of income which allows the conferences to take place. Nevertheless, without the help and support of several generous funders and donors, the conferences could not be mounted. Prominent among these is Matthew Bronfman, who serves as Chair of the International Steering Committee. Other leading sources of funds include the Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish-American Joint Distribution Committee, the United Jewish Federation of New York – all these in addition to several major private donors, prominent among them being Dr Nona International and Diane Wohl of New York and several foundations including the Pincus Fund, Nativ and the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, many of whom have a particular interest or connection with former Soviet Jewry.
What is abundantly clear is that there is an enormous thirst for Jewish knowledge and awareness among Russian speakers – whether in Moscow, Kiev, Jerusalem or New York, among a generation that knew not Joseph. Limmud FSU has provided a tap from which the wealth of Jewish knowledge can be drunk.
Chaim Chesler is co-chair and founder of Limmud FSU. More details can be found on their websitewww.limmudfsu.org