CHISINAU (EJP)—400 young Jews from Moldova and Ukraine convened last weekend in the city of Chisinau, Moldova, for the first ever Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union) conference in the home to what was once a vibrant Jewish community.

The four-day conference of Jewish learning included over 40 lectures, presentations, cultural performances, workshops, excursions and round-table discussions, as well as a meeting with Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat.

Speaking at the launch of the event, Filat said: “I’m happy and proud that the government of Moldova decided to be part of Limmud FSU, a worldwide phenomenon. I consider this conference as the beginning of a substantial relationship between Moldova, Israel and the Jewish people.”

At the end of 19th century, 300,000 Jews were registered as living in Bessarabia, a remote province of the Russian empire now absorbed by modern-day Moldova. This grew to a 400,000 strong community at the start of the Second World War, following which the effects of the Holocaust and the Soviet administration pursuing an aggressively anti-Semitic agenda during four decades that also saw the assimilation of Jews and mass immigration to Israel, greatly reduced the community in numbers.

More than 60,000 Jews died during the Holocaust in Moldova, killed by the Nazis and on the orders of Romanian fascist wartime leader Ion Antonescu. Thousands of Jews emigrated to Israel after its formation in 1948, including Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was himself born in Chisinau.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jewish life begin to resurface in independent Moldova, with the establishment of communal organisations, and the country today claims a community of 22,000 Jews.

The launch of last week’s conference in Moldova was the product of seven years of planning by Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler, who approached prominent New York Jewish businessman Matthew Bronfman, whose family themselves originated from small-town Moldova, to come on board with the project.

“He told me that we would come to (his family’s former home of) Otaci and Soroca when the time was right and we would celebrate the roots of my family,” Bronfman revealed. He is now the chair of the international steering committee for Limmud FSU, which seeks to bring Jewish learning to the Jews of the former Soviet Union, the product of years of forced assimilation by the Soviet authorities.

Bronfman made the pilgrimage home to his ancestral birthplace as part of the Limmud conference, where he was awarded the title of honorary citizen by the mayor of Otaci. Speaking at the medal ceremony he said: “It is a unique honour for me to be able to come back to the birthplace of my grandfather and the home of my great-grandfather”.

According to Chesler: “The Limmud FSU conference in Chisinau is aimed to revolutionise pluralistic Jewish engagement of Jews and is making a great impact in strengthening Jewish identity through a unique educational experience of Jewish history and culture.”