God is not a regular guest at Limmud FSU events for Russian-speakers. Since its foundation six years ago he steps in, from time to time, when the audience listens to lectures connected to theology and metaphysics.
Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU, himself the scion of an Orthodox Jewish family, says that most Jews residing in the Former Soviet Union today are not religious. “They were born and raised in a strictly secular society where God was not invited: the number of observant Jews was very low but now it has started to grow.” Due to geopolitical changes and the emergence of various social movements, Russian Jews started joining in spiritual endeavors, and Limmud FSU is perceived to be among them.
Among those present at a Havdala ceremony (marking the close of the Sabbath) at Limmud FSU in Moscow, were dozens of young people who witnessed the ceremony for the first time in their lives. They saw the triple-wicked Havdala candle and smelled the spices. The service was conducted by Sasha Pyatigorsky, an ambitious young man, talented, and consciously Jewish, who was personal assistant to a local rabbi, and now heads the organizing committee of Limmud FSU in Moscow. More observant participants conducted an Orthodox Havdala ceremony of their own, under the protection of a Torah scroll, which was brought in from an outlying synagogue. It may be that God was present here…
As to the present Jewish population of Russia, there are no accurate numbers.
According to the Israeli demographer, Prof. Sergio Della-Pergola, there is a core group of 357,000 Jews in the country and another one million eligible for aliyah in accordance with the Israeli Law of Return (having at least one Jewish grandparent), although they are not Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish law).
The core group includes those who studied in Chabad institutions throughout Russia, and those whose families became religious and wished to return to their roots, as well as those who chose to become observant as did one Moscow dancer after visiting her first Limmud and who still attends every Limmud event, but now dresses more conservatively.
St. Petersburg as a Case Study
The changes that Russian Jews have undergone are evident at the St. Petersburg Great Choral Synagogue: a large picture of Jerusalem’s Western Wall hangs at the entrance to the building.
The picture is placed between two buildings: a synagogue, which was built by Baron David Ginsburg in December 1893 on the left and on the right, a Georgian synagogue, which used to be a hospital during the Soviet era, maintained by an Israeli family from Georgia. This synagogue, called Ohel Moshe, was named after the father of the family.
Rabbi Shaul Brook, of the St. Petersburg Synagogue, and the right hand of Rabbi Mendel Pevzner, Head of the St. Petersburg Jewish community says: “When I came here for the first time just before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Rabbi Pevzner was here with a few students and a handful of Jews who would come to the synagogue from time to time, although thousands would arrive for the High Holidays”.
According to unofficial statistics there are currently about 100,000 Jews in St. Petersburg. Rabbi Brook says, “Since the beginning of renovations in 1983 which were sponsored by the philanthropist Edmund Safra, the synagogue community has grown exponentially. The renovations were completed in 2003, and since then the number of Jews is constantly growing”.
Yoram Dori, a senior advisor to the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, says, “I can not describe the feeling on Yom Kippur, when the cantor Grigory Yakirson started reciting the Kol Nidrei prayer. It felt as if the gates of heaven had opened inviting hundreds and thousands of Jews to join in the prayer.”
At the end of the 19th century the synagogue served as a community center for Jewish doctors and businessmen who were not religious but rather perceived Judaism in its cultural context.
Those interested in the history of the synagogue, know that its last rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, lived on the premises and its first rabbi, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who openly supported the Tsar, was arrested on suspicion of treason and was held in the city’s Peter and Paul fortress. He was released after several weeks and was banned from leaving St. Petersburg, but was then granted “full liberty to proclaim his religious teachings,” by the Russian government. The synagogue remained open during the 900 day siege of Leningrad, from September 1941 to January 1943.
The synagogue has never stopped serving as a Jewish spiritual center. Rabbi Brook tells us that on the Simchat Torah celebrations in 1981, about 13,000 people arrived. “Do you realize what’s happening now? Once Jews would bring a kilo of flour to the synagogue in exchange for a kilo of matza before Passover, and that was their connection to Judaism. Later and slowly, the synagogue has become the lively, vibrant and strong center of Jewish life in the city.”
One of the main goals before Chabad activists is to bring back the erstwhile Jewish glory, and they are extremely active. Rabbi Zvi Pinsky, another local rabbi, told me that he had been invited by the Limmud FSU organizing committee to take part in the festival as a presenter. Although it was scheduled to begin on the eve of the Sukkot holiday and his presence was required at the synagogue, he decided to take part in the Festival. Limmud is perceived by both the secular and religious as a joint venture in which participation is desirable.
I see Limmud FSU as a huge Jewish tent which gathers in the Jews of the Former Soviet Union who are interested, on one hand, in social mobility and in Judaism on the other. It is a tent which unites various identities under one roof: both secular and religious Jews participate because they are excited by what Limmud can offer them.
To some extent, Limmud FSU is a shelter as described by Prof. Moshe Caspi. According to the professor, education is a system consisting of activities and ideas, combining various fields of knowledge, taking into account all the dimensions of personal development. In his book, “Education Tomorrow,” Caspi uses the term “construction” and claims that it is the process of constructing oneself anew; from the beginning the individual learns, self-develops and self-improves, thus becoming a more complete individual. The tools used in this method are not frontal classes, but rather personal experiences, drama, jokes and imaginative games – all of which activate the senses.
And this is the story of Limmud FSU – both with regard to Judaism, intellectual construction, and improvement of social status. Here, at Limmud, a youngster can listen to a lecture on Judaism or on how to succeed in life.
In this spirit, Sandra Cahn, a co-founder of Limmud FSU, who has inested her time and energy to the project from the beginning, spoke about how to succeed in business and philanthropy. Her lecture attracted dozens of participants who came to learn how to succeed in life. Sandra told her own personal story of ambition, that of a woman who fought for the freedom of Soviet Jews among other Jewish causes. She described her personal path to success, enthralling the participants who hung on every word.
Russian Jews are citizens who wish to be free, yet strive to reconnect to their sources, thus providing them with the spiritual strength to face the near and distant future. For them, Limmud FSU, is a pivotal event, which awakens consciousness that was asleep for years, and which has finally come to life through Limmud.
Natan Roee, St. Petersburg, September 2012