On an early spring weekend, over 900 Millennium generation “plus” Jews of Russian heritage gathered for the Sixth Annual Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union) New York Region Conference held in Parsippany, New Jersey. The intense, three-day “learning experience” explored Judaism through a packed agenda of lectures, discussions, debates, round-table forums, cultural presentations and religious experiences.
The conference program, according to Limmud FSU co-founder Sandra Cahn, included “topics of substance on Judaism, Israel Holocaust remembrance, and a wide range of cultural events. Some sessions were presented in Russian, others in English.
Matthew Bronfman is Chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee since 2007. In his warm and emotional welcome to the 2015 conference attendees, he discussed Jewish identity, saying “people are anxious to reconnect with their roots. This is a wonderful thing,” and noting that the 2015 conference “is the largest Limmud event ever to take place in the United States.” Looking to the future, Bronfman predicted “beating this attendance record again next year.”
A cadre of Jewish and Russian Jewish leaders filled the program including UJA CEO Erik Goldstein, and writer Victor Senderovitch. Topics ranged from media to minyanim, touching on many aspects of culture and lifestyle. From Yitzhak “Izzy” Tapoochi, Chairman, Israel Bonds, to the Ha’aretz newspaper journalist, Chemi Shalev, to ADL Director Abraham Foxman, subjects mirrored the real-life concerns and interests of the attendees. Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler discussed the Holocaust and the American Conference for Material Claims—the “Claims Conference”—work to secure reparations from the German government. He noted that 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Founded thirty-five years ago, Limmud FSU is a volunteer -driven, pluralistic, social and educational organization. It has gained strength throughout the Russian-speaking Jewish world. In America, its virtual “god parents” are Chiam Chessler and Cahn. “Limmud,” says Cahn, is “that special link joining Russian Jews everywhere to countless others, transcending the purely personal quest and enlarging the community.” Of the 1.7 million Jews in the Metropolitan New York area, about 300,000 have Russian heritage.
Limmud’s “target audience” is the young, often unaffiliated, Russian Jewish population. Conference attendees ranged in age from the very young (there were over 160 children) to teens (most under -18 participants are American born, often non Russian-speaking) and the 25 – 40 members (many Russian born and juggling three languages).
In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Link, Cahn spoke about the organization’s extraordinary growth. From its first nucleus in Moscow, the organization has grown into 12 regions with branches in Russia (Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Far Eastern and Volga Regions), the Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Canada, Australia, Israel, and the United States (New York and Los Angeles). “Even in Belarus, there is Jewish life!” says Cahn. There are a million Jews still in the FSU.
Limmud maintains a cooperative relationship with RAJE – the Russian American Jewish Experience – Cojeco, Hillel, the JCC’s and other local community organizations. “It’s a partnership relationship,” says Cahn. “We promote each other. Limmud is a bridge, a framework on which unaffiliated young Jews can build Jewish connections. Its goal is to deepen Jewish identity and help connect Jews to their Jewish roots and to the State of Israel. The organization provides opportunities for Jews of Russian background to find, understand, and participate in their Judaism and Jewish heritage. Conferences are held once a year in each of 10 geographic regions. Russian-speaking or culturally Russian Jewish young adults (25-40) comprise the majority of the membership.
Conference participants had an opportunity to view the Yad V’ Shem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem exhibit “Private Tolkatchev at the Gates of Hell,” the art of Zinovii Tolkatchev, a Red Army soldier and a witness to the liberation of Auschwitz. Israel Izzy Tapoochi, CEO of Israel Bonds, expressed his hope that Limmud members would “be moved and influenced by the educational and ethical message conveyed in the paintings.”
A standing-room-only audience heard Ha’aretz senior columnist Chemi Shalev analyze the recent Knesset election. “Most of the Israeli media opposes Netanyahu.” He said Yisrael HaYom, Israel Today, the Sheldon Adelson backed paper, is the notable exception. Shalev concluded that “much of the media are at pains not to annoy (Netanyahu),” though he believed “the overwhelming majority of the press had hoped (BiBi) would lose the election.” Shalev considers that Netanyahu’s election eve fear mongering about Arab voters was “total hysteria.” He criticized the “Zionist Camp” saying its “campaign was too Ashkenazi” and lacked a “sufficiently powerful leader.”
“Limmud FSU,” says Cahn, “is an open platform for Jewish learning.” Prior to co-founding Limmud, she was Chair of UJA’s Business and Professional Women’s Division, and executive director of two medical research foundations. She now volunteers for Limmud “all the time.” Limmud serves the pluralistic Jewish community. Cahn notes that “three minyans are common at a Limmud event, beginners to Orthodox. Whereever one is on his or her Jewish journey, they have a place at Limmud!”
By Maxine Dovere