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How Limmud shines in the Russian dark

By Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, May 8, 2015

How bad is it? It’s the question everyone asks when you return from Russia these days. Thirty years on from witnessing thousands of Refuseniks gathered on the steps of Moscow’s Choral Synagogue, that question might be all that hasn’t changed.

Last week in this newspaper, Josh Glancy reported on “A Richer Community”, the Jewish Russians featured on the Sunday Times Rich List. But how is Jewish life faring in the country they left behind?

Last week, we participated in Moscow Limmud. In many ways, it was disconcertingly similar to what we’re used to. The reception desk looks the same, but with name labels in Russian Cyrillic.

The multi-generational crowd and the atmosphere around the bar at night also feel hospitably familiar. The sessions represented the eclectic merging of imaginations we have come to expect. But Moscow Limmud takes place against a very different backdrop to its British big brother.

Limmud UK revels in traditional British and Jewish values. In Moscow, democracy, open debate and progressive social values combine at Limmud in stark defiance of the political climate.

“People come because it’s one of the few arenas in Russia these days where you can hear speakers without a political agenda,” offered Lev Konstantinovskiy, a UK-based participant. This was a common sentiment: the more difficult it becomes to express liberal views in open debate in Russia, the greater the demand for spaces like Limmud.

Anton Nossik, a blogger who learnt Hebrew in the Soviet underground “from a guy who spent 10 years in a gulag” presented a bleak picture of internet freedom in Russia. He pointed out every byte of ”Russian data” must be held on servers based in Russia. Is it the regime’s aim to “cut the optic fibre that connects the internet with Europe and America,” he posed.

Despite these restrictions, the organisers were celebrating this year. Moscow Limmud, with around 1,500 participants, became the second largest Limmud conference in the world. What does this numerical success, combined with the pressures of Russian society, tell us about Jewish life in Russia?

First, a word of caution. One cannot make blanket statements about Russia. Even natives talk about the ”capital country of Moscow”, such is the difference between mentalities and bank balances found in the nation’s largest city, and outside it.

Away from Limmud, it’s the reaction of non-Jews that begins to tell you about Jewish life. One man had never even heard the Russian word for “rabbi” – a “Jewish priest” was the best translation on offer. Another was intrigued by the idea of westerners (us) and Jews coming together for a conference in Russia. It would be a meeting of “two of the least popular groups in Russia”. While meant in jest, the comment, like stereotypes, he explained, had some truth to it.

Most shocking of all was the revelation that a woman could be a rabbi. The socially progressive nature of that fact makes it surprising to Russians. In a society with clearly defined gender roles, a female religious leader is as powerful a message as it is disconcerting. Limmud is an oasis in all of this.

We were staggered by how controversial our sessions on women in Judaism, Muslim-Jewish relations and LGBT issues were. The basic and almost reactionary questions re-emphasised how different are the UK and Russia. The discussion of LGBT issues took place far from the main conference arena. Russia’s 2013 LGBT propaganda law dictates that “non-traditional sexual relationships” cannot be promoted in the presence of under-18s. Hold the session at 10.40pm and this won’t be a problem.

All of this makes Moscow Limmud yet more remarkable. In a conservative, staunchly Christian country exists a thriving, flourishing Limmud. This is more than just a reinforcement of Judaism’s proud tradition of debate. Judaism is “fashionable”, we were told, “particularly in Moscow” as it provides the open space for “a culture of education and science”.

Quietly, however, individuals talk of Jews leaving Russia for the UK, US and Israel. Nossik spoke alarmingly of the “brain drain” of individuals tired of their restricted life. Emigration may not be as prolific as it was in the 1990s, but the number of Jews in Russia is estimated to have fallen by around 100,000 between 2002 and 2010. “Many Jews, particularly progressive ones, are leaving,” explained Igor Zinkov, a trainee rabbi. “Thankfully, I think there are leaders emerging, capable of building a more positive future of coexistence.” Perhaps a growing Limmud movement can stem the tide of emigration.

Thankfully, too, despite tensions between our two countries, Limmud conference is one British export that has not yet been sanctioned.

The writer is Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism