Former Soviet Union Jews convene for their first major West Coast conference
For one weekend at the Westin Pasadena hotel in the Los Angeles area, hallway conversations were conducted mostly in Russian and Hebrew, with English taking a back seat from Jan. 29-31.
The weekend marked the inaugural convention on the West Coast for Limmud FSU, an organization dedicated to sparking a cultural renaissance among Jews who trace their roots back to the former Soviet Union.
“There’s no America without coming to the West Coast,” said Chaim Chesler, the organization’s founder. “To cover the united states you have to start with the east and go to the west.”
The group has held half a dozen conferences on the East Coast, as well as in Israel and several European countries, including several in the Former Soviet Union.
In most of the countries where the group operates, Jewish populations have been depleted by decades of emigration. But for its 10th anniversary conference—Chesler founded the organization in 2006—the group chose the second-largest Jewish population center outside of Israel.
Gathering at the first Limmud FSU West Coast conference are, from left to right: Limmud FSU Chair Matthew Bronfman, Limmud FSU Founder Chaim Chesler, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, Rabbi Marc Schneier, and Limmud FSU Co-Founder Sandra Cahn. Credit: Anya Kernes.
The 700-person convention sold out two months beforehand, Chesler said, drawing Russian Jews from across California. Extra rooms were booked at the Hilton to accommodate additional attendees, and a 100-person waitlist remained at the time of the convention.
“It’s not because we are so good, but we are servicing a need: Russian Jews, graduates of Taglit [Birthright Israel] and Masa [Israel Journey], to keep them connected to Israel and keep them connected to their roots, with a Russian flavor,” he said.
Sessions in both English and Russian spanned nine rooms and covered topics from film and culture to love and sex. One session, “Holy Pleasure: Shabbat as the Intersection of Spirituality and Sexuality,” discussed how Judaism “consciously and deliberately affirms physical pleasure;” it was led by the white-haired Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who led the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Hillel Center for Jewish Life on Campus for four decades.
For an organization used to holding Jewish conferences in places with diminished Jewish populations—Ukraine and Belarus, for instance—the Los Angeles conference was unique in that it brought together some of the most influential voices in the Jewish world.
“We have the leadership of the World Jewry and American Jewry recognizing the work we did [over the last 10 years],” Chesler said.
Presenters included Natan Sharansky, the former Israeli government minister and current chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Eric Fingerhut, the president of the Jewish student organization Hillel international, which operates on 550 college campuses.
Among the local Jewish dignitaries was Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Sanderson said the Federation has been working on engaging “micro-communities” such as Russian Jews, while being mindful of their unique history.
“Getting those groups and individuals within those groups to become part of the larger Jewish community continues to be an ongoing priority for the Federation and a bit of a challenge—specifically the Russian community,” he said. “Look, we’re all our own narrative.”
So when Limmud FSU approached the Federation to help host the conference, it fit perfectly with his organization’s outreach effort.
“It seemed like a natural extension of our programming and our engagement efforts,” he said.
Los Angeles Jewish Federation employee Sasha Zlobina wore a pin with the slogan “Ask me about RuJuLA”—a local network of young Russian Jews she organizes that helped plan the conference.
She said the event was one of a kind: the largest gathering of Russian Jews she has ever attended in Los Angeles.
“I cannot be more proud of my friends and peers who helped organize this,” she said.
Lectures and panels ranged across the pertinent topics in the contemporary Jewish world. But on Saturday morning, one word in particular buzzed through the hallways and garden patio: Sharansky.
Few people embodied the day’s intersecting cultural narratives—Jewish, Zionist, Soviet—more than Natan Sharnasky, who helped lead the mass migration of Jews to Israel from the Soviet Union and spent nine years in prisons and gulags there before being elected to Knesset and holding multiple cabinet posts.
Sharansky took the opportunity to laud a forthcoming Knesset compromise (which by Sunday was official announced) that he helped broker over the administration of the Western Wall, which will allow for the first time a Reform and Conservative Jewish presence at the site.
“I do hope that it will become also a precedent for dealing with many other questions of dat v’medina, state and religion, which really are dividing big parts of Israelis and of Jews,” he told a packed morning session.
In the afternoon, he spoke on a panel about the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement Israel alongside Sanderson, Fingerhut, and members of Knesset from both the governing coalition and the opposition.
Later, hip-hop music executive Russell Simmons discussed black-Jewish relations with Rabbi Marc Schneier, who is prominently involved in interracial and interfaith dialogue efforts in America.
White-haired and bespectacled, the energetic Chesler was the animating spirit of the conference. Charging around in a pinstripe suit, he shepherded speakers to their talks, made introductions and shouted remarks and questions from the front rows of sessions.
Chesler founded Limmud FSU after serving for five years as the head of the Jewish Agency for the former Soviet Union, overseeing the emigration of 350,000 Jews to Israel, and later as the agency’s treasurer.
“I said, ‘This is my task in life, not now to represent the establishment, but to represent the opposite of the establishment, the non-establishment, the energy that exists, and that’s why I created Limmud FSU,” he said.
Mara Khaimov, a volunteer and organizer, was born in Azerbaijan before moving to Israel for a few years and then to Los Angeles. She first attended a Limmud FSU session two years ago in New York with a group of West Coasters.
“We saw how people are connected, the environment, how incredible it is just being there,” she said.
They decided to bring the conference to Los Angeles, then picked a venue and date.
The cost of the conference was mostly covered by participants and volunteers drove much of the action, writing out name tags and directing guests.
“You’re tired at the end of the day, but it’s a great feeling,” Khaimov said.