Bundled in their warmest winter wear at a snow-covered, pine tree-lined hamlet some 60 km. outside St. Petersburg, Russia’s culture capital, hundreds of young Jewish professionals gathered at a hotel here to attend the region’s latest November Limmud FSU conference.
Despite the frigid minus 13° weather, and a two-year hiatus from St. Petersburg, a record 650 participants from as far away as Israel, Moscow, Siberia and Belarus paid out of pocket to attend the three-day event featuring well-known speakers across a breadth of fields.
Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) was founded 10 years ago by Chaim Chesler of Israel and Sandra Cahn of New York, to reconnect young Russian- speaking Jews from countries in Eastern Europe, and around the world, to Judaism following the fall of Communism.
“St. Petersburg has one of the most vibrant and flourishing Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, with a rich cultural life, and we are thrilled to be part of it,” said Chesler. “We are so proud to have held our fifth conference in St. Petersburg, bringing together the largest crowd we have seen.”
Ksenia Abramova, a 25-year-old psychologist from Moscow, who has volunteered for Limmud FSU for the past four years, described the conference series as “one of the best Jewish projects in the world.”
“The first Limmud I went to was in Moscow five years ago, when I was a student, and it was really amazing,” she said. “I loved that there were so many people and lectures that everyone can take part in. There’s a lot of freedom here, so you can participate or sleep in your room, but there’s always a lot of learning.”
While Abramova said she is not an observant Jew, she described Limmud as an opportunity to immerse herself in a history once obscured by Communism.
“I usually go to lectures about the Holocaust, because it is a very important thing and is so deep that you can learn about it your whole life,” she said. “I also love lectures about Israel, which I love very much, and is my favorite country.”
Tatiana Pashaeva, who made aliya from Moscow in January and now works for Limmud full-time, described the series as “mind blowing.”
“My friend invited me to a Limmud in Moscow seven years ago, and I said ‘why not?’” she recalled. “And when I came there it blew my mind.”
Pashaeva said she was most taken by the large number of participants who paid to attend the conference.
“In the Soviet Union in the ’90s, if you were a Jew, everyone paid for you to come to Jewish programs, and here people are paying us,” she said.
Asked why she thinks this is so, Pashaeva cited the program’s unique appeal.
“People want to come because it is a change of scene, and it’s different than all the other Jewish programs,” she said.
“It’s creative, you can network, you can study, and it’s in a fun atmosphere.
Some people don’t even go to any lectures and just come to meet people, but the lectures are also excellent.”
Pashaeva said she most enjoys lectures about Shabbat and Kabbala.
“Everyone can find something for themselves, whether you are religious or not religious,” she said.
PARTICIPANT VIERA Danchenko, a screenwriter and film director born in Belarus and now living in St. Petersburg, said this is her first Limmud.
“I just like the atmosphere,” Danchenko said following a lecture on Jewish history. “Everyone is laughing and connecting, and although I’m not religious, I feel comfortable here.”
Ilona Galembo, 26, a biologist and Jewish leader from St. Petersburg, also said this was her first Limmud.
“I heard about it from my family and friends in Israel, who said it’s really, really cool, and that there’s going to be a lot of lectures and new people to meet,” she said. “And I like that there are lectures about Jewish issues, children – anything you want.”
Mentioning that she did not have a formal Jewish upbringing, Galembo added that Limmud, Birthright and Hillel have recently provided her with a powerful introduction to Judaism.
“I hadn’t had a lot of Jewish culture in my life until I went on Birthright to Israel a couple years ago, and after that Limmud has been a great extension to my introduction to Jewish history.”
Meanwhile, Limmud FSU veteran Maria Toropova, 26, a Moscow-based brand consultant, describes the conferences as a “reunion.”
“This is a place where we can feel reunited as a community that has people in different cities,” she said. “So, I can see my friends in Tel Aviv or other parts of Russia and the former Soviet Union.”
Noting that she was spared the religious persecution experienced by her parents’ generation, Toropova said she is grateful that she can freely learn about her Jewish history without worrying about any consequences.
“It’s nice to meet interesting people, and not to worry about Judaism as a religion,” she said. “My first Limmud was in Moscow last spring, and it was really a discovery for me. I was so impressed by the quality of speakers and the atmosphere, so I decided that I would definitely do it again.”
Oleg Sakharov, a 23-year-old electrical engineer from St. Petersburg, said the most important aspect of the conference for him is its educational focus.
“I came here to learn,” he said. “The main thing about Limmud is that you can choose from a lot of lectures, and talk to a lot of great people in person, which is really great because not many people get to do that.”
Indeed, the biggest draw of the conference was celebrated Israeli author Etgar Keret, the son of Holocaust survivors, whose six books have been translated into more than 40 languages. His latest tome, a critically acclaimed memoir entitled The Seven Good Years, about the seven years between the birth of his son and death of his father, was published last year.
During his packed lecture, Keret, who describes himself as a “left-wing liberal,” discussed his recent work, and the remarkable complexity of his family.
Stating that his ultra-Orthodox sister lives in a West Bank settlement, and has 11 children and 19 grandchildren – while describing his older brother as a “left-wing anti-Zionist anarchist,” who started the movement to legalize marijuana in Israel; and his father as a card-carrying member of the Likud – Keret said his family is a microcosm of Israeli society.
“Basically, we are a family of very diverse opinions, but we love each other very, very much,” he explained. “My brother would always say when we went to visit my sister in the settlement that these are the only times he goes beyond the ’67 borders and doesn’t return in handcuffs and a police car.
“The amazing thing about my family,” Keret continued, “is that unlike Israel, we are able to transcend our differences, and love prevailed. As my father said: ‘We all have different opinions – and we’re probably all wrong – but we all want to make the world better, and we love each other, and that’s what’s important.’” Keret described Limmud as a uniquely intimate experience.
“Usually, when I’m asked to speak at events, there is an audience that’s coming, but here, even though it’s an audience, it is very diverse, and there’s a strong sense of community,” he said.
“They are very warm, and you don’t feel like you came to entertain someone; you feel like you are part of a group. I think that this warmth is something that affects the speaker, and I found myself speaking about things that are more intimate and personal, because I didn’t feel like I was speaking to an audience, I felt that I was speaking to a wonderful community with which I could share things.”
Another popular speaker was Gil Hovav, a famous writer, publisher and Israeli television personality, whose great-grandfather Eliezer Ben-Yehuda revived the Hebrew language after he fled Belarus for Israel.
Hovav, who has lectured at Limmud FSU since its inception about his great-grandfather’s legacy, his noted immediate family and Israeli food, said he is most moved by the many epiphanies he has witnessed over the years.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but the thing I love most is to see people find themselves,” he said. “Suddenly, they know who they are, who their parents and grandparents were, what they can be, and who they can connect to, and there is beauty in that.
“It makes my heart happy,” Hovav added.