KISHINEV, MOLDOVA – More than 400 young Jews from across Moldova gathered for a three-day Limmud FSU conference on Friday at a sprawling hotel nestled in the capital of Kishinev’s bucolic countryside to meet, attend lectures from Jewish luminaries and reconnect with a once-severed past.
Founded nearly 10 years ago by Chaim Chesler of Israel and Sandra Cahn of New York, Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) has since reconnected more than 30,000 young Russian- speaking Jews from countries in the region and around the world following the fall of Communism.
Now in its third incarnation here, since debuting in Kishinev in 2012, Alexander Bilinkis, a prominent businessman who serves as chairman of Moldova’s Jewish community, said the country’s Jewish population has dwindled from more than 400,000 to approximately 20,000 today.
However, according to Bilinkis, the meager numbers belie a renewed interest and acceptance of Jewish life following decades of restrictive Soviet conditions.
“In my mind, we have now reached a new age in the community,” he said on Saturday.
“We can say everywhere ‘I’m Jewish’ without fear, and this is very important.”
While Bilinkis conceded that the Jewish community continues to shrink and that there is still anti-Semitism in the country, he said it is not nearly as pronounced, or virulent, as it once was.
“Of course we have anti-Semitism, but it’s not at the governmental or state level,” he said.
Asked what his hope is for the Jewish community he has led for the past eight years, Bilinkis cited solidarity and educational growth.
“I hope we can build a community life here – that the children will be raised Jewish,” he said. “We do not have a big Jewish community, but we are very close. We have one kindergarten, two schools and five synagogues in the whole country.”
Still, Bilinkis lamented that Kishinev’s two synagogues are not nearly large enough to adequately hold the thousands of Jews who want to attend services during the high holy days.
“We need more synagogues,” he said. “During Rosh Hashana, or Yom Kippur and Passover, we have no space. The Jews here want to go [to services], but we only have two to offer.”
In terms of the message he hopes to impart to the hundreds of young Jews who attended the conference, Bilinkis said he wants to emphasize the important role Diaspora Jews play in the international Jewish community.
“It’s very important for us that Jews have Israel, but we love this country and many Jews live in the Diaspora,” he said. “We need Israel, and Israel sometimes needs the Diaspora because the relationship between Israel and other countries is very important.
“What I say now to young Jews here in Moldova,” Bilinkis continued, “is: You have a choice. You have your country and you have Israel. Try to live a Jewish life in the Diaspora.”
While he said it is unlikely that the numbers of Jews in Moldova will grow beyond the current population, Bilinkis indicated that he was more than content just to maintain stability within the community.
“In the future, I hope we continue to have a stable situation in Moldova. I know there are no miracles, but we have stability, and this is not bad,” he said.
One attendee, Valerie Daria, 24, from Kishinev, who works with the Jewish Agency and at a local culinary magazine, said this was her second Limmud conference.
“I like the atmosphere and talking to other Jews from the younger generation about Jewish themes, about traditions, about their lives,” she said.
Daria added that she works independently of Limmud to engender a stronger Jewish identity among the capital’s small community.
“We’re making programs for young people including summer camps, seminars, conferences and educational trips to Moldova’s Jewish landmarks,” she said. “The Jewish community is getting stronger here.”
Meanwhile, Marina Lecartseva, director of Moldova’s Jewish community, said Limmud FSU has provided the country’s young Jews with an unusual opportunity to connect with one another, while learning about their shared history.
“We now have the possibility and freedom to learn and study with other Jews about Jews,” she said. “I think they love this atmosphere. For us, it’s an atmosphere of freedom because we have the possibility to go anywhere and study anything we want, or to sit in the lobby and just talk. It’s our choice.”
Perhaps most significant and telling, Lecartseva said, is that all of the conference’s 400 attendees paid out of their own pockets to be a part of the experience.
“They are volunteering and paying to participate in this conference, which is something strange and beautiful,” she said.
“Most volunteers are young and they are really interested. I hope it will not be just once a year for Limmud, but all year round.”
Co-founder Cahn said she was delighted to attend her first conference in Moldova.
“This is a very unique opportunity for the Moldovan Jewish community to give a strong message to the Moldovan community at large, and the government, that the Jewish community is strong and alive and well,” she said. “Because the Jewish community is really marginalized in Moldova, it is very important that they see that it is thriving, that it is energized, and that so many people have come out for this.”
“The Jewish community is really not going away – it is strong and vibrant, and it’s a very, very strong message that I hope reaches higher up in the government,” she added.
Among the many lectures and activities offered during the conference was a discussion honoring poet Natan Alterman and painter Nachum Gutman, whose family members also participated in the conference.
“The Jewish community of Kishinev, of which Alterman and Gutman were an important part, is a small but dynamic and lively one, which played a significant role in contemporary life in Israel, and left a rich cultural heritage,” said Chesler.
Additionally, the premiere of an exhibit of the art of Gutman was introduced by his son, Prof. Hemi Gutman. The exhibition, which featured landscapes, portraits and biblical representations, was initiated by the Israel Prime Minister’s Office and the Gutman Museum in Tel Aviv.
“I am certain that with a new generation of Russian-speaking young people throughout the world, the link to the Jewish heritage and culture – as demonstrated by giants such as Alterman and Gutman – will be strengthened, including identity and a sense of belonging, remembrance of the Holocaust, and Jewish fortitude,” Chesler added.
One of the most popular events at the conference included a Friday round-table discussion on contemporary anti-Semitism in Europe led by renowned businessman and Limmud FSU leader Matthew Bronfman, and Bilinkis.
Internationally-celebrated singer Irene Rosenfeld, 26, who made aliya from Kiev five months ago, also performed on Saturday night following Havdalah services.
Rosenfeld said that her favorite aspect of the conferences is connecting to other young Jewish people who were cut off from their past by Communism.
“At Limmud I feel like I am home and have the opportunity to meet different interesting people, and share an important experience with other young Jews,” she said. “I love Limmud. It is a part of me now.”
On Saturday, Executive Director Roman Kogan summarized Limmud FSU’s enduring appeal.
“First it was ‘Let my people go,” he said. “Now it’s ‘Let my people know.’”
“This is the power of Limmud.”