Limmud FSU Princeton: A profound self-discovery
Limmud FSU Princeton was an especially unique event for me. As usual, I learned more than I taught.
Mira Stroika performs Photo: Courtesy Nathan Roie
Limmud FSU is always a special experience for its participants. Limmud FSU
Princeton, held from May 11 to 13, at Princeton University, was an especially
unique event for me. As usual, I learned more than I taught.
young Russian-speaking Jews, originally from the former Soviet Union, paid good
money to hear about Judaism, to learn about Israel, to meet their brothers and
sisters, all in a pluralistic spirit, without coercion and without pressure. The
lecture topics were determined by the young people themselves, and the theme
this year was Albert Einstein, the father of modern physics who lived, taught
and died in Princeton.
Unlike other Jewish conventions that I’ve attended
over the years, since I served as the Jewish Agency chairman’s spokesman in the
1980s, most Limmud FSU discussions are held in classrooms and not in
At Limmud FSU, there is no “corridor politics” known as Jewish
activism. There are no gabbais but only people who pray. There is no one buying
or selling positions of power, but only people providing and acquiring
This time, I had the opportunity to get away from the Israeli
cauldron in which I have been involved in one way or another for decades, and to
look at the picture from the outside. There was a debate on the benefits of
establishing a national unity government in Israel, a discussion on the
increasing disgust among the younger generation with politics and politicians,
and even a dialogue on which will be the next team to drop out of the premier
I watched the young Jews originating from the former USSR
during the day and the night. I watched while they sat and started three
discussion groups an hour and a half after midnight and held a debate about the
nature of contemporary Judaism, and its connection to Israel. I was surprised to
see a packed room when the discussion was on the Iranian nuclear threat or on
the Palestinian question – issues directly affecting Israel.
youngsters demonstrated an enormous interest in the situation in Israel, and one
could discern their genuine concern.
When I went to sleep at night, I
thought about the process that was happening before my eyes. I thought that the
relationship between Israel and American Jews was going through a fundamental
The change originated 50 years ago, or maybe even further back,
somewhere during World War II. During and shortly after the Holocaust began,
many Jews fled Europe. Families and individuals quickly abandoned their homes in
Europe and found refuge in various places. Too few left.
might have fled Europe, with one coming to the US and the other to Palestine,
now Israel. The nature of the relationship between American Jewry and Israelis
was, first and foremost, one of blood ties. The closeness of immediate
The American Jewish brother was worried about his brother in
Over the 64 years of Israel’s existence and a lack of massive
aliya from North America, the family ties blurred. Among the generations of the
grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there was no more first-degree
consanguinity. No more personal acquaintance. No more longing. The common
denominator was history and heritage.
Some people sought common ground in
science and technology. The relationship got to be based on
logic. But at Limmud FSU Princeton, I witnessed a revolution.
number of former Russian citizens in the United States is estimated at one
million, according to some experts. Their influence on the local Jewish
communities is growing.
Their economic character is vastly different from
the “old” American Jews. This is not the aristocracy of money. This is
Even in science, they are not yet at the top of the
pile, but they are a group that is struggling for its place in society and
It is not at all certain that organized Judaism is
enthusiastic about this process, which ultimately might weaken it, but it is an
The interesting part of this process is the return of
direct family ties between Russian-speaking Jews in America and the citizens of
They again have become brothers and sisters who live on two
different sides of the world, parents and children, first-degree blood relatives.
Once again, it seems that this is not only a partnership in tradition, but one
of strong family ties, and once again it seems they are of real concern to each
The element of emotion seems to be growing stronger in this
relationship. Emotion rather than rationality. The situation today is
different. Israel is a strong country.
Its economy is flourishing.
This is no longer the rich uncle from America and the poor relative in Israel.
But it is once again the relationship between true relatives, blood
This is the reason for the big interest in Israel shown by the
young women and men who came to Limmud FSU Princeton.
It concerns their
families and their future.
The term Ahim anahnu (We are brothers) is not
a dream, but reality. Somewhere in the middle of the night at Princeton, I was
exposed to an additional element of FSU citizens that I thought only existed in
It was at 2 a.m. after an impressive opening night in which
singers Mira Stroika and Iryna Rosenfeld, who participated in Ukraine’s version
of American Idol, blew us away with their songs in Hebrew, English, Russian and
Hearing Rosenfeld sing “Avinu Malkeinu” was like listening to
Barbra Streisand in a young and improved edition.
In the lobby of the
Marriott Princeton at Forrestal, a few dozen young people gathered and began to
sing. I heard familiar tunes. I saw them circling a young male pianist who
played songs in Russian – many of them children’s songs. The dialogue between
them was in Russian. You could see happiness on their faces. Finally, they felt
Throughout the day, they were Americans, spoke English and
American slang, acted as Americans and appeared to want, with all their hearts,
to disengage from their past and become locals. And suddenly, with glasses of
wine in their hands, at the piano, they became Russian once again.
naively thought that this phenomenon existed only in Israel. Perhaps because of
the hardships of immigrant absorption, or because the veteran residents were not
receptive enough to olim. Suddenly I discovered that it was apparently caused by
something else entirely, because they are part of a huge country, an astonishing
culture, and because they have no desire to disconnect from their primal version
There was another important thing that I learned from
Limmud FSU Princeton: the desire among young adults to learn.
This is a
common desire among Russian-speaking Jews in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Israel
and the United States.
President Shimon Peres, for whom I have served as
an adviser for over 20 years, has noted again and again that the largest
contribution of the Jewish people to humanity (except for the Ten Commandments)
is its dissatisfaction – the need to doubt, to question, the intellectual
curiosity that leads to innovation.
The same trait that Albert Einstein’s
had, and Limmud FSU Princeton was dedicated to his legacy.
I experienced the president’s perception firsthand – the insatiable thirst for
knowledge, the deep desire to innovate.
I thank Matthew Bronfman, the
chairman of Limmud FSU’s International Steering Committee, Limmud FSU’s tireless
founder, Chaim Chesler, and his colleague Sandra Cahn, for the opportunity they
gave me and others to learn and get to know my people.
This article was
translated by Moria Dashevsky. The writer is a senior adviser to President
Shimon Peres, and presented a session on Iran at the Princeton FSU conference.