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Limmud FSU 2007, held outside Moscow last weekend, was a quintessentially Russian event. It came complete with quarreling rabbis, a "resort" that looked like a refurbished KGB penitentiary, an agenda filled with academics waxing fiercely intellectual about Jewish culture, and some stunning performances of musical talent.
It was, all agreed, a triumph for the event's cofounders, former Jewish Agency treasurer, Chaim Chesler, and American fund-raising maven, Sandra Cahn. For Chesler, the event marks his "comeback," he enthused in the conference's closing minutes last Sunday. Removed from one of the agency's senior positions as donors began to wrest more control over the organization a few years ago, Chesler went to work on an experiment that, in retrospect, seems long overdue.
The Limmud model, with its relaxed discussions, artistic creativity and general undisciplined hodgepodge of Jewish debate and study, seems to fit young Russian and Ukrainian Jews like a glove. The local organizers mobilized by Chesler and Cahn fashioned a conference that represented the Judaism they crave, without the religious language or institutions they still largely distrust.
Chesler saw the need for the Limmud model, begun in England in 1981 and growing worldwide, when he was an agency official in the former Soviet Union more than a decade ago. Three years ago, he decided to put his idea into practice. Teaming up with the American Cahn, the two embarked on a "uniquely difficult" but successful project, made difficult because they tried to create a local group of activists who would build Limmud in their own image. Limmud's local volunteer base is the resource that ensures its future, and this did not yet exist in the FSU.
Chesler's triumph was visible in the world Jewish leaders and local rabbis who did not want to be left out of the event. Agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski, the World Jewish Congress's Michael Schneider, FSU billionaires Moshe Kantor and Alexander Machkevitch, Israeli Ambassador Anna Azari, and rabbis from Reform to Chabad were all there to spend Shabbat learning and teaching. Journalists were also present in force (invited by the organizers for the Jewish education event).
SOME NOTES from the event: Rabbis tend to behave like the non-Jewish clergy in their host countries. This point was driven home last weekend with the ad nauseam discussions among Russian Jewish leaders and in-the-know activists about the shift in influence away from Chabad and its head, Rabbi Berel Lazar, toward Rabbi Pinhas Goldschmidt and the Russian Jewish Congress leadership.
Whereas Lazar has long been said to be the only rabbi with the Kremlin's ear (he alone represents Russian Jewry on official government committees), a recent and unprecedented meeting between President Vladimir Putin and the European Jewish Congress executive did not include Lazar, who was apparently in the US for a family event, but did include one of the non-Chabad chief rabbis of Kiev. On that visit, EJC head Moshe Kantor then took the committee to visit Goldschmidt's Choral Synagogue instead of the Morina Roscha Synagogue.
The incident bred bewildering gossip (the feverish speculation even saw Putin trying to push Arkadi Gaydamak for Jerusalem mayor through Gaydamak's connections with Goldschmidt) that is, to a Jew with an American background, moderately troubling.
The image one is left with is of rabbis trampling one another to curry favor in a royal court - something similar to the Kremlin's historic treatment of the Russian Orthodox Church - while Shabbat services (both Goldschmidt's and Chabad's) remain almost empty, even though 800 people attended the conference. Intelligent, curious and active young people played cards in the lobby, discussed newly-acquired Jewish ideas or slept, but seemed to have or want little contact with the rabbis. The rabbis' power, one learns from conversation at Limmud, flows not from the people, but from the king. It bodes ill for the future of the Russian Jewish renaissance if its rabbinic establishment remains a creature of political intrigue isolated from the growing popular longing for a Jewish cultural connection.
ALSO DISCUSSED at the event was the surprise Thursday-night visit to Moscow by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. This reporter wandered through central Moscow and waited outside the Kremlin gate for hours that evening, only to catch the prime minister's 10-car motorcade barrel past without a glance at exactly 7 p.m. local time. Olmert's media people either knew nothing about the meeting or did not return calls, and Olmert was on an outgoing plane before Israeli pubs opened their doors that night.
We now know more, of course. Olmert seems to be concerned that Putin's complicated game - he is willing to join the West on Iran, and perhaps even wants to, but why do so for free? - has emboldened the Iranians. Reports contradict on the crucial question of whether Putin plans on giving Iran the nuclear fuel to run Bushehr, an action that would significantly advance its indigenous nuclear weaponization capabilities. (America seems to be paying the price for Russian support, having apparently agreed to delay and coordinate on its missile shield deployment in Eastern Europe.) Neither Israeli Ambassador Azari nor EJC president Kantor (who met with Putin earlier in the week) would offer any new insights on the unfolding events.
Finally, while most of Limmud was conducted in Russian and covered Jewish history, sociology and Torah study, in one session Ha'aretz editor David Landau spoke forcefully and well of his newspaper's etrogizatzya policy. This is the notion that the newspaper "wittingly soft-pedaled" on alleged corruption by politicians such as Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert, because it was convinced they were advancing the peace process with the Palestinians.
This caused quite a buzz, mostly indignant, among the half-dozen Israeli journalists assembled at the event. But Landau defended the idea. "More immorality happens every day at a single roadblock than in all the scandals put together," he said, promising the paper was "ready once again to do an etrogizatzya" - treating a politician as the delicate etrog must be treated lest it break - "to allow Olmert to go to Annapolis."
True, all headlines are functions of an editor's sense of where the important point lies, and maybe the Israeli-Palestinian is a bigger story than Bank Leumi, but most people in the room thought Landau's assertion was problematic.
Besides raising disturbing questions about the politicized nature of editorial decision-making at his newspaper, the acknowledged effort by a leading editor to play down allegations of personal corruption by a prime minister if he adheres to a particular political program raises the specter of decisions vital to Israel being made by our leaders not out of strategic wisdom but, dangerously, for the sake of personal salvation.