Polyna Berlin was born in Kharkov in the Soviet Union. She is Jewish, “but I had an epiphany two weeks ago in New York,” she tells me at a Limmud FSU conference in Jerusalem.
“Tell me about it.”
“I understood that in Limmud FSU, something of Jewish global significance was taking place. I understood that despite my limited knowledge of Judaism, here was an opportunity that I should not miss.”
She is 32 years old and works in public relations. At the age of ten she left her family in Kharkov and found herself in Los Angeles. Her absorption was not painless. She attended Sunday school and met with Jewish children of Iranian extraction. “For them, I was a Russian,” she says, “I was not religious and they did not receive me warmly.” That was her first confrontation with Judaism and she felt rejected.
Nevertheless, four years ago she felt the need for a deeper involvement in Jewish life.
From an emissary of the Jewish Agency she heard that a Jewish organization was looking for Russian speakers. She began to participate in workshops organized by RU-JU-LA, an organization for young Russian-speaking Jewish professionals in Los Angeles and she serves today on its Steering Committee.
Polyna is one of 80 leaders of Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) who participated this last weekend in the organization’s Global Leadership Summit in Jerusalem.
In lectures and workshops the young Russian speakers from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Israel, USA, Canada and Australia, exchanged ideas, shared experiences and in general, enjoyed the atmosphere of Jerusalem.
With the onset of Shabbat the youngsters swayed to the strains of Shabchi Yerushalayim and Shalom Aleichem played by the Shuk Ensemble and at the end of Shabbat went on a night excursion to the capital’s Old City.
Among the walkers along the Old City walls was Viktoria Shuritz, who sells railway tickets in Vitebsk, Belarus. She is 25 years old, non-Jewish but married to a Jew. When Vika met Alexander, he was already deeply involved in Jewish life.
That was her first introduction to Judaism. Alexander would return from a meeting with his rabbi and tell her all about what he had learnt.
"What was its effect on you?”
“I wanted to know more and more.”
Vika and Sasha do not have children yet but they have already decided that when they do they will be brought up according to Jewish tradition.
Jemima Meltzer was born in Melbourne and Mark Reitman in Sydney. So how come these two Australians are a part of Limmud FSU? That is because their parents were born in Moldova, Minsk and Moscow and the two of them speak Russian. Jemima knew about Pesach and Rosh Hashana from her grandmother who always conducted a seder at Pessah and dipped apples in honey on Rosh Hashana.
Mark’s family observed Rosh Hashana but did not give it any religious significance. “We would eat and drink just like at any other family gathering.”
Mark got to Limmud after having participated in the Taglit (“Birthright”) program.
The Limmud Summit gathering here reinforces Jewish activity among graduates of Taglit, says Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU.
“There are already some 50,000 graduates of Taglit in the former Soviet Union alone. Millions of dollars are invested in bringing them to Israel on a visit but when it is over, no one bothers about them. If there are real consequences to the efforts made by Limmud it is because we fulfill a real need.”
Sandra Cahn from New York, Chesler’s partner as a co-founder of Limmud FSU, is sure that the American Jewish community stands firmly behind the Limmud FSU program. After “Let my people go,” Cahn says, there is now “Let my people know.”