ST. PETERSBURG – Amid the splendor of Russia’s majestic “culture capital,”
hundreds of young Jewish professionals gathered at an area hotel Friday through
Sunday for the Limmud FSU conference to learn about a shared history once veiled
behind an iron curtain.
Founded by Peter the Great in 1703,
St. Petersburg has a Jewish population of approximately 100,000 – second
only to Moscow’s 200,000 – and is famed for its many museums, stunning
architecture, palaces, sculptures and celebration of culture.
like the remainder of the former Soviet Union, the city’s Jewish inhabitants
were stripped of their identities during 70 years of Communist rule.
are sure that this conference, like all other Limmud FSU [former Soviet Union]
conferences, will contribute to Jewish life in this city and make a significant
impact on the members of the Jewish community,” said organization founder Chaim
Chesler Saturday afternoon.
Now in its third incarnation since its
founding seven years ago, the Limmud FSU conference has proven an impressive
draw among leading young Jewish professionals from the city – as well as
Saratov, Belarus, Ukraine, Kaliningrad and Moscow.
conference offers 80 lectures on topics ranging from Jewish spirituality,
philosophy, ethics, politics, religion, art history, Torah, business, Israeli
society, science, yoga, meditation and even dance classes.
describes Limmud FSU conferences as “egalitarian and pluralistic,” run by local
volunteers passionate about the organization’s mission to revitalize Jewish
culture while bringing young leaders together.
“The success and mission
of Limmud FSU is building a family of young Russian-speaking Jews,” said
Chesler. “Look around you: These are the best and brightest of Russian
society. They come because this conference gives them a sense of pride
Indeed, Alina Sykrina, an economist from St. Petersburg,
said the three-day conference provides a sense of connectedness and hope for a
stronger Jewish future here.
“I volunteer at Hillel House, so feel very
strongly about connecting myself and other Jews with our past,” she said. “I
believe this is very important to create a better future for us.”
described the seminars as far-reaching and full of depth, adding that she
attended one Saturday morning lecture titled the “science of the soul,” followed
by a talk about start-ups and venture capital.
“As a Jewish economist, I
have found a number of fascinating lectures here that suit my interests,” she
Among the presenters are prominent historians, scientists,
journalists, artists, politicians, businessmen, educators and musicians,
primarily from St. Petersburg, Moscow, Israel and the United States.
Some of the marquee names at this year’s conference include renowned Israeli actress Yelena Yaralova, well known poet and philosopher Lev Rubinstein, Prof. and historian Ilya Altman representing the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Dr. Aharon Weiss of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Elena Lagutina of Nativ, first secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, Vicky Raveh FSU director of JNF, and Eliezer Lesovoy of JAFI, FSU Department.
Limmud Jewish education conferences were
conceived in Britain 32 years ago as a volunteer driven enterprise. It has since
branched out, now holding events in 26 countries, including Australia, Brazil,
Canada, China, Hungary, Mexico, the United States, Sweden, Turkey, Israel,
Ukraine, Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Limmud FSU was founded in
2006 by Chesler, of Israel, and co-founded by Sandra Cahn, of New York and
Mikhail Chlenov, of Russia. Aaron Frenkel of Monte Carlo serves as its president
and philanthropist and businessman Matthew Bronfman is chairman of its
international steering committee.
Chesler noted that the vast majority of
attendees of the weekend event registered online, representing a dramatic
technological and cultural paradigm shift from Russia’s once highly restrictive
and archaic society.
“After decades of Communism, it’s beautiful to
finally see all these young Jewish professionals have freedom of information and
the technology to join each other here and make lasting bonds among themselves
and their Jewish history,” he said.
Eddie Shapira, consulate general of
the State of Israel in St. Petersburg, described Limmud FSU as “unparalleled” in
terms of rebuilding the once severed link between Russian Jews and their
“I can’t think of another Jewish event in the world like this
one in scale,” said Shapira, who organizes dozens of Jewish and Israelrelated
events in the city every year. “This conference strengthens the connection
between the Jewish community of St. Petersburg with Israel and promotes the
brand of Israel.”
According to Shapira, that brand includes promoting the
country’s many accomplishments in science, technology, art and
“It’s very important that we connect our young leadership with
these perspectives – to show them that Israel is not only about conflict between
Palestinians and Jews, but that they can follow and recreate its great
achievements in a professional arena here themselves.”
Belenkiy, a Russian businessman from St. Petersburg currently based in Germany,
said he flew in for the conference to see old friends, meet new ones and embrace
his Jewish identity.
“[Limmud FSU] is a good platform for me to spend
time with friends from Moscow and St. Petersburg who I have not seen in a long
time since I moved to Germany,” he said. “I like the lectures and it’s a good
opportunity to feel Jewish in a secular way, since I’m not religious,” he
Yuri Astrakhan, who relocated from St. Petersburg to New
York City to work at Wikimedia Foundation, said he flew to the event to give a
lecture about his company’s latest venture, and to meet other young Russian
“Of course the lectures are great, but it’s the
people that make this so special,” Astrakhan said. “You meet people from all
walks of life who want to change the world for the better one way or another,
which becomes reinforced in me, as well.
“I know it sounds like a cliché,
but it’s very true,” he continued. “Whether it’s cultural, political, social or
business-related, we hope to make the world a better place.”
To be sure,
Chesler describes some attendees as “Limmud addicted.” One such participant is
Mikhail Libkin, of Moscow, who has attended every conference over the past seven
“I think this is so successful and enjoyable because we do it for
ourselves, communities and our families, and not someone else,” said Libkin, who
noted the appealing duality of Limmud FSU.
“On one hand it is an
excellent forum for Jewish education, and on the other hand it provides freedom
and pluralism for everyone to do what they want, which creates a synergistic
effect,” he added.
Libkin’s wife, Anna, 25, who works at the Disney
Corporation in Moscow, said that because she was born toward the end of
Communism, she was able to create a strong Jewish identity unencumbered by
“All my life I’ve been connected to the Jewish
community through day schools and camps, so I come here looking for interesting
lectures and networking opportunities with like-minded people,” she
Natan Roi, an Israeli expert on Soviet Jewry, chief editor of the
Jewish Agency’s Hebrew website and former journalist, said Limmud offers a
unique means for Russian Jews who were conditioned to ignore their religious
history in favor of assimilation and professional pursuits.
the gateway back to their roots and inner world because before they didn’t have
this opportunity because they wanted to be Russian professionals first and
foremost,” he said. “Judaism didn’t even enter their minds.”
continued, “So Limmud is an eye-opener for them because they can mingle with and
ask questions along with people who have the same questions and past as
According to Limud FSU COO, Roman Kogan, St. Petersburg’s
conference is perhaps the most cerebral event of all.
“This is a very
special Limmud in that it is deep, intelligent, cultural and quieter than the
others, much like the city itself,” he said.
“But the beauty of Limmud is
that each community builds it according to its nature.”
to Chesler the “secret weapon” of Limmud is that it doesn’t belong to anyone
other than the participants themselves.
“All of this belongs to the young
Jewish leadership, and therefore has become a ‘startup’ movement for a new
Jewish horizon here,” he said.