ST. PETERSBURG – Some 25 years ago, I resigned from my position as spokesman of
the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
my years as spokesman, I frequently had to contend with criticism of the
agency’s educational emissaries abroad. I would be asked, “Why do they deal with
Judaism and Jewish identity rather than concentrate on encouraging aliya? The
question would seem to have a great deal of logic behind it – but it is a logic
of those who were born in Israel, live in Israel, were educated in
It is the logic of those who dealt with the mass exodus of
Russian-speaking Jews after the breakup of the Soviet Union and do not realize
that 20 years have elapsed since then and that reality has changed beyond
recognition. For us Israelis, all is crystal clear.
There is one country
that is a homeland for Jews wherever they might live in the world. Every Israeli
Jew, secular or religious, understands basic Judaism: what Shabbat is; what brit
mila is; what a bar mitzva is. We know the history and the heritage; we have
absorbed Jewish culture.
Although admittedly, at the same time it should
be noted that the degree of ignorance of many young Israelis about the heritage
and tradition of their own people is sometimes infuriating. In any event, it is
difficult for an Israeli Jew to understand that the situation in the Diaspora is
When one analyses the situation in the former Soviet
Union, one has to remember the historical context. During 70 years of Communist
rule, a huge effort was made by the authorities to stamp out every vestige of
Judaism (as well as of other religions), any evidence of Jewish culture, Jewish
history, Jewish religious ritual, Hebrew – every indicator of Jewish
The Jews of the Soviet Union, with the exception of a few who
preserved their Judaism clandestinely and at the risk of their lives, were
divorced from Jewish life and had to conform to a new religion – that of
The Limmud FSU project, in which I have become a regular
participant, came into being to provide an answer to those many years of
estrangement from Jewish values, and to provide a taste of a Jewish path as well
as a basic knowledge of the State of Israel that had undergone a process of deep
demonization over decades – that country to whose enemies the Stalinist
authorities provided unlimited funds and weapons. Limmud tries to overcome all
that by its pluralistic, free and nonconventional approach that is undoubtedly
the source of its power and attraction. And that is how it was at the recent
Limmud FSU festival in St. Petersburg at which 300 young Jews spent a weekend
packed with Jewishly related activities.
The St. Petersburg festival
tried to provide an answer to a clear basic problem.
The first stage in
creating a link between the Jews of the Diaspora and their historical homeland
has to be built on knowledge, on awareness. Only afterward can come the feeling
of identity. That is why, as is usual with Limmud FSU events, many Birthright
and Masa alumni were invited to participate. Such people are not always included
in established Jewish organizational outreach.
At Limmud St. Petersburg,
they listened enraptured to lectures and presentations on Judaism and Israel,
all of which had been selected by the local volunteer organizers.
time, the St. Petersburg audience astonished me by the degree of interest that
they showed in Israel. Lectures by Gideon Meir, the deputy director-general of
the Foreign Ministry, Moshe Vigdor, the outgoing director of the Israel Council
for Higher Education, speaking about “Israel – Start-up Nation,” and my lecture
on politics and communications with the emphasis on Israel, were listened to by
overflow audiences, as was a lively altercation between Haaretz journalist Neri
Livni and Russian educationalist Dima Zicer, on the Russian origins of Israeli
culture. A panel on Russia-Israel relations with the participation of Prof.
Mikail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad – The Federation of Jewish Organizations
in Russia, Eddy Shapira, Israel’s consul-general in St. Petersburg, and myself,
took place in a room that could not accommodate the crowd.
There may be
some who contend that at Limmud there is not enough “Israeli content,” nor an
emphasis on aliya. So we turn to the rhetorical question, How does one encourage
aliya in general and in particular among those who have made a conscious
decision to stay in their homes and not immigrate to Israel. The government and
the Jewish Agency have long understood that the 1990s are way behind us and that
today it is “Aliya by Choice.”
Those Jews who decide to immigrate will
take the decision based on a full and consideration of all the issues.
my flight back home I recalled once again the somewhat banal yet accurate answer
that I was wont to give to journalists during my time as Jewish Agency and WZO
spokesman. Aliya is a process similar to a relationship between two people, I
would tell them. It is not a question of being struck by lightening. It is a
process that first of all calls for a meeting, then the acquisition of
background knowledge and only then might lead to a love affair and maybe even
marriage. The marriage in our case is that of a betrothal to Israel called
aliya. Limmud FSU can serve as a marriage broker at more than one stage. Will
there or will there not be a wedding is already a much more complex issue. A
wedding depends on a multiplicity of factors over which, to my regret, neither
Limmud nor Israel has control.
Limmud can provide young adults with some
of the tools needed to construct a Jewish framework to their lives. The Limmud
model is open and non-demanding and therein lies its attraction. Hundreds
participate, the volunteers invest a huge amount of time and energy in building
the program, and participants spend a not inconsiderable sum to be
If as a result, there will be a wedding, that would be wonderful.
But, if not, thanks to Limmud, the Jews are provided with another way of finding
a way to their roots and a key to modern Jewish civilization in which Israel
lies at the heart. Limmud will help to keep these people in our collective
spiritual home – if not always the geographical home, and in so doing provide a
partial solution to the issue of assimilation.
The writer is an adviser
to President Shimon Peres.