ST. PETERSBURG – There are many Jewish organizations that work with Jewish communities around the world. One of the best known is Limmud, which started operating in England more than three decades ago.

Since then, various Limmud branches have been formed based on that model. According to its organizers, the model is so successful that it is growing all the time, and Limmud has held conferences in more than 60 locations.

This past week, I attended a Limmud FSU conference in St. Petersburg.

Limmud FSU imported the English Limmud model and adapted it for Russian- speaking Jewish communities around the world. This project, which addresses educational and cultural issues, seeks to strengthen the identity and the connection of its participants to Judaism.

The founder of Limmud FSU, Chaim Chesler, emphasized the participants’ part in the conferences. He said they have the desire to boost their Jewish ties, most of them voluntarily, and throughout the year prepare for the annual conference.

The volunteers give lectures, do all the administrative work and generally prepare all aspects of the conference.

“The goal is to learn with and from each other,” he said.

Above all, Chesler is proud that the participants pay substantial sums from their own pockets to attend the Limmud conference. On the other hand, activities arranged via formal channels free of charge, targeting the same audience, are not that well-attended.

Chesler, who served as Jewish Agency emissary in St. Petersburg, argued that young Russian Jews don’t relate to the formal establishment. They prefer to build the program themselves and to do it “from the bottom up.”

This conference began last Friday with Shabbat candle-lighting in a wooded area about an hour’s drive from St. Petersburg, on the border with Finland.

In this Jewish atmosphere, a series of lectures began, while in the next room, the Israeli film Footnote (2011) was screened. That’s the way Limmud works: There are a few activities at the same time, and every one can choose which ones to attend.

I went to hear a lecture that dealt with the Binding of Isaac and the test of the Jewish people’s faith. It was delivered eloquently by Dr. Amira Meir, head of the Department of Biblical Studies at Beit Berl College, and certainly left its mark on those present.

The next morning, the participants faced the choice of Torah classes with Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Pinsky or morning exercises with Tatiana Drozdova.

“The option for each participant to choose what you are interested in, along with the ability to leave one hall and enter another whenever you like, is what makes Limmud successful,” said one of the participants named Boris, who was attending for the second time. “The variety of topics covered by the conference, from diplomacy and history to fashion and the media allows one to learn something new and of interest.”

Pluralism is the basis for all the activities. The aim of the organizers, said Chesler, is to present all streams and views that Judaism has to offer, and let participants decide which direction to go in and what to see and hear.

All this is done, however, while taking extra precaution with regard to the subject of Israel. Limmud does not seem to have any interest in involving the local community in Zionism, and not a word is mentioned about aliya.

In general, politics is also not part of the game. But this did not stop Neri Livneh from presenting herself at the beginning of her lecture about the Russian influence on Israeli culture as “a reporter from Haaretz – the most important newspaper in Israel, which is in danger of closing because it takes a left-wing line and the State of Israel these days takes the Right one.”

She also noted that this made her very sad.

From the beginning of the conference to end, I am not ashamed to say that I was looking for one thing: a connection to Israel and some encouragement to make aliya.

There were some 300 Jews there, Jews who gathered in the forests of Russia to hear about Judaism... but not Israel. In my Israeli-colored eyes, this is wrong! Of course, Israel was present in all kinds of ways, including a lecture by diplomat Gideon Meir about Israel’s public diplomacy and global image.

It also came up in a lecture by Reuben Landsberger about Jews in the fashion world, which included Israelis Michal Negrin and Bar Refaeli. And in a panel discussion on Israel-Russia relations, with participants including Yoram Dori, an adviser to President Shimon Peres, and Eddie Shapira, the consul-general in St. Petersburg. And in the screening of two films, Footnote and Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi (2003).

As every Jew knows, there is no Judaism without Zion. However, there was no lecture presenting the Iranian threat, nor one that addressed growing anti-Semitism and Israel-hatred around the world. An Israeli flag was not placed at the entrance, and there were no signs of Israel’s Tourism Ministry. When I asked the organizers of the conference why participants were not encouraged to come to Israel, I was told that Limmud encourages Jews to get closer to the Jewish component of their identity, and that through this rapprochement with Judaism, they without a doubt would be drawn closer to Israel, too.

Perhaps. However, I would love to see all these young Jews come home to Israel. As soon as possible.

The writer was a guest of Limmud FSU.

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