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
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
“The goal is to learn with and from each other,” he
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
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
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
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
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
She also noted that this made her very sad.
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
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
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.
writer was a guest of Limmud FSU.