LEONID PTASHKA 311.
(photo credit: Roman Kogen)
When Chaim Chesler left his job as treasurer of the Jewish Agency five years ago following a power-struggle in which he was on the losing side, it brought his 28 years with the organization to an abrupt end.
Chersler bounced right back with an idea that had been brewing in his mind for a while.
“In 1995, when I was the head of the Jewish Agency in Russia, I was
flown to London to take part in a Limmud conference, and I remember
being in awe when I arrived,” he recalled in an interview with The
Jerusalem Post on Sunday. “I saw a beautiful voluntary organization
dealing with Jewish education, and I thought immediately that this would
be even better suited to Russian-speaking Jews.”
After leaving the Jewish Agency in 2005, Chesler adapted the
British-hatched Limmud model of holding large educational conferences
organized mostly by volunteers to the Russian-speaking Jewish world.
The first Limmud conference catering specially to Russian-speakers was
held in March 2006 and there have been dozens since.
Now, four years since he embarked on his new enterprise, Limmud has
become a fixture in the lives of many Russian-speaking Jews around the
world. Each year thousands attend the seminars and retreats in places as
far and wide as Birobidzhan, in the far east of Russia; New York,
Moscow and Jerusalem. They touch on a myriad of Israeli and Jewish
themes in fields like politics, music, literature and cuisine.
Starting on Wednesday, about 1,000 people including dignitaries such as
President Shimon Peres, Canadian businessman and philanthropist Matthew
Bronfman and a plethora of MKs, rabbis and musicians are expected to
take part in the three-day 2010 Jerusalem Limmud Festival for Russian
speakers, to be held at the Kiryat Moriah Educational Campus and the
Menachem Begin Heritage Center, both in Jerusalem.
The conference’s main theme will be honoring the accomplishments of
Russian-speaking Noble laureates.
However, in the Limmud tradition there will be a wide array of lectures
on different fields to choose from.
For instance, Israeli celebrity chef Gil Hovav will talk about Russian
food; a panel of rabbis and lawmakers will discuss the explosive issue
of conversion; and opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima will be
interviewed by the Post’s own editor- in-chief David Horovitz.
None of the conference’s 200 lecturers are paid, Chesler said.
In addition, ticket sales pay for a significant part of the budget.
The rest of the money is provided by 25 organizations and
philanthropists, with Bronfman the biggest private donor, Chesler said.
Leonid Ptashka is an example of the kind of person who regularly attends
the Russian-speaking Limmud conferences.
An award-winning Israeli pianist born in Baku, Azerbaijan, who made
aliya in 1990, he has taken part in four Limmud conferences so far and
will give a concert at the conference this week.
“What I like about Limmud is its focus on Israeli pride,” Ptashka said
over the weekend.
“In Russia there are many Jews who live much like I lived when I was
there. I knew what Israel was, but it was always far away. Being Jewish
and being Israeli are two separate things and what’s important to me is
to reach out to these places in Russia, Ukraine or the US.”
Limmud will hold its next conference in New York from August 13 to 16.
Chesler has promised to produce an interesting lineup with the hope of
drawing members of the city’s large Russian-speaking Jewish community.
Looking back at the organization he left after 28 years of service,
Chesler has only kind things to say about the Jewish Agency, its new boss
and his decision to deemphasize immigration to Israel in favor of
building Jewish identity.
“I’m very happy [Natan] Sharansky has been chosen, because he’s an
educative and moral role model,” Chesler said. “I hope that in the future
we can work together to bring Jewish education to the forefront.”
As for himself, Chesler seems to have landed on his feet, if there was
ever any doubt.
“When I left the agency I decided it’s about time to fulfill a dream,”
he said. “And I knew then that bringing Limmud to Russian-speaking Jews
was what I wanted to do.”
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