VITEBSK, Belarus – Considered the “lungs of Europe” thanks to its vast marshlands, Belarus has also been the seed to many people with a great influence on history.
The list of Jewish names of those with roots there is indeed illustrious, including the likes of: prime ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin; presidents Chaim Weizmann and Shimon Peres; father of modern Hebrew Eliezer Ben-Yehuda; “grandfather” of modern Yiddish literature Mendele Mocher Sforim; composer Irving Berlin; psychologist Lev Vygotsky; and giants of the rabbinical world such as the Hafetz Haim, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Chabad founder Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.
Belarus, before the Second World War, had Jews accounting for about 40 percent of its population, and in some cities up to half. Yiddish was one of the official languages in many cities, and Jews held some senior government positions. Sadly, the Belarusian people – not only the Jews – had to suffer through the reigns of Hitler and Stalin; Jews and gentiles alike were sent to ghettos and massacred. A total of some 800,000 Jews, close to 90% of the Jewish population, and a quarter of the gentile population were killed in the Holocaust.
Today, the situation for Jews in the country is tenuous. As of now there is no mohel, ritual circumciser; no shochet, ritual slaughter; and the nearest yeshiva from a city on the eastern border is more than 520 km. away in Moscow.
Vitebsk, the country’s fourth-largest city, is facing these realities. Its rabbi, Shimon-Daniel Isaacson, spoke to The Jerusalem Post about the pressing Jewish issues in the city as well as the rest of the country.
“All knowledge of what it is to be a Jew has disappeared,” he lamented.
Only a few lonely, old survivors are left with the knowledge from previous generations, he said; there are about 30-40 Jewish youths in the city, who may be identified with certainty based on their grandmothers’ documentation.
Though the number of Orthodox Jews is small, they have a minyan every day but Sunday, comprised of congregants with an average age of around 70, according to Isaacson.
He spoke of the problem of Jewish identity, saying that “90% of the Jews are not circumcised... there is no anti-Semitism [in the entire country] because it is hard to identify who is a Jew.”
THE ISSUE of retaining what little remains of the identity and practices of Jews from the former Soviet Union as a whole has been addressed by Limmud FSU, a nonprofit founded by Chaim Chesler, Sandra Cahn and Mikhail Chlenov to serve young Russian- speaking Jews around the world and help them find their religious roots. The organization tries to reach Russian-speaking Jewish communities wherever they may live, be it former Soviet Union countries, the US, Canada or Europe.
Limmud FSU uses conferences to embody the spirit, energy and excitement of a new generation eager to connect to their heritage, from which they or their parents were isolated during the 70 years of Communist rule. For the past eight years, over 25,000 participants have taken part in events that approach issues of Jewish identity and culture. The core goals of Limmud FSU involve the elements of diversity – the conference being open to all who want to learn, regardless of their Jewish knowledge and observance; all speakers being volunteers; sessions not being compulsory – one may roam where they wish; and all participants paying a fee.
This is the second year the event was held in Vitebsk, due to the rousing success of the previous year. Over 600 people participated in the various events from September 12-14.
Vitebsk was an appealing venue, from its many rivers to the sparkles from gold spires on the churches to Soviet influences in the architecture.
The conference took place in the Arts Museum, Lyalka Theater and the Yakub Kolas National Academic Drama Theater, with participants staying at the Vitebsk and Dvina Hotels.
Belarus Ambassador Yosef Shagal commented on the difference between this year’s event and the previous one: “Even by just walking around the city, you will see a difference. Last year it was very local, we only had one hotel and it all took place there. Today [we have] all the best parts [of Vitebsk]... Jews are taking over the city.”
One of surest signs of success, beyond the much greater attendance, is the fact that the average salary in Belarus is about $500 a month – and participants spent a good portion of it to go.
Chesler spoke to the Post about his background, and why he took up the challenge of raising awareness among Jews from the FSU.
“The son of a rabbi, who happened to go to the Volozhin yeshiva outside of Minsk,” now in Belarus, he is a graduate of Kfar Haroeh and Bar- Ilan University. Chesler immediately entered into a career in the public sector involving the Jewish Agency, specifically in the areas of aliya and Jews from the Soviet Union.
“This background [involving aliya and Jews from the FSU] connected me with the Jewish nation, as well as anti-Semitism, assimilation and teaching Hebrew,” he explained.
Saying this was what led him to the idea of Limmud FSU, he noted that in keeping with conference goals, all his work for them is on a strictly volunteer basis.
In May 2006, it was decided to start with an event in Moscow. More than 1,000 people came for what was “a free trial.”
“It included many different subjects such as music, dance, parsha, Mishna, Gemara, history, Zionism,” Chesler said. “It was a huge success and from there, and it continues until today. The next success was Kiev [Ukraine] with 1,200 people; then Ashkelon with 1,500; and the US with 1,000. All the while, the previous locations continue on.”
“The reason Limmud is so successful is it targets Jews who are not being targeted today, those who are not part of any Jewish organization,” he added.
“They want something different, where they can learn and be free to be who they are. They [local community members] are in charge of the content, the recruitment, all aspects of the event. This is what makes it thrive.”
This year’s event was called Art Limmud FSU – A Festival of Jewish Learning, three days packed with dozens of presentations by volunteers including academics, scientists, writers, artists from various fields, journalists and politicians; they delivered lectures and conducted workshops, roundtable discussions and various cultural activities incorporating dance and arts and crafts. Presentations were given in Russian, Hebrew or English with translation; a specially tailored Limmud program was developed for parents who brought their children.
Participants ranged from young to old, single to married with kids, those with no knowledge of Judaism to Reform and Orthodox. The lectures went from Friday through Sunday, with special attention for Shabbat.
There were Shabbat services according to Reform and Orthodox traditions, with kosher food served as well.
In the “Passport Photo” master class, Inbal Barel, director of the International Hebrew Division of the World Zionist Organization, used illustrated caricatures of famous Israelis, Jews and world leaders by Hanoch Tiben, with prominent facial features crafted of unusual items; she had the participants try to figure out who they were and the meaning behind the choice of part. For example, the picture of Theodor Herzl used falafel balls for eyes – showing his vision for Israel, as one attendee interpreted.
Participants were enthusiastic and involved in the discussion, laughing and trying hard to give good answers, though they didn’t know some of Israel’s major players like prime minister Ehud Barak. Barel even had them to do a portrait of themselves and their connection to Judaism, Zionism or the Hebrew language.
When asked about the goal of the activity and how it contributed to Limmud FSU, she said, “It was to make people start to think about their identity.
The second goal, which we didn’t get to, was to take their identity to a wider encompassing place, in relation to the Jewish world. Identity is the root of the whole experience, of being a Jew and an Israeli. Once you understand the personal side, you can understand the communal side. The workshop is a way for them to start identifying themselves; they can use it to explore further identities.”
The powerful “Beyond the Headlines,” lecture was delivered by Mordechai Haimovich, a former senior writer for Ma’ariv. He discussed conducting an interview with Adolf Hitler’s secretary, saying she claimed to have no knowledge of what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust – even though she spent so much time with the mastermind of the genocide. Haimovich recounted how she said that if Hitler were to walk through the door at that moment, she would shoot him to death on the spot.
One of the centerpieces of the conference was the exhibition of works by famous artist Marc Chagall and his teacher, Yehuda Pen. Chagall, who died in Vitebsk in 1985 at the age of 97, and was considered “the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century.”
An early modernist, Chagall worked in almost every artistic medium possible, and is well-known due to his celebrated Fauvist, expressionist and Cubist paintings. With his strong link to his Jewish roots and the Bible, in 1960 he created the “Jerusalem Windows” at Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, made out of stained glass and representative of the 12 Tribes. The windows were created “to illuminate the synagogue both spiritually and physically.”
His teacher, Pen, one of the most important Jewish painters in the Russian empire, opened a private Jewish art school in 1892 in Vitebsk. In addition to works of both artistic masters, the Limmud exhibition displayed a handwritten letter between teacher and student.
Exhibits and tours were also available to participants. One explored the life of famous poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, while another delved into that of Belarus-born Chaim Weizmann.
Additional highlights were two talks about prime minister Ariel Sharon – one given by his son Gilad, who spoke of the essential value of Jewish education and the overriding importance of immigration to Israel; the other by cabinet secretary Israel Maimon, who discussed leadership lessons learned from Sharon.
The conference was bookended by the dedication of a bust in memory of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda by his great-grandson, Gil Hovav – a well-known television personality and leading culinary journalist – in Glubokoye on September 11. It was followed in Luzhki by Hovav’s unveiling of a memorial plaque for Ben-Yehuda.
When asked if the continued addition of English words into Hebrew would have tarnished the work in the eyes of his great-grandfather, he said the fact that Hebrew is in use at all is a victory – regardless of what other languages are mixed in.
The final bookend for the event was in Minsk on September 15, where Gilad Sharon opened a pictorial exhibition about his father in the Belarusian National History Museum.
“I am very excited to stand here today at the opening of the exhibition on the life of my father,” Sharon said at the opening ceremony. “My father’s life [is] integrated in Israel’s history, and I hope this beautiful exhibition will be another step in deepening the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews; maybe some of them will go to Israel.”
Chesler weighed in: “It is a great honor for Limmud FSU to host this new exhibition, which is on display here in Belarus, about one of the great leaders of the State of Israel who was born to parents who came from this country last century.
“Ariel Sharon never forgot the legacy of his family, and put in great effort to learn Russian and his family’s history. This is why we’ve decided to have this event and exhibition during our Limmud FSU Belarus festival – to show a wonderful example of a great leader whose roots are here, though his life and activities were in Israel.”
Art Limmud FSU, with Chesler at the helm, unquestionably helped reignite some of the last remaining sparks of Jewish identity in Belarus. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – Israel’s first chief rabbi who studied in the Volozhin yeshiva – embodied the reasoning behind the connection between art, the Jewish people and Limmud FSU.
Published in the monthly Hamizrah in 1903, Kook’s words about the importance of art to the person and the world as a whole ring true today: “Literature, painting and sculpting are able to bring to fruition all the spiritual concepts engraved in the depths of the human spirit, and so long as one brush is missing, which is stored away in the depths of the spirit – which ponders and feels – but has not been realized, there is still an obligation on the purposeful work to realize it,” the chief rabbi wrote. “The matter is self-evident, that only these treasuries, when they are opened, will sweeten the air of all existence.
“It is good and beautiful to open them.”