LVIV – Once home to a thriving Jewish community, this border city experienced a renaissance of Jewish life over the weekend during Limmud Ukraine’s annual conference.
More than 600 Jews from around Ukraine and the former Soviet Union took over the Hotel Dniester in Lviv’s old city, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
They attended a series of presentations on Jewish art, music, culture and history hosted by Limmud FSU, an organization dedicated to providing Eastern European Jews with tools to lead Jewish lives in the Diaspora.
“We give the freedom to participants to run a conference according to what they want, on the issues they are interested in, in the way they want to express themselves,” said Chaim Chesler, the organization’s founder. “That’s the DNA of Limmud.”
The three-day conference included Jewish-themed games, film screenings and a performance by a five-piece Klezmer ensemble, in addition to lectures and discussion panels on weighty topics such as the mass Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe.
Speakers received no honorarium for presenting, and the conference was organized and executed by volunteers.
Michael Gorn, who flew in from New York to attend the Lviv event, said he started volunteering two years ago, using his professional background as a systems administrator to help with Limmud’s registration system.
A veteran of Limmud conferences, Gorn said past events such as the Moscow conference earlier this year served as a jumping off point for his Jewish education.
“I had a lot of questions after that, and I like questions even more than answers,” he said.
The conference serves as a means of networking for Ukraine’s Jewish population and particularly for its younger generation, who often have only a loose connection to Judaism.
“Of course we have assimilation, of course we have mixed marriages and some people just don’t want to be in a Jewish environment,” said Victoria Godik, who heads the Ukrainian Union of Jewish Students. “It’s challenging, but there are people who participate.”
Godik said that diminished though it is, Ukraine’s Jewish population still has room to grow.
“It makes sense to pay attention to this community, because we have a big potential – not only on the historical side, but now still,” she said.
Chesler said he chose Lviv for the conference because his wife’s family originated from the surrounding area, and he wanted to commemorate its Holocaust victims. Two years ago, she reluctantly accompanied him to her mother’s hometown on the way to a previous Limmud Ukraine conference.
“Nothing was there,” he said. “No Jews. Only cemeteries.”
Among the remarkable stories that emerged out of Lviv during the Holocaust was that of Kristine Chiger, who hid with her family in the city’s sewer system for 14 months during the Nazi occupation.
She spoke at the conference via Skype from her New York home on Friday.
Before the Holocaust, Lviv’s Jewish population reached a high of about 110,000. Today, it stands at somewhat more than 5,000.
Nonetheless, the conference celebrated Ukraine’s vibrant Jewish past and people, many of whom now reside in Israel or have descendants there.
“These people serve as a kind of a human bridge on which the relations between Israel and Ukraine are built and prosper,” said Eliav Belotserkovsky, Israel’s newly installed ambassador to Ukraine who spoke at the conference.
Limmud Ukraine began in 2008, and has since convened annually in different cities across the country such as Kiev, Yalta, Uzhhorod and Odessa.
“Every year we move from city to city to get to know community after community, and to make the Limmud conference important on a national level,” said Roman Kogan, executive director of Limmud FSU.
Though Chesler said the conference is “apolitical,” it’s hard to avoid the influence of current events in this country, where newspaper headlines are constantly dominated by the conflict with Russia in the east.
The festival’s opening ball included a moment of silence for victims of the violence on the Russian border. Fund-raising tills scattered throughout the conference hotel collected donations for a hospitalized Ukrainian soldier who was wounded in the conflict.
Even the location of the conference held a certain political significance: Lviv is an enclave of Ukrainian nationalism.
In a country where residents are just as likely to speak Russian as Ukrainian, the local tongue dominates in Lviv. At one of the city’s pubs, would-be customers must utter password to enter: Slavo Ukraina – long live Ukraine.