Limmud brings young FSU Jews closer to Israel

Global network has managed to bring many thousands of young participants around the world to its conferences touching on Jewish themes and issues.

girl leaning on guy (photo credit: Leonid Fridman)
girl leaning on guy
(photo credit: Leonid Fridman)
ST. PETERSBURG – The combination of the words “Jewish” and “education” is likely to send more than one young Jew running for the hills.
But over the past decade or so the global Limmud network has managed to bring many thousands of young participants around the world to its conferences touching on Jewish themes and issues.
Perhaps the most successful of these independent groups has been Limmud FSU, which is geared toward Russian-speakers in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.
Founded five years ago, so far an estimated 13,000 people have attended its conferences held in places as far and wide as Moscow, Kiev, Jerusalem and New York City.
“We never dreamed we’d be this successful,” said Chaim Chesler, the founder and chairman. “When we started in Moscow in May 2006 we never thought of holding it elsewhere but then some Ukrainians came and said they wanted to have one in Ukraine and it spread from there.”
Limmud FSU’s most recent event was held at a modest hotel nestled in a verdant forest on the outskirts of St.Petersburg from September 8 to 10. Some 350 participants paid $70 to take part in the two-day retreat and hear the likes of foodie Gil Hovav talk about Israeli cuisine and journalist Ben-Dror Yemini analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps more importantly, participants came to meet each other.
“I met my girlfriend at a Limmud conference in Moscow,” said Michael Kapitsky, a 24-year-old who works as an interpreter at a think tank in St. Petersburg. “Now I came here to this Limmud with her as a volunteer.”
At a panel on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gatherers displayed an impressive knowledge of the region.
“Russian Jews often know a lot more about Israel than their Jewish-American counterparts,” said Steve Schwager, the executive director of the Jewish American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which is a cosponsor of Limmud FSU. “Almost all of them have family in Israel and they’re constantly on the line going back and forth.”
Revenues from the sale of tickets covered between 15 and 20 percent of the St.Petersburg conference’s costs, organizers said. The rest came from a coalition of funders including Jewish-American businessman and Limmud FSU steering committee chairman Matthew Bronfman, the JDC, Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Jewish Agency for Israel, Nativ and the Pinkus Foundation.
While Limmud FSU has found a steady following, its reach among Russian Jewry is limited. The majority of Jews in the former Soviet Union are not involved in communal life. In St. Petersburg, where the conference took place, maybe 30 percent of the city’s roughly 100,000 Jews are affiliated, Limmud officials admit. An even smaller number of those have heard of its conferences, let alone participated in one.
Still, the number of those who have is growing. Limmud FSU said tickets for its confab in St. Petersburg – the first of its kind held in that city – were sold out within two weeks of going on sale and it had to turn 150 people away.
“Now that we know that it works well we’ll have a bigger conference next time,” said Roman Kogan, Limmud FSU’s Chief Operation Officer.
Chesler, who has injected the group with his hyperactivity, hopes to take the conferences to new locations in the future, including Harbin, a Chinese city which has a fascinating Jewish past.
“We’re currently negotiating with the Chinese government,” he said.
“We want to do it during the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in January,” said Chesler. “We have plans to build a Western Wall out of ice.”
Until then, organizers are busy planning the next Limmud FSU conference set to take place in Odessa in late October.
The author was a guest of the Limmud FSU conference in St.Petersburg.