Limmud conference draws 750 FSU olim

It was amazing to "see Russians pick topics embodying the beauty of Judaism and Israel."

Most immigrants from the former Soviet Union prefer life in Israel to that in their country of origin, but see maintaining ties to Russian culture as a priority, a new survey shows. The survey, conducted by the Ramat Gan-based New Wave (HaGal HaChadash) Research Institute, was commissioned by the Limmud Institute for the FSU on the eve of a conference in the capital attended by 750 Russian-Israelis aged 20-35. The 48-hour Limmud conference at Beit AVI CHAI, which ends on Friday, seeks to provide a forum for informal, pluralistic Jewish education in an environment that combines aspects of both Russian and Israeli culture. According to the survey, 64 percent of FSU immigrants prefer life in Israel to that in their country of origin, though 28% said they "would like to live in the United States, Western Europe or Russia." The standard of Russian culture is higher than Israeli culture, 62% of respondents said, while 6% said Israeli culture is preferable. Accordingly, 43% want to educate their children in Russian culture, while 18% want their children educated in Israeli culture and 29% want equal influence of both cultures. Limmud conference participant Leonid Olender made aliya from Ukraine at age 17 without his family, and is currently in the middle of his mandatory army service. He told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday the survey results rang true. "I look at my friends and I see some of both. I see people coming here and staying in their culture, that don't want to integrate." He also sees the reverse. "Some come here and say, 'What I had, I don't need anymore.'" "I am trying to be in the middle," Olender said. He feels lucky that he has had the opportunity to be a part of two cultures. "My world is wider," he said. Though most of his friends are Russian-speaking, he requested a Hebrew-speaking adoptive family when he moved to the kibbutz near Ra'anana where he currently lives. IDF service has provided an important foray into Israeli culture, he said. "Where I am serving, there are almost no Russian-speakers. I have a Druse officer, and serve with mostly native Israelis." One of the few Russians he serves with doesn't like to speak Russian. "At first it was hard to see a Russian-speaking person who didn't like to speak Russian. Now I see that he was right... We are living here [and] whether we want it or not, living here means we are a part of society, [which] means we need to integrate... [But] to preserve our native culture and language is important." Olender came to the Limmud conference because he heard about it from a friend, but he didn't really know what it entailed until he arrived. The conference consists of more than 200 lectures and presentations. All presenters are volunteers, and the conference is completely run by participants. "They love it because it belongs to them - it's theirs," said Chaim Chesler, co-founder of Limmud FSU. "Every participant can be a lecturer, and every lecturer can be a participant." Education is the key focus, and Chesler sees it as a way of continuing the job that was started by supporting aliya from the FSU. The conference's pluralistic nature means that "it's not too Orthodox, and anyone... can find his place. [It features] all the best that we have in our tradition," Limmud FSU co-founder Sandy Cahn said. A total of "1.2 million [FSU olim] came, and most didn't have Jewish education in Russia - some also not in Israel. [We felt] it was important to complete the job. Not just to bring them here, but to help them complete their education," she said. "The Russian community came and they still have their own very special culture. They are integrated at work but still have this deep, rich culture that they want to keep. [Russians in Israel] are brilliant, creative and determined." Cahn said the conference is a unique and positive way of approaching a serious issue. Volunteers and participants chose all of the topics to be addressed. It was amazing to "see Russians pick topics embodying the beauty of Judaism and Israel," Cahn said. "Jewish identity is a big problem in Israel." Alon Cohen and Idan Cohen are sabras working in production at the conference. Said Idan, "[Integration] is important in every community, but there's more of a problem with the Russian community." Both agree that they see Russians in Israel holding on tightly to their native culture. They agree that "it's their right to think that way... [but] it's a bit of a problem." Alon said the conference is here to help forge Jewish roots for participants, and to help educate them on Jewish tradition. "The Russian community has a less traditional background," he said. "Whoever is here [at the conference] is trying to get closer to Israeli culture." Conference participant Matrey Savechenkov arrived from Russia four months ago. He heard about the conference from a friend, and knew it addressed topics related to Judaism and Zionism. He feels that both are an important part of bridging the gaps between Russian and Israeli cultures. "Of course" it is more important for him to keep his Russian culture, but Russian and Israeli culture "can cooperate," he said. When asked if learning about and becoming a part of Israeli culture was important to him, Savechenkov answered, "Of course. It's [now] my life. "We don't need to separate our country and this county... They can enrich each other. Russians can contribute to Israeli culture, and Israelis to Russian culture." "This [conference] shows what they [FSU immigrants] have gained, and what they can contribute," Chesler said.