Rekindling the Jewish flame

Limmud FSU has helped Russian-speaking Jews develop Jewish awareness and identity following the dark Soviet era in which they were cut off from their roots.

Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chessler, center with cake, together with secretarygeneral Diane Wohl and participants at Limmud FSU Art Jerusalem in 2012. (photo credit: LIMMUD)
Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chessler, center with cake, together with secretarygeneral Diane Wohl and participants at Limmud FSU Art Jerusalem in 2012.
(photo credit: LIMMUD)
LIMMUD, THE 35 year-young phenomenon which first saw the light of day in the United Kingdom in 1980, has revitalized Jewish learning and culture in its broadest sense across the world in dozens of languages and on six continents.
Nearly 10 years ago, in 2006, a small group of us who were actively involved with Russian-speaking Jewry visited Limmud in Nottingham University, England, for the first time, and were instantly won over. We immediately realized the potential of the Limmud educational model for Russian- speaking Jews and there and then made a decision to take the idea and mold it into a similar program tailored for the specific needs of young Jews in the former Soviet Union.
The Jews in the FSU had been deprived of Jewish education and culture throughout most of the 70 years of Communist rule that began with the Russian Revolution of 1917, under which Jewish and Hebrew culture had been severely repressed and its practitioners, leaders, teachers and students often persecuted.
All of this began to change with the onset of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s, and changed dramatically with the opening of the gates of the Soviet Union and the beginning of free emigration which resulted in the departure en masse of the former Soviet Union’s Jews to the West – more than one million to Israel and hundreds of thousands to the USA, Germany, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening, 25 years ago, of the gates to free Jewish emigration, a vacuum opened up with regard to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who chose to remain. During the first decade, from the early 1990s to about 2000, many of the world’s major Jewish organizations stepped into the breach and provided what were essential services at that time.
These included the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the “Joint”), The Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany, the Hillel student organization, the Chabad network and the Jewish Agency, all of whom commenced operations throughout the area, providing financial assistance, social and humanitarian aid, and cultural and religious support to those who needed and wanted it.
Many of these activities still exist, but as the second decade ensued and a new generation of local FSU leadership began to emerge, the pendulum began to swing from the global Jewish organizations to local institutions, such as the Russian Jewish Congress – not only in the Russian Federation, but increasingly also in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. This manifested itself not only in purely organizational terms but also with regard to self-reliance and fund-raising as a means to support local initiatives.
Both of the writers of this article have a rich history of involvement and interest in the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Chaim Chesler was secretary-general of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, head of the Jewish Agency’s Aliya Delegation to the United States and Canada and then head of the Jewish Agency’s delegation in the former USSR and later treasurer of the Jewish Agency, and was intimately involved with the plight of Soviet Jews. Sandra Cahn is an activist and philanthropist with a special interest in the cause of Soviet Jewry. She held major national leadership positions with the UJA during the time of Operation Exodus and continues to this day to be active on the Board of Trustees of UJA-New York Federation and the Board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, with a deep and abiding interest in Russian-speaking Jewry (RSJ). COJECO, the umbrella of all Russian-speaking Jewish organizations in the NYC area, honored her as the first non-Russian-speaking individual to make a significant impact in the NY RSJ community.
Both of us were deeply impressed by the work of Limmud in the UK and we founded Limmud FSU specifically to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Jews (with an emphasis on the younger generation) who had chosen not to emigrate.
We discovered an enormous and unsatisfied thirst for knowledge among these young people who knew very little of their own culture, heritage and Jewish identity.
The first Limmud FSU conference took place in Moscow in 2006 and has since become an annual event – the most important in the Jewish cultural life of the Russian capital. The 2015 event – held April 23-26 with a record 1,400 participants – is the second- largest Limmud gathering in the world; the only larger event being the “original” winter Limmud Conference in the United Kingdom, with nearly 3,000 participants.
Another major independent Limmud FSU event has taken place annually in St.
Petersburg since 2011. Future Limmud FSU events planned in Russia include one in Kazan for the Volga and Ural region. A conference even took place in 2009 in Birodbidzan in the Russian Far East.
Yearly conferences take place in Ukraine and are centrally organized, although the venues change – conferences have been held in Yalta, Lviv, Truskavets, Vinnitsa, Uzhgorod, three times in Odessa – despite the present political unrest and uncertainty.
Similarly, Belarus has hosted conferences since 2013 in Vitebsk, and Moldova too now hosts annual events.
On a visit to a major English-speaking Limmud event in New York, Sandra Cahn and I were amazed to realize that there were virtually no young immigrants from the former Soviet states taking part, although it is estimated that there are more than 300,00 new immigrant Russian speakers in the NY metro area! In investigating further, it was made clear to us that even if the participants knew English well, many of them, especially the older ones, would really prefer to hear lectures and presentations in Russian that resonated with their specific interests and knowledge of Jewish culture and Judaism – and the younger ones were glad for the opportunity to meet and mingle with others with the same background and mindset as themselves.
This was made even more abundantly clear to us in Israel, with more than one million Russian speakers who arrived since 1989, and later the same situation became apparent in Canada and Australia, although there are successful English-speaking Limmud events in both countries.
As a consequence, the first Limmud FSU USA took place in New York in 2009 as a one-day event. It is now an annual three-day event with nearly 1,000 participants.
A second US Limmud FSU is planned for early 2016 in Los Angeles for the West Coast. The annual Israeli event has taken place so far in Ashkelon, Upper Nazareth, Beersheba, Kibbutz Ginosar and three times in Jerusalem, led by Rina Zaslavsky and project manager Yan Birbraer. Toronto hosted its own Limmud FSU conference in 2014, a year that also saw the launch of Limmud FSU Australia, which has some 30,000 Russian-speaking immigrants out of a total Jewish population of approximately 120,000.
As in all Limmud events, Limmud FSU conferences are also based on the concept of volunteerism – but here also the starting point was radically different. In the Communist regime of the USSR, the concept of volunteerism basically did not exist. Sociologists suggest that during those 70 years, people became accustomed to a paternalistic state that sought to direct how its citizens thought and to create a collective mentality in which initiative was frowned upon and ethnic identity was irrelevant. Under such conditions volunteerism had no role to play.
At Limmud FSU this whole thought process has been turned upside down. Limmud FSU conferences (as in Limmud worldwide) are totally volunteer-driven: the programs are planned by volunteers who also select the presenters; logistics, recruitment, public relations, marketing and administration are all dealt with by teams of volunteers.
None of this could have come about without the active support and backing of several major organizations, including the Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund, the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency, UJA-Federation of New York and several others. Matthew Bronfman is chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee and its president is Aaron Frenkel. Diane Wohl is its secretary-general.
As we have emphasized, all Limmud FSU conference and events are initiated, planned, operated and run by local volunteers and the local project manager.
Nevertheless, because we are now a world-encompassing enterprise, active in 12 different locations and on four continents, there is need for a cadre of professional staff in Jerusalem giving global backing. This is led by Roman Kogan, our executive director.
Because of the long period (three generations!) during which Russian-speaking Jews were to all intents and purposes cut off from their Jewish roots, the tasks and challenges facing Limmud FSU are very different from those in the rest of the world. As we near our 10th year of activities, we can already see the huge difference in Jewish awareness and a feeling of identity and national pride that is being fostered by Limmud FSU activities among the young Jews still living in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, as is evident in the ever-increasing number of participants in our events.
Chaim Chesler is founder and chair of the Executive Committee of Limmud FSU.
Sandra Cahn is co-founder and chair Financial Resources Development Committee of Limmud FSU