Russia’s ‘culture capital’ sees Jewish revitalization

At St. Petersburg Limmud, founder calls group "start-up" movement for "new horizon" of Judaism.

Limmud FSU 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Limmud FSU)
Limmud FSU 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Limmud FSU)
ST. PETERSBURG – Amid the splendor of Russia’s majestic “culture capital,” hundreds of young Jewish professionals gathered at an area hotel Friday through Sunday for the Limmud FSU conference to learn about a shared history once veiled behind an iron curtain.
Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, St. Petersburg has a Jewish population of approximately 100,000 – second only to Moscow’s 200,000 – and is famed for its many museums, stunning architecture, palaces, sculptures and celebration of culture.
However, like the remainder of the former Soviet Union, the city’s Jewish inhabitants were stripped of their identities during 70 years of Communist rule.
“We are sure that this conference, like all other Limmud FSU [former Soviet Union] conferences, will contribute to Jewish life in this city and make a significant impact on the members of the Jewish community,” said organization founder Chaim Chesler Saturday afternoon.
Now in its third incarnation since its founding seven years ago, the Limmud FSU conference has proven an impressive draw among leading young Jewish professionals from the city – as well as Saratov, Belarus, Ukraine, Kaliningrad and Moscow.
The three-day conference offers 80 lectures on topics ranging from Jewish spirituality, philosophy, ethics, politics, religion, art history, Torah, business, Israeli society, science, yoga, meditation and even dance classes.
Chesler describes Limmud FSU conferences as “egalitarian and pluralistic,” run by local volunteers passionate about the organization’s mission to revitalize Jewish culture while bringing young leaders together.
“The success and mission of Limmud FSU is building a family of young Russian-speaking Jews,” said Chesler. “Look around you: These are the best and brightest of Russian society. They come because this conference gives them a sense of pride and family.”
Indeed, Alina Sykrina, an economist from St. Petersburg, said the three-day conference provides a sense of connectedness and hope for a stronger Jewish future here.
“I volunteer at Hillel House, so feel very strongly about connecting myself and other Jews with our past,” she said. “I believe this is very important to create a better future for us.”
Sykrina described the seminars as far-reaching and full of depth, adding that she attended one Saturday morning lecture titled the “science of the soul,” followed by a talk about start-ups and venture capital.
“As a Jewish economist, I have found a number of fascinating lectures here that suit my interests,” she said.
Among the presenters are prominent historians, scientists, journalists, artists, politicians, businessmen, educators and musicians, primarily from St. Petersburg, Moscow, Israel and the United States.
Some of the marquee names at this year’s conference include renowned Israeli actress Yelena Yaralova, well known poet and philosopher Lev Rubinstein, Prof. and historian Ilya Altman representing the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Dr. Aharon Weiss of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Elena Lagutina of Nativ, first secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, Vicky Raveh FSU director of JNF, and Eliezer Lesovoy of JAFI, FSU Department.
Limmud Jewish education conferences were conceived in Britain 32 years ago as a volunteer driven enterprise. It has since branched out, now holding events in 26 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Hungary, Mexico, the United States, Sweden, Turkey, Israel, Ukraine, Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Limmud FSU was founded in 2006 by Chesler, of Israel, and co-founded by Sandra Cahn, of New York and Mikhail Chlenov, of Russia. Aaron Frenkel of Monte Carlo serves as its president and philanthropist and businessman Matthew Bronfman is chairman of its international steering committee.
Chesler noted that the vast majority of attendees of the weekend event registered online, representing a dramatic technological and cultural paradigm shift from Russia’s once highly restrictive and archaic society.
“After decades of Communism, it’s beautiful to finally see all these young Jewish professionals have freedom of information and the technology to join each other here and make lasting bonds among themselves and their Jewish history,” he said.
Eddie Shapira, consulate general of the State of Israel in St. Petersburg, described Limmud FSU as “unparalleled” in terms of rebuilding the once severed link between Russian Jews and their culture.
“I can’t think of another Jewish event in the world like this one in scale,” said Shapira, who organizes dozens of Jewish and Israelrelated events in the city every year. “This conference strengthens the connection between the Jewish community of St. Petersburg with Israel and promotes the brand of Israel.”
According to Shapira, that brand includes promoting the country’s many accomplishments in science, technology, art and business.
“It’s very important that we connect our young leadership with these perspectives – to show them that Israel is not only about conflict between Palestinians and Jews, but that they can follow and recreate its great achievements in a professional arena here themselves.”
Alexander Belenkiy, a Russian businessman from St. Petersburg currently based in Germany, said he flew in for the conference to see old friends, meet new ones and embrace his Jewish identity.
“[Limmud FSU] is a good platform for me to spend time with friends from Moscow and St. Petersburg who I have not seen in a long time since I moved to Germany,” he said. “I like the lectures and it’s a good opportunity to feel Jewish in a secular way, since I’m not religious,” he added.
Yuri Astrakhan, who relocated from St. Petersburg to New York City to work at Wikimedia Foundation, said he flew to the event to give a lecture about his company’s latest venture, and to meet other young Russian Jewish professionals.
“Of course the lectures are great, but it’s the people that make this so special,” Astrakhan said. “You meet people from all walks of life who want to change the world for the better one way or another, which becomes reinforced in me, as well.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s very true,” he continued. “Whether it’s cultural, political, social or business-related, we hope to make the world a better place.”
To be sure, Chesler describes some attendees as “Limmud addicted.” One such participant is Mikhail Libkin, of Moscow, who has attended every conference over the past seven years.
“I think this is so successful and enjoyable because we do it for ourselves, communities and our families, and not someone else,” said Libkin, who noted the appealing duality of Limmud FSU.
“On one hand it is an excellent forum for Jewish education, and on the other hand it provides freedom and pluralism for everyone to do what they want, which creates a synergistic effect,” he added.
Libkin’s wife, Anna, 25, who works at the Disney Corporation in Moscow, said that because she was born toward the end of Communism, she was able to create a strong Jewish identity unencumbered by geopolitical constraints.
“All my life I’ve been connected to the Jewish community through day schools and camps, so I come here looking for interesting lectures and networking opportunities with like-minded people,” she said.
Natan Roi, an Israeli expert on Soviet Jewry, chief editor of the Jewish Agency’s Hebrew website and former journalist, said Limmud offers a unique means for Russian Jews who were conditioned to ignore their religious history in favor of assimilation and professional pursuits.
“Limmud is the gateway back to their roots and inner world because before they didn’t have this opportunity because they wanted to be Russian professionals first and foremost,” he said. “Judaism didn’t even enter their minds.”
Roi continued, “So Limmud is an eye-opener for them because they can mingle with and ask questions along with people who have the same questions and past as them.”
According to Limud FSU COO, Roman Kogan, St. Petersburg’s conference is perhaps the most cerebral event of all.
“This is a very special Limmud in that it is deep, intelligent, cultural and quieter than the others, much like the city itself,” he said.
“But the beauty of Limmud is that each community builds it according to its nature.”
Indeed, according to Chesler the “secret weapon” of Limmud is that it doesn’t belong to anyone other than the participants themselves.
“All of this belongs to the young Jewish leadership, and therefore has become a ‘startup’ movement for a new Jewish horizon here,” he said.