A Jewish renaissance in Ukraine

Renewing a vibrant, pluralistic and inclusive Jewish community devastated by the holocaust.

Limmud 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Limmud 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Limmud FSU Conference in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod may very well be the intellectual Jewish Woodstock of the former Soviet Union.
Attracting over 600 Jews from all walks of life across the country, as well as from surrounding nations, it is a four-day meeting of the minds with one important commonality: devotion to, and curiosity about, a shared and endangered history.
The conference, now in its sixth incarnation in countries of the Former Soviet Union (FSU), began on November 1 and was dedicated to the themes of tolerance and pluralism – two concepts that are becoming increasingly endangered in Ukraine amid growing displays of anti- Semitism within the economically challenged nation.
Indeed, following a strong showing in the country’s October 28 election from the radical right-wing Svoboda (Freedom) party – which secured 41 seats in the Ukrainian parliament, openly admires Nazism and is expected to legitimize public displays of anti-Semitism – Limmud’s theme of tolerance is, unfortunately, as relevant as ever.
Despite this troubling social backdrop, participants came from far and wide to meet other Jews hoping to restore a once-thriving community nearly destroyed by hatred.
“Yes, I feel the anti-Semitism in this country, and Eastern Europe in general,” said Yoni, a 25-year-old participant who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety. “There is still great hatred for Jews here, and sometimes it’s dangerous for us.
That’s why the Limmud FSU Conference is so important – so we can come together and feel pride about being Jews.”
Featuring dozens of all-day lectures from internationally acclaimed experts on subjects ranging from the cerebral to the physical – including Jewish history in Israel and Ukraine, Jewish international policy, intellectual games, and beading, Israeli dance and yoga classes – the conference had something for everyone.
“I honestly don’t know which lecture or activity to go to first,” said Igor Rodomyselskiy, 25, of Uzhgorod. “I feel like I’m a kid in a toy store!” Hosted in an austere, enormous Sovietera hotel that belied the vibrant atmosphere emanating from the hundreds of guests within, one would be forgiven for initially thinking the conference was all business and no fun. But like many things in Ukraine, looks can be deceiving.
Indeed, despite its no-frills exterior, the hotel’s enormous lobby, many conference rooms, cafeteria and guest rooms were percolating with energy and vitality for four consecutive days from inspired young Jewish men and women of varying degrees of observance – many of whom traveled for days at their own expense.
“It took me two days to get here, and I am paying for it all myself,” said Masha Dorojko, 20, who lives on the other side of the country and took time off from her job to attend the event. “For me this is an important event that I simply can’t miss because it gives me a chance to learn from and be with people like me.”
“We came to be part of something special,” added her friend Oksana Nipropodoski, 23.
Echoing the sentiment of identification and belonging was Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler, who is a former treasurer of the Jewish Agency.
“Limmud aims to enable every participant to take one step further on his or her Jewish journey, including those who have studied Jewish topics intensively, and others who have very little practical knowledge,” said Chesler. “Three million Jews perished in this part of the world. This is a very important part of our story – that’s why we decided to do it here in Uzhgorod. Not just to mourn the loss of life, but to encourage renewal.”
A celebration of life
The conference officially commenced following a grand opening gala ceremony on the evening of November 1 at a former synagogue now used as a local concert hall.
“It’s a shame that this is no longer a synagogue,” said Anatoliy Shengayt, 50, from Kiev. “One of the reasons we came here is to work to revitalize a once strong Jewish community. But it’s still good to be here.”
After opening remarks from Chesler, chairman of Limmud FSU Ukraine Osik Akselrud, co-chairman Igor Schupak, Israeli Ambassador Reuven Din-El and visiting MK Faina Kirschenbaum (Yisrael Beytenu) to welcome and thank the many volunteers and guests, a Budapest klezmer band got the event off to a colorful start with lively song and dance performances indigenous to the region.
Highlights of the opening night also included performances by internationally celebrated Jewish singer Iryna Rozenfeld of Kiev, an Uzhgorod folk-ethnographic ensemble, and an excerpt from My Fair Lady, performed by the Transcarpathian Regional Music and Drama Theater.
Following the night’s festivities, the hundreds of guests returned to the hotel by chartered buses to get a good night’s sleep before the torrent of lectures, activities and exhibitions awaiting them in the morning.
The Limmud sessions – beginning at 9 a.m. and lasting until 2 a.m. – were each an hour long and focused on an enormous breadth of topics, ranging from social and political trends within Jewish communities around the world, Israeli politics, Jewish symbolism, traditional Jewish texts, Jewish history and Holocaust studies, to Jewish cooking, Yiddish theater and Israeli dance and music.
Among the speakers were worldrenowned academics and journalists, as well as general Jewish enthusiasts who came to share their passion.
Limmud’s history A volunteer-driven Jewish learning juggernaut, Limmud was conceived in Britain 32 years ago. Its first conference took place there in 1980 and inspired participants to branch out internationally. Since 1990, Limmud activities have taken place throughout the world, including in Canada, Australia, the US, Switzerland, Turkey, Russia and most recently Ukraine.
“Limmud is a celebration of the soul and the mind,” said Akselrud, who is the regional director of Hillel in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and the executive director of the Joint Jewish Community of Ukraine.
“One cannot understand what Limmud is all about just by listening to the words of others. Each participant must experience it for themselves, in the spirit of open-mindedness and pluralism,” he said.
Indeed, perhaps the program’s biggest draw was its ability to attract diverse young Jewish adults of all ages and backgrounds.
A bird’s-eye view of the lobby of the enormous Uzhgorod hotel revealed a wide array of Jews from Ukraine and surrounding countries, all of whom sacrificed to be part of the event.
“It was important for me to come, because it gives me an opportunity to meet other young Jews from the country and learn about our shared experience and history,” said Elana Chuhray, 25, of Rivne.
“I feel great pride to be here and join other people like me who want to celebrate their Jewish identity. It’s worth the cost because the connection this program creates is priceless.”
Chesler, co-founder Sandra Cahn of New York, Prof. Mikhail Chlenov of Russia and Gita Shlick-Vider of Nativ in Kiev, have successfully made it their mission to bring together and empower young Russianspeaking Jewish adults who are eager to revitalize Jewish culture in once-thriving Jewish communities of the FSU and countries devastated by World War II.
Adding gravitas to the board of directors is celebrated US industrialist and philanthropist Matthew Bronfman, who joined the organization as chairman of the International Steering Committee.
“Our goal is simple,” said Chesler. “It is to restore the tradition of lifelong Jewish learning and identity where it was stripped away.”
This is particularly important in a city like Uzhgorod, he added, where a once thriving Jewish population was almost wiped out during World War II.
A dark past
The most western city in Ukraine, Uzhgorod has a rich history dating back 1,110 years. The city was originally called Ungvar and retained the name up to World War I.
The second part of its name is derived from the Hungarian word “var,” which means fortress or castle. The city – founded by an Eastern Slavic tribe of White Croats – gets its present name from the Uzh River, which divides it into two halves.
The first hint that there were Jews in Uzhgorod dates back to the 16th century.
At the end of the 1720s, there were roughly 30 Jewish families, and in 1730, Rabbi Leibush Bodek-Reisman of Lvov, considered the founding father of the Jewish community there, took over as spiritual leader.
The city’s Jewish community developed at the end of the 18th century, after the partition of Poland, and rapidly expanded in the first half of the 19th century to over 5,000 Jews.
Uzhgorod quickly distinguished itself as a stronghold of the Orthodox and hassidic communities, and in 1890 a Jewish elementary school was established, followed by other Hebrew schools, as well as a Talmud Torah and yeshiva.
In 1904, the central synagogue – the one now serving as the aforementioned concert hall – was built. A Jewish hospital and geriatric facility were also created to serve the community. By 1938, the city counted 9,676 Jews – nearly a third of the total population.
However, following the Munich Pact that same year, Uzhgorod was annexed by Hungary, which immediately implemented anti-Jewish legislation. In the winter of 1939-1940, all Jews of Polish and Czech citizenship were expelled to Poland, where most perished in concentration camps.
Meanwhile, young Jews were conscripted into forced labor and sent to the Russian front, never to return.
During Passover, April 21 to 23, 1944, all the Jews of Uzhgorod and the surrounding communities were imprisoned in a ghetto located outside the city in a brick factory and lumberyard. Three weeks later, they were deported to Auschwitz.
From the ashes
Following the war, hundreds of survivors returned to the city, but many subsequently left for Czechoslovakia. Today the Jewish population in Uzhgorod is about 1,500, although strides have been made within that community to grow.
“This Limmud in Uzhgorod is devoted to the theme of tolerance, a subject which is unfortunately still a problem for the whole world and which has always been of great concern for the world Jewish community – particularly the one that used to inhabit this great city,” said Akselrud.
Since its inception in 2006, Limmud FSU has held events in Jewish communities where Jews were victimized, and has gone on to become one of the most successful Jewish educational models in the world.
“The power of Limmud comes from our participants and the unique story of the Jewish people,” Chesler said. “All participants are equal. No one here is better than anyone else. We all eat together, learn together and sleep under the same roof. We work as one.”
Akselrud repeatedly echoed the theme of solidarity and intellectual and spiritual enrichment during the conference.
“Limmud is a unique event in its scope and significance for the world Jewish community,” he said. “Participation in Limmud cannot be compared to anything else. It gives us the opportunity to enrich ourselves by listening to lectures by leading scholars from around the world, as well as to become acquainted with many distinguished public and political personalities.
It gives us a chance to learn from others and let others share in our experiences.”
Presenters included Alexander Duchovny, chief rabbi of Kiev and the Ukraine communities of progressive Judaism; Yacov Livne, director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Eurasia Department in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova; popular Russian poet Vladimir Vishnevsky; Prof. Yevgeny Kotlyar of the Kharkov State Academy of Design and Arts; poet and journalist Svetlana Akesenova-Shteingrud; Rabbi Menachem Ha- Cohen, vice-president of the Claims Conference; Rina Zaslavsky of the Jewish Agency; Mikhail Galin, local Hesed director and JDC representative in the region; journalist Shimon Briman; and Shimon Briman, an expert in Jewish history and the Diaspora.
For those who wanted to be more physically active, there were also numerous classes in dance, yoga, beading, drama, improvisation and painting stained glass. There was even a DJ to keep people dancing well into the night.
“Look around us. Where else can you find so many young Jewish people who are willing to travel across a country at their own expense to learn more about their identity and meet others like them? This is really cool!” said Oleg Cohan, 33, of Odessa.
A brighter future
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the Limmud conference was its ability to empower participants and enable them to stop feeling like an endangered minority and start feeling like members of people with a proud past, and a brighter future.
Indeed, the series has distinguished itself by helping Jews who may have felt cut off by a tragic history feel like they are part of a community again.
Limmud FSU Chief Operating Officer Roman Kogan, who helped the volunteers organize the conference, along with project manager Galina Rybnikova, summarized the 30-year trajectory of the program.
“In the ’80s it was ‘Let my people go.’ In the ’90s it was ‘Let my people know.’ In the first part of the 2000s it was ‘Let my people do,’” he said. “Now, I believe it is ‘Let my people grow.’” Kogan, an Israeli citizen born in Estonia, says future programs are already in advanced planning stages for early 2013 in Moscow, St. Petersburg, the United States, Belarus, Israel and Ukraine.
“Wherever there are Jews and a desire to reclaim and reconnect with their past to create their own Jewish life, that is where we will take Limmud,” Kogan said.