The Jewish-Russian origins of the global hi-tech code

Innovation was the focus of this year’s Limmud FSU-US conference

PARTICIPANTS IN the Limmud FSU-US conference dance and sing along with the New York klezmer band Golem. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
PARTICIPANTS IN the Limmud FSU-US conference dance and sing along with the New York klezmer band Golem.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
My cousin Lou – a traditional Orthodox Jewish retiree from Parsippany, New Jersey – stood with his mouth wide open. Less than a mile from his suburban home a couple hours after Shabbat ended on a recent Saturday night, nearly 800 young Russian-Americans assembled at the Sheraton hotel resort were wildly dancing and singing along to the rousing Yiddish/Russian-punk strains of New York klezmer band Golem.
“I would never have believed a scene of Jewish renewal like this is taking place right around the corner from me,” Lou shouted above the frenzy before getting caught up himself and beginning to clap his hands along to the torridly paced music.
The setting was the Limmud FSU-US conference at the end of March, the biggest annual gathering of Russian Jews in North America. Limmud FSU, founded in 2005 by Chaim Chesler, former head of JAFI’s delegation in the former Soviet Union, and Sandra Cahn, a philanthropist from New York, calls itself a festival of Jewish learning that over the course of one weekend offers a packed program of lectures, workshops, round-table discussions, music and a wide range of cultural events in three languages – Russian, English and Hebrew.
While most of its activities are focused on countries in the FSU, Limmud FSU’s annual conference in the New York area – where an estimated nearly one million Russian Jews live – has succeeded in galvanizing a usually fragmented community.
“We’re used to playing to hipsters in Brooklyn, so it’s a real thrill to perform tonight for you, who actually share in the music’s heritage,” said Golem’s singer and accordionist, Annette Ezekiel Kogan, to the breathless audience between songs.
The band’s imaginatively updated take on the age-old musical legacy of eastern European Jews may appear anachronistic in 2014, even for 20-something Americans, but it actually melded perfectly into the theme of the Limmud FSU weekend: innovation.
In its effort to strengthen Jewish identity as well as an appreciation for Israel among the children of Russian- Jewish immigrants to the US, Limmud FSU brought a world-class lineup of speakers to the weekend, including author Lihi Lapid, MKs Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid) and Omer Bar-Lev (Labor), the ubiquitous Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Prof. Adam Shwartz from the Cornell Innovation Institute, Yoram Drori, adviser to President Shimon Peres, and former Israel ambassador to Italy and Foreign Ministry senior official Gideon Meir.
“Limmud FSU has revolutionized pluralistic Jewish engagement of Russian- speaking Jews and is making a great impact in strengthening Jewish identity through a unique educational experience of Jewish history and culture,” said Matthew Bronfman, chairman of the International Steering Committee of Limmud FSU, who delivered a session and, hobbled by crutches due to a winter skiing mishap, attended many more along with his teenage son at his side.
One of the most well-attended breakout sessions at the conference took the innovation theme and looked at it through a Russian-Jewish lens. The session – titled “Is the Jewish code for Success Written in Russian?” – derived from the astounding success that Russian-Jewish emigrants have achieved in the hitech field, both in Israel and globally.
From Jan Koum of WhatsApp to Google’s Sergey Brin and PayPal’s Max Levchin, some of today’s most successful companies were founded by young Jewish-Russian innovators. At the same time, could the thriving Start-up Nation in Israel have risen to its current heights without the influx of the nearly one million immigrants in the 1990s from the FSU? According to one of the panelists, Eli Itin, an “innovation guru” at successful Israeli company Amdocs, the answer is clear to him every day when he goes to work.
“I’ve recently been working with a lot with startup hubs around the world, and you see the influence and power of the Russian entrepreneurial spirit everywhere,” said Itin, who was born in Leningrad and moved with his parents to Israel in the ’90s.
“It can’t be missed, and from everything I’ve witnessed, it’s been one of the major engines for growth in Israel since the hi-tech boom of the mid-’90s. And I have to tell you, you’re as likely to hear Russian being spoken in the corridors of Amdocs as you are to hear English, Hebrew or Arabic.”
Co-panelist Levy Raiz, a 27-year-old Russian-born venture capitalist and the CEO of Jerusalem Startup Hub who made aliya in 2011, theorized that the secret of Russian Jewish success is connected to the high value placed on education in the FSU – and among Jews worldwide.
“I think that the code of innovation is not necessarily written in Russian, but in a Jewish language – whatever language Jews speak,” he said. “Russians bring a great value of course, because of the emphasis placed on education and systematic science that Russian intelligentsia has been nurturing for the last 50 years. And all this knowledge accumulated in the Jewish minds together with the entrepreneurial spirit of the Israelis created what we now know as the Start-up Nation.”
For proof of his theory, you didn’t need to look much farther than Raiz’s third co-panelist Evgeny Korchnoy, who made aliya from Moscow in 1999 and today is the director of the Leumi Robotics Center at the Technion.
“I was teaching Hebrew in Sunday school in Russia, but I was told by a university advisor that my ‘yiddishe kopf’ was more suited to engineering, and he was apparently correct,” said Korchnoy.
The panelists painted different pictures when faced with the “what if” scenario of the Soviet Union not collapsing and the bulk of Russian Jewry remaining in their countries of origin instead of dispersing to Israel, the US and other western countries.
“Russia certainly would have been more successful, richer and advanced, and Israel would not have succeeded at the pace it has,” said Raiz. “But innovation would still have continued to grow and there would have been collaborations between Russian, Israeli and American Jews.
“I think that Russian Jewry would have thrived despite staying in Russia. It’s good that there was massive emigration to Israel and the US, but nothing terrible would have happened if Jews had stayed in places where they used to be.”
Itin, the innovation guru, agreeing with part of Raiz’s analysis, took exception to his conclusion.
“I agree that even if the Soviet Union hadn’t failed, the Jews would have contributed.
They contributed under communism,” he said.
“But the difference between the freedom they have in the US and Israel to be religiously and economically free compared to the kind of mental jail that they were living in Russia isn’t something that you can even compare.”
Just ask the hundreds of grown children of Russian-Jewish emigrants to the US on the dance floor swinging to the klezmer sounds – free to celebrate their heritage, revel in the present and set the stage for the creation of the next Google.