What I learned in the Hamptons

Limmud FSU conference provided young Jewish Russian-speaking emigres with much-needed 'Judaism boost.'

limmud 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
limmud 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I didn't know much about Limmud FSU. About Matthew Bronfman I knew a bit more. I knew he was involved with Israeli banks. Banks annoy me. And I knew he was an owner of IKEA in Israel. This is also not one of my favorites, because my credit cards seem to work overtime there. But last week, on Long Island, New York, I discovered that the combination between Limmud FSU and Bronfman is a winning one. I concluded this after I witnessed hundreds of young Jewish emigrés from the former Soviet Union lifting their hands to the sky and dancing and singing Moshiach, Moshiach, Moshiach and other Jewish and Israeli songs after a long day of intensive learning within the framework of the program. Bronfman is one of the major supporters of Limmud FSU, and chairman of its international steering committee. This dynamic organization represents a grassroots movement whose goal is to instill Judaism and Zionism in hundreds of thousands of young Jewish emigrés throughout the world from the FSU. FAR FROM the spotlight, some good people are supporting an organization that has been established to give a bit of yiddishkeit and basic Judaism to those who, because of their circumstances - especially under communism - have for many years been distanced from their heritage. The Limmud model is based on an open classroom. It's a place to exchange ideas, opinions and concepts to make this young Russian-speaking cohort more informed on critical issues of the day and more connected to their heritage and to Judaism. In Jerusalem, in Ashkelon, in Yalta, in Moscow, in New York and next month in Birobidzhan, young Jews from the FSU meet a number of times a year and together explore just what Judaism, Zionism and Israel are all about. Presenters and lecturers are all volunteers. The demand is so great it is very difficult to meet. But there are two people who are crazy about this notion and are making it work. Chaim Chesler from Israel and Sandra Cahn from New York have infected hundreds with this positive passion. At the Hamptons Synagogue on Long Island last week, at the first Limmud FSU on American shores, participants included hundreds of young Jewish immigrants now living in the New York area. In that area alone, there are approximately 340,000 Jews who immigrated from the FSU and whose connections to Judaism, Zionism and Israel are very superficial, if they exist at all. At the opening itself, spirits were lifted as the New York Synagogue Choir, under the direction of Izchak Haimov, created an exceptional Jewish atmosphere. As Limmud FSU marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Shalom Aleichem, Cantor Netanel Hershtik sang songs based on writings of the famed writer. The day included more than 80 lecturers and presenters who appeared at nearly 40 sessions. This was not indoctrination, but Judaism lite. There were discussions on the Jewish kitchen, on cantorial issues and Jewish poetry, on Jewish humor, on Jewish culture, on Jewish history, ancient and modern, on Muslim-Jewish relations, on anti-Semitism, on the Holocaust and, of course, on Israel - its politics, economy and the place of immigrants from the FSU in Israeli society. AS OPPOSED to other Jewish conferences I've attended, here I didn't see people hanging out in the corridors instead of the lecture halls. Everyone was attending sessions or was in the synagogue, which was the center of learning Torah. Throughout, I saw a great thirst for knowledge that was very difficult to quench. Here, there was a desire to know, to learn, to become acquainted, and to actually be able to touch the past with a yearning to live together in the present and the future. At my appearance at a session on Israel democracy and government - along with MKs Ze'ev Elkin, Fania Kirshenbaum and former MK Leon Litinetsky - I saw just how little participants knew about Israel. But how great their inquisitiveness! A long day of sessions and discussions full of learning and debate and inspiration ended with a barbecue in the synagogue's courtyard, where Rabbi Marc Schneier took the microphone, and with Cantor Hershtik, infused the young people with songs from the land of Israel and Judaism. There, it was difficult to distinguish who was an Israeli, who was an American and who was a young Jew recently arrived from the FSU. Enthusiasm swamped everyone. The dancing and singing on display were proof positive to the success of Limmud FSU in instilling Judaism and Zionism among and within these young people. Guest of honor for the day was Bel Kaufman, the granddaughter of Shalom Aleichem, whose 150th birthday this year was the central theme of the conference. The 98-year-old Kaufman, as sharp as ever, told of a few of her experiences with her famous grandfather. A short story that she told should be a lesson to all of us. Her grandfather, she said, once told her that she should laugh at every joke she is told, even if she doesn't understand it. When she expressed her astonishment, she said, her grandfather told her that if she didn't understand the joke now, she would later, and that nevertheless, to laugh is always good. A bit of wisdom, direct from the source at Limmud FSU. The writer served as a senior adviser to President Shimon Peres.