by Yoram Dori
This week I participated in a Limmud FSU conference in St. Petersburg, the very special Jewish itinerant festival for Russian-speaking Jews – most of them young – that I had previously attended in Moscow, Truskovets and Odessa in Ukraine, and in Jerusalem, Beersheba and even New York – where there are thousands of young Russian speakers. Limmud FSU is the unique educational project which began in the UK more than 30 years ago and which aims to bring young Jews back to their roots in non-traditional creative ways which appeal to the young participants. It is the participants themselves who determine the topics and the speakers, and even pay for the privilege and then take part in the sessions from dawn to way after the sun has set.
On arriving in St. Petersburg, a magnificent city with a Jewish population of about 100,000, I felt myself in a time tunnel going back 30 years and more. At that time, in the 1980s, I was working in the Spokesman’s Office of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization in Jerusalem. Those were still the days of the Communist Soviet Union. The iron curtain prevented hundreds of thousands of Jews from emigrating to Israel. Thousands of cases of refuseniks (people whose request to emigrate had been refused by the Soviet authorities) and which had torn families asunder, landed on the desk of the Jewish Agency and the international organizations that were struggling for the right of the Jews to emigrate. Among the many difficult cases was that of the family of Sofa Landver (today Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption). She had left no stone unturned in the endeavor to seek permits to leave the USSR for her ailing mother and her sister, Nona, so that she could see her mother for maybe the last time. The poignant story moved me enormously and I attempted to influence public opinion so that pressure would be bought on the Soviet authorities, to allow the family to leave. The efforts were led by Akiva Lewinsky, the treasurer of the Jewish Agency at the time and his talented assistant, Zvi Barak, and we mobilized Knesset members and public figures throughout the world to the cause. Two of the most prominent activists were Chaim Chesler, then head of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, and Edgar Bronfman, Chairman of the World Jewish Congress.
Here in Limmud St. Petersburg, I went to a concert given by the jazz virtuoso Leonid Ptashka. I was told that the guests of honor were to be Drs. Moshe and Nona Shneerson, philanthropists who were covering much of the costs of the conference. In the lobby of the concert hall, I met Matthew Bronfman, Chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee, together with Chaim Chesler, founder and director of Limmud FSU and Moshe and Nona (ne’e Kuchina) Shneerson, the owners and founders of an internationally-known homeopathic medical products business, known as Dr Nona International.
I asked Chesler who was Dr. Nona, as she somehow seemed familiar. Chesler told me that she was the sister of Sofa Landver. I broke out in a cold sweat and told him that 30 years earlier, I had played a small role in getting her out of the USSR. Moreover, two key figures at that time were Edgar Bronfman, father of Matthew, and Chesler himself. We all agreed that not only is this a small world, but such a story could only happen among the Jews.
And indeed, only among the Jews could one witness the sort of events that were taking place all around us at Limmud St. Petersburg. The same determination, the same desire to study the past but with a constant eye on the future. A large group of people who, for 70 years, had been cut off from their sources and in which there is a high incidence of inter-marriage, is now returning to the its roots. This is not the educational approach of the Chabad movement which is prevalent throughout the former Soviet Union, but Jewish pluralistic education in its widest sense. Kabbalat Shabbat, for example, was marked in three different ways – in one room Reform prayers, in another, Orthodox – and in a third, neither one nor the other but a discussion on the meaning of Shabbat. On Shabbat morning there were Orthodox and Reform services – and Israeli folk-dancing for those who chose neither.
The participants also received a solid dose of Israeliness. Members of the Knesset, Alex Miller and Karmel Shama-Hacohen spoke about the economy; journalists such as Gil Sheffer from The Jerusalem Post and Ben-Dror Yemini from Ma’ariv took part in a discussion on the nature of Israel’s national security. Together with them, I participated in a round table discussion on “September and After.” I remind the audience that “after September will come October.” The audience laughs and I add that there is no reason for panic: there will certainly be problems, especially the possible isolation of the United States together with Israel, but we are a strong nation which cannot be overcome.
In a lighter vein, Gil Hovav, tells about his great-grandfather, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s efforts to restore Hebrew as a living tongue. Together with the dozens of presentations, lectures, workshops and cultural events, there are endless informal encounters between individuals and groups on any and every subject that bears upon Jewish themes especially those of special interest to young people.
Limmud is not just an experience for the listeners but equally so for the presenters. After the round table discussion, I realised that, once again, I had learned something not just about the Jewish people but also about myself. Again I reminded myself that each and every Limmud FSU festival is, to some extent, for me a closing of a circle. I began my public and professional life in the struggle for the release of Soviet Jewry led by Edgar Bronfman, and I have now found myself involved up to the neck in the return of those same people to their Jewish roots in a project chaired by Edgar’s son, Matthew. And I owe a great debt of gratitude to them both.
Yoram Dori is Senior Advisor to the President of Israel, Shimon Peres.
images courtesy Leonid Fridman and Batia Dori