Limmud FSU US: An Immigrant Community Comes Into Its Own

Havdalah at Limmud FSU Princeton, March 2013; photo by Ross Den Photography

Havdalah at Limmud FSU Princeton, March 2013; photo by Ross Den Photography

At Limmud FSU, I witnessed a strong Russian-Jewish community that is interested in its future and its place in the wider North American Jewish world.

by Lea Zeltserman

I spent this past weekend in Princeton, at Limmud FSU USA. It was a weekend of firsts, starting with the simple fact that I have never been surrounded by so many Russian speakers before. And now, here were over 750 of them, taking up the entirety of the Marriott Hotel where the conference was held.

I rarely speak Russian with people I’m not related to, and I’ve never been anywhere where Russian is the first language of most interactions. It was at once entirely familiar and unfamiliar.

I should explain myself first. I left the Soviet Union in 1979 as a toddler, a detail which, here, where most people immigrated in the 1990s, makes me a minority among minorities. I grew up in western Canada, far from the Russian-Jewish epicenters of Toronto and New York. I went through Hebrew school, Hebrew camp, Jewish youth group and March of the Living. A typical North American Jewish upbringing, but an atypical experience for this community.

After the languages – Russian, English and Hebrew were everywhere – what was most noticeable was the diversity. Limmud FSU US brought together all ages and generations – children with their parents, older couples, university students, and young professionals. Likewise, Shabbat saw men in tsitsis sitting next to people tapping away on their cell phones. None of those differences seemed to matter much.

My roommate was a newly arrived transplant from Moscow – a dentist who was volunteering for the weekend. When I asked her how she’d made connections so soon after arriving in the US, she told me she’d been volunteering with Limmud FSU in Moscow for several years. Another first – a reminder of a growing Jewish life in contemporary Russia.

Though it was my first Limmud FSU, this was the fourth such conference in the United States. There were over 50 sessions in both English and Russian, along with morning boot camp and yoga, Shabbat services (take your pick – liberal, traditional and “Shabbat in space”) and Havdalah, all-night films, and a Saturday evening gala and dance party. There was also a parallel slate of Young Limmudnik programming.

Sessions ranged from religious issues (“Kosher Lust,” “Ma Nishtanah”), Soviet-Jewish history (“A Struggle for Soviet Jewry 25 Years Later,” “Stalin’s Last Joke”), politics (“Israel and the US After the Elections,” “Can Jews and Muslims Coexist?”), to contemporary issues (“Sex Trafficking, White Slavery and the Jewish Call for Freedom,” “Headhunting in the Marriage Market”), to arts (“Yiddish Theatre: A Mirror to Our Identity,” “Head-on! Sculpture-Making Workshop”). Presenters included popular Russian opposition blogger Anton Nosik, the well-known American rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Canadian Parliamentarian Irwin Cotler.

The energy was palpable, as was the keen interest and enthusiasm from participants. A session on rabbis-turned-Bolsheviks ended with a conversation about the “Kremlin Rabbi” of Putin’s Russia, while another on the Siege of Leningrad morphed into an exchange of families histories among the participants. The uniqueness of the Soviet/Russian-Jewish experience was raised frequently, both by presenters and in the questions and discussions from participants. And, occasionally, a hint of anger that, especially when it came to WWII, the Soviet-Jewish experience – whether that was the specifics of the Holocaust on Soviet territories, the many Jews who served in the Red Army, the evacuations to central Asia, or the Siege of Leningrad – has not become part of the North American Jewish story.

And therein was another first – finding myself watching Soviet Holocaust films or hearing about a summer in transit in Rome, and recognizing that an entire community exists that grew up hearing a similar set of family stories over the dinner table, with its own particular suffering and humour. Nothing in my rather comprehensive Jewish upbringing had ever managed to speak about my own family’s experiences.

As our bus crossed the border back into Canada (I was part of a contingent from Toronto), my lasting impression was the sense of a community becoming itself. At Limmud FSU, I witnessed a strong Russian-Jewish community that is interested in its future and its place in the wider North American Jewish world. Throughout the weekend, in hallways, in the sessions, and even over meals, I continually bumped into animated conversations about Limmud specifically, and, more generally, about Russian-Jewish programming and outreach efforts.

Do Russian-Jews need a separate Limmud and other events? Do separate events encourage more differences or are they serving an otherwise overlooked population? Does the sense of difference come from within ourselves or from outside? The conversations were animated and passionate – as the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.”

I don’t know the right answers. The answers don’t entirely matter – what matters is the conversation, and that this conversation is coming from within the community.

Twenty years ago, there were no such discussions. People were just trying to survive and get their bearings in their new country – learn the language, find jobs, enroll their children in school. Looking around, I remembered the commie “jokes” that were once lobbed at me, or the ugly demands to explain the oddities of my newly arrived Russian brethren when the post-collapse wave started to arrive. That period has passed, and yesterday’s immigrants are comfortable here with their varying Russian-Soviet-Jewish North American (and sometimes Israeli) identities. They don’t need to explain themselves to anyone. I had noticed that same evolution among my own family members on a recent trip to Israel, and now here it was, playing out in a hotel just a short drive away from one of America’s oldest universities.

As for the separate stream debate, the success of Limmud FSU US is its own answer. At 750 attendees, with another 200 turned away, it was just 100 people short of the attendance figures at Limmud NYC in February. Incidentally, out of 300+ sessions there, only two dealt with Russian-Jewish issues. We vote with our feet and our wallets – in this case, with a sold-out conference and a weekend of packed sessions.

Limmud FSU is evidence of a vibrant, engaged and alive community, interested in everything from their own unique history, to religious issues to contemporary politics and Jewish issues across North America, Israel and the FSU. The Russians are not coming – they are here.

Lea Zeltserman is an editor and writer in Toronto, who is currently working on an oral history of the Soviet-Jewish immigration of the 1970s. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Tablet, the Walrus Magazine, and others. She also publishes the Soviet Samovar, a monthly Russian-Jewish newsletter covering news, culture and events – the only one of its kind in North America. You can find her online at leazeltserman.com.

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