By Larisa Popovskaya
Limmud FSU had its beginnings nearly eight years ago as a one-day seminar in Moscow. Chaim Chesler of Israel and Sandra Cahn of New York had the idea of developing for Russian speakers a version of the successful British model of a Jewish educational conference which had begun in 1980 and where people had a multiple choice of subjects and everything was planned and carried out by volunteers. It took some time to make Limmud FSU into a Limmud along the lines of the UK model, and in the beginning no one could imagine that it could become such a successful and popular event in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and, in fact, across the world where there are significant Russian-speaking Jewish populations.
The project manager of Limmud FSU in Russia was, until recently, Yevgenia (Jenia) Nemirovskaya who had been with Limmud FSU from its very beginning. Jenia and her team of volunteers created an outstanding and long-term project in Moscow, which has in the meantime expanded to St. Petersburg and other cities in Russia, as well as laying the groundwork for Limmud FSU in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. Jenia has devoted the last seven years to the project, during which she has been responsible for organizing the annual massive Limmud FSU Moscow and the culturally sophisticated Limmud St. Petersburg. She is now leaving Limmud FSU to devote time to her family and is handing over to Tania Pashaeva, who has been a devoted and deeply involved Limmud volunteer. I spoke to both Jenia and Tania to find out from them, the highlights of the past seven years and how they see the future of Limmud FSU in Russia.
Jenia, how did Limmud FSU Russia start and how has it developed through the eight years of its existence?
“In 2005, a small group of enthusiasts led by Chaim Chesler and Sandy Cahn, who had heard great things about Limmud in the UK, traveled to England to participate in the event and learn more about it, and they came back very excited. Then we began to talk about Limmud to people in different areas, spreading the idea by word of mouth. As a result, today we have the annual Limmud Moscow in spring and St. Petersburg in the fall, two regular events not to be missed in people’s calendars and people are reserving the dates for months in advance.”
Tell me more about the first Limmud FSU.
“The one-day Limmud that was held in May 2006 in Moscow was the beginning of the Limmud FSU project. It was conceived as a pilot version to show people how it worked and hopefully to inspire them. My working motto is “Limmud is the sum of the people who create it.” Afterwards people went home to digest the overall idea and think about some of the challenges (i.e. many people did not know how to deal with the concept of different lecture options). Six months later, we held a seminar for volunteers where we wanted to hear from each other and to try to understand what people hoped to get out of Limmud. It was the global concept of Limmud that became part of our local Limmud FSU conferences. The initial group of volunteers organized the first Limmud FSU planning seminar in Moscow which took place in April 2007 with the participation of 152 people. The whole event was organized and planned by the volunteers and all the principles of Limmud that we inherited from the UK were adopted.”
How did Limmud develop afterwards?
“In October of 2007, we held a Limmud FSU in Moscow where 1000 participants from across Russia and Ukraine came. The idea again was to show to people from all the former Soviet Union how Limmud worked and to attempt to “infect” them with the bug! In 2008, we mounted a massive Limmud FSU in Yalta in Crimea and this became the kick-off for Limmud Ukraine.
In 2009 we moved to the Russian Far East, and held a Limmud FSU mainly for participants from Khabarovsk and Birobidzhan as part of a local festival of Jewish culture. This was the only Limmud Far East so far but there are plans for a Limmud Harbin (China) and another Limmud Far East in the future.
Limmud Moscow developed from year to year in the quantity of participants and quality of the presenters and sessions, although quality is not easy to measure. The critical year for Limmud Moscow was 2010, when we switched from weekend seminars to conferences lasting from Thursday afternoon through Sunday. At the beginning, the team had some doubts, because people in Moscow work hard and we thought they might not be willing to leave their jobs on Thursday and Friday in order to attend an educational event, but it proved itself and since then Limmud Moscow has been held according to this format.
And then, in 2011, the first Limmud in St. Petersburg happened. There is a huge difference between Limmud in Moscow and that in St. Petersburg, although the cities geographically are not that far apart. There are popular lecturers in Moscow, who do not attract people in St. Petersburg and vice versa, because the audiences are different. Limmud is very much a part of the area in which it takes place. Of course, there are some Muscovites who travel to Limmud in St. Petersburg, and those from St. Petersburg who come to Moscow, in the same way as others travel to Ukraine and elsewhere. This participation is an essential feature of Limmud.”
As project manager of Limmud Russia what are your working methods?
“My basic principle is to work with people in complete transparency and honesty. If we need to arrive at a common decision, we need to decide together. I want to talk to people openly and frankly and I need their feedback. The motivation of people to become engaged with Limmud is different, but they have to be dedicated. Most people work and they have families and Limmud can take up a lot of time. If they decide to be a part of Limmud, they must really want to do it. I love to hear the stories of volunteers on why they got involved with Limmud.
Limmud is the initiative of the volunteers, not mine. In St. Petersburg there was a group of activists who thought about creating their own Limmud and finally they made it. Today there is a huge volunteer team for Limmud Volga based on Kazan, Samara and other cities in the region and they are willing to work hard in planning an event. As Limmud Russia project manager I can show them how Limmud works; I can help them with tips and planning, but only up to a point. For instance, I understand a great deal about Moscow, but I know less about St. Petersburg even if I have been managing it for the last four years. It is the matter of knowing and understanding the facilities, the Jewish community and relationships within it, its relations with non-Jewish society, the local “stars,” and I don’t know enough about all that.
The volunteer team in Moscow changes a little from year to year. There are some people who have been involved with Limmud from the outset. For example, Mikhail Libkin. His contribution is immeasurable: he created the Limmud database and he has dealt with logistics from the beginning. But measuring individual contributions is unfair. Everybody contributes as much as he or she can.”
What tasks are you passing on to your successor Tania Pashaeva?
“Tania is the best possible candidate for this position. She has been heavily active for the last several years in Limmud Moscow and she coordinates all the volunteers. Her experience, education and background and her personality will all be a major asset for Limmud Russia. She knows Limmud inside and out. New people always give the possibility of future development, not least geographically. I would like to see Limmud developing and I look forward to attending as a participant.”
Tania Pashaeva, the new project manager of Limmud Russia, joined the team of Moscow Limmud volunteers five years ago. Up until now, Limmud has been a hobby, a recreation. Now it is also becoming a profession.
Tania, what are your plans for the future of Limmud Russia?
“I am really honored to be given this position and I want to thank Jenia for all she has done in the last eight years. Without her, Limmud FSU might not exist, certainly in the form that it does today.
I deeply believe in the ideas of Limmud and I want it to move it further and expand. On the current agenda, there are the three centers of Limmud FSU Russia: Limmud Moscow, Limmud St. Petersburg and Limmud Volga.
Limmud Moscow is evolving more and more and I want to continue this positive development and I will explore every angle to try and make it even better. Limmud St. Petersburg is a relatively recent initiative and I need to meet with the volunteers and begin to work very soon on the next Limmud. We have an enthusiastic group of activists in the Volga region that are already planning the Limmud FSU conference in Kazan in the fall of 2015.”
I wish much success to Tania and hope that Limmud Russia will continue to grow, to expand and to flourish!