[To celebrate Limmud’s 35th year, eJewishPhilanthropy is offering a look into Jewish communities around the world through the eyes of Limmud volunteers. Limmud, the global grassroots Jewish learning movement which was founded in the United Kingdom in 1980, is today in 80 communities and 40 countries.]
By Chaim Chesler and Sandra Cahn
Limmud, the 35 year-young phenomenon which first saw the light of day in the United Kingdom in 1980, is well-known to all followers of eJewishPhilanthropy and is very deserving of all the superlatives that have been poured on its head as can be seen in previous articles in this series. It has indeed revitalized Jewish learning and culture in its broadest sense across the world in dozens of languages and on six continents.
Nearly ten years ago, in 2006, a small group of us who were actively involved with Russian-speaking Jewry, visited Limmud in Nottingham University, England, for the first time and were instantly won over. We immediately realized the potential of the Limmud educational model for Russian-speaking Jews and there and then determined to take the idea and mold it into a similar program tailored for the specific needs of young Jews in the former Soviet Union.
The Jews in the FSU had been deprived of Jewish education and culture throughout most of the 70 years of Communist rule that began with the Russian Revolution of 1917, under which Jewish and Hebrew culture had been severely repressed and its practitioners, leaders, teachers and students often persecuted. All of this began to change with the onset of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s and changed dramatically with the opening of the gates of the Soviet Union and the beginning of free emigration which resulted in the departure en masse of former Soviet Jews to the West – over one million to Israel and hundreds of thousands to the USA, Germany, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening, 25 years ago, of the gates to free Jewish immigration, a vacuum opened up with regard to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who chose to remain. During the first decade, from the early 1990s to about 2000, many of the world’s major Jewish organizations stepped into the breach and provided what were essential services at that time. These included the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the “Joint”), the Hillel student organization, the Chabad network and The Jewish Agency, all of whom commenced operations throughout the area, providing financial assistance, social and humanitarian aid, and cultural and religious support to those who needed and wanted it.
Many of these activities still exist, but as the second decade ensued and a new generation of local FSU leadership began to emerge, the pendulum began to swing from the global Jewish organizations to local institutions, such as the Russian Jewish Congress – not only in the Russian Federation, but increasingly also in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. This manifested itself not only in purely organizational terms but also with regard to self-reliance and fund raising as a means to support local initiatives. Another fundamental and significant change has taken place during the last decade, when grass roots initiatives have begun to evolve on a more localized community level.
Both of the writers of this article have a rich history of involvement and interest in the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Chaim Chesler was Secretary-General of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, head of The Jewish Agency’s Aliyah Delegation to the United States and Canada and then Head of The Jewish Agency’s delegation in the former USSR and later as Treasurer of The Jewish Agency, and was intimately involved with the plight of Soviet Jews. Sandra Cahn is an activist and philanthropist with a special interest in the cause of Soviet Jewry. She held major national leadership positions with the UJA during the time of Operation Exodus and continues to this day to be active on the Board of Trustees of UJA-New York Federation and the Board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, with a deep and abiding interest in Russian-speaking Jewry (RSJ). COJECO, the umbrella of all Russian-speaking Jewish organizations in the NYC area, honored her as the first non-Russian-speaking individual to make a significant impact in the NY RSJ community.
Both of us were both deeply impressed by the work of Limmud in the UK and we founded Limmud FSU specifically to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Jews (with an emphasis on the younger generation) who had chosen not to emigrate. We discovered an enormous and unsatisfied thirst for knowledge among these young people who knew very little of their own culture, heritage and Jewish Identity.
The first Limmud FSU conference took place in Moscow in 2006 and has since become an annual event – the most important in the Jewish cultural life of the Russian capital. The 2015 event – held April 23-26 with a record 1,400 participants – is the second largest Limmud gathering in the world; the only larger event being the “original” winter Limmud Conference in the United Kingdom with nearly 3,000 participants. The founding organizers of Limmud Moscow in 2006, including Alexander Piyatagorsky, Jenia Nemirovskaya and Mikhail Libkin are still actively involved. Another major independent Limmud FSU event has taken place in St. Petersburg since 2011 with local initiative, and is now also an annual event. Future Limmud FSU events planned in Russia include one in Kazan for the Volga and Urals region (September 2015). A conference even took place in 2009 in Birodbidzan in the Russian Far East.
Yearly conferences take place in Ukraine and are centrally organized, although the venues change – conferences have been held in Yalta, Lviv, Truskavets, Vinnitsa, Uzhgorod, 3 times in Odessa – despite the present political unrest and uncertainty. Limmud FSU Ukraine is run by Osik Akselrud, Igor Shchupak, Vladislav Zelkman, Yevgeny Shyder and others, with Galina Rybnikova as project manager. Similarly, Belarus has hosted conferences since 2013 in Vitebsk, chaired by Galina Levina and Maxim Yudin. Limmud FSU Moldova has been active since 2012 in Chisinau (Kishinev) run by Marina Lecarteva and Tatiana Rabotnikova. Both the Belarus and Moldova events are now annual events.
Sofya Liakhovitskaya, a fourth-year university student in clinical psychology, came to Limmud in Vitebsk for the first time: “I had heard about Limmud from friends… I am interested in Jewish history and literature and Limmud gives me just what I want. I love the atmosphere, the freedom, the pleasant people and the helpful volunteer organizers.”
One of the volunteers in St. Petersburg, Polina Santarovich, confessed, “I adore the atmosphere; all year round I look forward to this time so that I can hang out in the lobby, bump into old friends and always discover something new.”
On a visit to a major English-speaking Limmud event in New York, Sandra Cahn and I were amazed to realize that there were virtually no young immigrants from the former Soviet states taking part, although it is estimated that there are more than 300,00 new immigrant Russian speakers in the NY metro area! In investigating further it was made clear to us that even if the participants knew English well, many of them, especially the older ones, would prefer to hear lectures and presentations in Russian that resonated with their specific interests and knowledge of Jewish culture and Judaism – and the younger ones were glad for the opportunity to meet and mingle with others with the same background and mind-set as themselves. This was made even more abundantly clear to us in Israel, with more than one million Russian speakers who arrived since 1989 and later the same situation became apparent in Canada and Australia, although there are successful English-speaking Limmud events in both countries.
As a consequence, the first Limmud FSU USA took place in New York in 2009 as a one-day event. It is now an annual three-day event with nearly 1,000 participants, under the baton of Alina Bitel, Anna Zicer, Olga Barskaya and project manager Noam Shumakh-Khaimov. Ira Zadanovitch from New York explains why she decided to volunteer. “Being a Jew in New York is not the same as being a Jew in Ukraine or Israel. We have to find a point where it all comes together. That is why I joined Limmud – we are all working people who are trying to build a career and we all feel the deep cultural importance of events such as this.” A second US Limmud FSU is planned for early 2016 in Los Angeles for the West Coast.
The annual Israeli event has taken place so far in Ashkelon, Upper Nazareth, Beersheba, Kibbutz Ginosar and three times in Jerusalem, led by Rina Zaslavsky and project manager Yan Birbraer. Toronto hosted their own Limmud FSU conference in 2014 run by Leon Martynenko, Karina Rondberg and country director Mila Voihanski, with 500 participants out of a total Jewish population of 50,000 and in cooperation with the UJA Toronto. A preliminary event in Sydney, followed by two days in Melbourne, launched FSU Limmud Australia in cooperation with the Zionist Federation of Australia, organized by local team, shlicha Alexandra Klyachkina and project manager Tania Shvartsman. Of the approximately 120,000 Jews in Australia, it is estimated that some 30,000 are Russian-speaking new immigrants. Following the great success of these first conferences in Canada and Australia they are now planned to become annual events.
As in all Limmud events, Limmud FSU conferences are also based on the concept of volunterism – but here also the starting point was radically different. In the Communist regime of the USSR, the concept of volunterism basically did not exist. Sociologists suggest that during those 70 years, people became accustomed to a paternalistic state that sought to direct how its citizens thought and to create a collective mentality in which initiative was frowned upon and ethnic identity was irrelevant. Under such conditions volunterism had no role to play. At Limmud FSU this whole thought process has been turned upside down. Limmud FSU conferences (as in Limmud worldwide) are totally volunteer-driven: the programs are planned by volunteers who also select the presenters; logistics, recruitment, public relations, marketing and administration are all dealt with by teams of volunteers.
None of this could have come about without the active support and backing of several major organizations including the Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish National Fund (KKL), the Israel Government, The Jewish Agency, UJA-Federation of New York and several others. Matthew Bronfman is Chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee and its President is Aaron Frenkel. Ronald Lauder and Diane Wohl, both of New York, are also generous supporters of Limmud FSU. The main office is in Jerusalem and there are project managers in Russia; Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus; Israel; USA; Canada and Australia who have overall responsibility for the events in their respective countries.
As we have emphasized, all Limmud FSU conference and events are initiated, planned, operated and run by local volunteers and the local project manager.
Nevertheless, because we are now a world-encompassing enterprise, active in 12 different locations and on four continents, there is need for a cadre of professional staff in Jerusalem giving global backing. This is led by Roman Kogan, our Executive Director.
Because of the long period (three generations!) during which Russian-speaking Jews were to all intents and purposes, cut off from their Jewish roots, the tasks and challenges facing Limmud FSU are very different from those in the rest of the world. As we near our tenth year of activities, we can already see the huge difference in Jewish awareness and a feeling of identity and national pride that is being fostered by Limmud FSU activities among the young Jews still living in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, as is evident in the ever-increasing number of participants in our events.
Chaim Chesler is Founder and Chair of the Executive Committee of Limmud FSU.
Sandra Cahn is Co-founder and Chair Financial Resources Development Committee of Limmud FSU.