By Walter Ruby
Anyone who is worried about the demographic future of the Jewish people would do well to attend a Limmud FSU Conference.
Back in 2010, when this reporter took part in a one day Limmud FSU Conference in Westhampton Beach, NY, there were some 500 attendees,the majority of them 20 and 30 somethings, but no children. This year, at the Limmud FSU Conference in Parsippany, NJ – the sixth Limmud FSU conference to be held in the United States and the largest-ever in terms of attendees, there were 850 adult participants and 120 children, from toddlers to teens, who were entertained in a variety of venues combining learning with play.
Matthew Bronfman, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, who is chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee, remarked, “We are so proud and excited that so many of the young people who started with us as singles in their 20’s six or seven years ago and have been coming ever since, are now attending together with their children. That’s the essence of what Judaism is about and the essence of what we do at Limmud. We continue to expand and with the addition of children to the mix, the energy and enthusiasm one feels here is palpable.”
Since its founding in 2006, Limmud FSU has become a vital part of the cultural and religious fabric of the global Russian-speaking Jewish world; having held conferences in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, as well as Israel, Austarlia, and Canada as well as the U.S. This year’s event featured nearly 100 presenters including Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev, New Yorker writer Boris Fishman, poet Igor Irtenyev, rabbi and educator Aryeh Katzin, former U.S. Foreign Service Offier Ilya Levin, writer and Jewish educator Lori Palatnik, Ukrainian singer and actress Iryna Rosenfeld, and a Moscow-based journalist and writer Victor Shenderovich; and offered a yeasty combination of lectures and performances, on topics ranging from Israeli politics and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, to Shabbat meditation, the history of the Khazar kingdom, Russian Literature in Exile, an unblushing look at sex and Jewish tradition, the limits of free speech in the age of terrorism, Muslim-Jewish relations, and more quirky topics like “Destigmatizing Psychotherapy in the Russian Jewish Community,” “Why Felafel is Better with a Shot of Vodka” and a screening of “The Cheburashka Project” a documentary film that explored identity in child immigrants from the FSU who grew up watching a Soviet era cartoon series about a small furry and very wise little teddy bear-like animal of indeterminate identity.
According to Bronfman, “When Chaim Chelser, the founder of Limmud-FSU came to a World Jewish Congress Plenary in Cordoba, Spain in 2006 and asked me to give $25,000 and my name, I responded, “I think you have very little chance of success, but I’ll agree, providing that if this thing fails, you forget you ever met me. Yet Chaim managed to bring the Joint Distribution Committee, the Claims Conference and the Russian Jewish Congress on board and soon thereafter we held the first Limmud FSU that year in Moscow with 100 participants. We have held so many conferences since then and Limmud-FSU has grown to the point where we now have a $2.5 million dollar budget, about half of it from individuals and organizations and half through fees for the events. I am thrilled with the development of Limmud FSU, both because my grandfather Samuel’s roots are in Moldova and my father (former WJC President) Edgar Bronfman, played a major role in the Soviet Jewry movement; but also because I am deeply concerned about fighting assimilation and sparking Jewish consciousness and the emergence of the Russian Jewish community is a major success story in that regard. Russian-speaking Jews in North America – including those who are secular – absolutely have a stronger sense of Jewish identity than many secular North American Jews who have been here for three or four generations. They really get it.”
Sandra Cahn, who co-founded and co-directs Limmud FSU with Chesler, commented, “There are more attendees at Limmud FSU these days who are observant Jews than was the case a few years ago, but the main thing is that this is a big open tent with a warm, inviting atmosphere. People feel welcome at Limmud FSU whether they are in their Jewish journeys and whatever the amount of Jewish learning they have.”
Yulia Mazur-Zito, an observant Russian-born Jewish educator from Brooklyn, who is on the Limmud-FSU Organizing Committee, commented, “More Russian Jews are coming back to tradition and one can see that vividly at Limmud FSU. At earlier Limmuds there was little Shabbat observance; this year there is a Shabbat elevator, and the lectures held on Shabbat were without electronics, except for a few that used AV equipment but was on a separate floor from the others. Why is this happening? I think Russian Jews keep returning to tradition because this was something that was denied to us that we are seeking out.
Mazur added, “The great thing about Limmud-FSU is that we have people from all religious and political opinions, but we aren’t fighting with each other, but hearing each other out. In my own experience, this is one of the only venues where that sense of mutual tolerance and understanding still exists, which makes it all the more precious. “
Margarita Fayazabova , a 25-year-old speech therapist from Queens, who came to the U.S. as a child from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, commented, “I attended several lectures at this conference in which I heard things that shook me and made me think. “For example, I was taken aback by journalist Chemi Shalev arguing that Netanyau’s speech to the U.S. Congress was dangerous to the future of U.S. – Israel relations. I happen to be a supporter of Netanyahu, who I see as a strong leader of the Jewish people. Yet Shalev obviously knows a great more about this subject than I do, so I had to listen to and wrestle with his point of view, even if I don’t agree with it.
Fayazabova added, “I was also impacted by the lecture of educators Chaim and Doreen Seidler-Feller who are observant Jews but who argue that under certain conditions pre-marital sex or homosexuality can be consonant with Jewish tradition – as long as these relationships are committed ones. I come from the Bukharian Jewish community where such opinions are absolutely beyond the pale. So again, it was hard for me to hear, but I appreciated having the chance to learn another perspective from people who are obviously learned and devoted to Judaism.”
One area in which there seemed greater equanimity of opinion was on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, with writers and journalists like Shenderovich, Irtenyev and Alexander Genis, eliciting applause from listeners with non-holds-barred denunciations of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Genis, a New York-based writer who gave a lecture entitled “Russian Literature in Exile; Homework for Tomorrow” said, “I am labelled by some pro-Putin Russians as a ‘fifth columnist’, but it is Putin, not myself, who surrounds himself with people hostile to Russian culture.” Genis added, “While the situation between Russia and Ukraine is a catastrophe, it is a wonderful to see the development of multiple Russian cultures today; not only in the FSU, but Israel, the U.S., Germany and other places. Every Diaspora is developing its own literature, its own sense of what it means to be Russian.”
Anna Gusel, a 43 year old efficiency expert from Brooklyn, who came to the conference with her husband Lenny and three small children, Sam, 8, Aviel, 6 and Joshua, 4, said of the Limmud FSU conference; “With three kids and full time job, this is a wonderful opportunity to kick back, hang out with dear friends and do some learning, while allowing the kids to run off and have a great time, while having the peace of mind that they are safe.”
Gusel added, “For me, Limmud FSU is about community building at its best. It is easier to have a community before you get married and have kids, but for those of us who have done that, Limmud helps to hold our community together. What you see here is an expression of Russian American Jewish community and its trajectory and growth. We are looking back to the Russia which many of us left as small children, and taking stock as to where we are as Jews in America today.”
Many of the single people with whom I spoke acknowledged that part of their motivation for attending was the hope that they would meet that special someone; indeed almost everyone seemed to have friends or acquaintances who had met their future spouse at past Limmud FSU conferences. Yet as Milana Khodorkovskaya, 35, a single woman originally from Tashkent, who is in in business development for a private equity firm, put it, “Look, if it happens, it happens, but if it doesn’t, this is still a wonderful experience networking with so many people from my own culture and hearing amazing lectures on a very high level. I am enjoying the opportunity to learn more about Jewish observance and tradition. I am non-observant myself, but I don’t feel at all put off by the increased level of observance at Limmud FSU compared to past years. No one is pushing me to attend specific lectures or behave in a certain way.”
She added, “Also wonderful was the sing-along session which went on till 2 AM last night. People would sit down at the piano and begin performing songs – mostly Soviet songs from our childhood and 60 or 70 people would gather around the piano to sing along. That really brings people together – wherever we come from in the FSU and wherever we live today, it is like we all have the same DNA.”
Alexander Buchman, a 33 year old accountant who came to the U.S. from Belarus at the age of 11, spoke of his enthusiasm for the “Cheburashks Project” documentary, saying, “Just as Cheburashka was a little beastie unknown to science, the Russian-American Jew, is a person of triple identity that is incredibly difficult to define. The wonderful thing about coming to Limmud is that it reminds me that while my identity may be complex it is not conflicted. My Russian part is not about Russian nationalism or the ‘Russian soul’ but rather loyalty to certain highly developed aesthetic and cultural icons like Cheburashka. I love living in America and being an American. As for my Jewish side, I am personally not observant, but I connect with Jewish history, with Jewish intellectualism. So all three identities are integral to who I am, and at Limmud I get to a chance to celebrate all of them together with almost 1000 people who feel very much the way I do. What can be better than that?”