Learning about their culture and history – and importantly passing this to their children – is a high priority.
On a recent weekend in Canada’s Blue Mountains, over 450 [mostly] young Russian-speaking Jewish Canadians participated in the 2nd Limmud FSU Canada conference. Like all programs in the global Limmud universe, the event was planned and brought to fruition by a stellar team of local volunteers. The program featured sessions of specific interest to this demographic, from a presentation by Yosef Mendelevich, a noted “Prisoner of Zion,” who, together with a small group of young Jews, attempted to hijack an airplane and fly it out of the USSR in 1970, to a motzei Shabbat gala program featuring the talented artist/musicians Irina Rosenfeld and Leonid Ptashka.
But it was while sitting in on a Shabbat morning session by Gidi Greenstein, founder of Israel’s Re’ut Institute, on the recently launched Tikkun Olam Project (TOM), and witnessing the overwhelming response of those in the room to figure out how they can get involved that I wondered, “what makes Limmud FSU tick?”
(“Tikkun Olam Make-a-thon (TOM),” featuring the slogan “72 hours to make a better world,” was first launched in 2014 as part of Schusterman Connection Points, an initiative of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation organized in partnership with the Reut Institute’s Cross Lab Network).
I’ve had both the privilege, and the opportunity, to attend Limmud FSU events in seven countries. And while each country brings its own unique challenges and opportunities to the table, in a way it is in North America where Limmud FSU sits at the forward edge of engaging the Russian-speaking demographic. From 2009’s first one-day regional event in WestHampton, NY, to today’s “both coasts and Canada too,” Limmud FSU’s high profile commitment to, and support of, the Russian-speaking community has helped raise awareness of this demographic in the broader communities where it holds events, with professionals, and with the funder community.
While it has been 25 years since the “gates opened” for Jews in the Soviet Union, the North American Jewish community was long-focused on resettlement even after most of those arriving were, in fact, settled. It was only at the 2009 Federation GA that an outward shift began to emerge in the North American mindset to the Russian-Jewish presence.
Today, in addition to Limmud FSU, we have Moishe House programming to this demographic with both individual residential houses and a Jewish learning retreat. JDC’s Entwine, in partnership with Genesis Philanthropy Group, recently entered the space. And just this past summer, the New York-based COJECO hosted a national symposium for Russian-speaking Jewish community professionals.
The Wexner Heritage Program is about to launch its second cohort targeting the RSJ community. In fact, the 2012 Wexner cohort was the first ever Wexner Heritage Group to contribute towards another cohort, in a sense paying it forward, while still in the program. Other groups had certainly laid the foundation for the future, and even put endowments in place to have cohorts in their cities, but no other group – in all of Wexner history – did this while still in the program. It’s an impressive feat and a testament both to the efficacy of the program and to the philanthropic potential of RSJs!
And these are just a few of the many programs currently operating in North America.
Which brings us back to Limmud FSU. While other organizations have criticized Limmud FSU for their independent programming, the North American Russian-speaking Jewish community has their own unique needs and desires. Unlike previous generations of immigrants to America, they are not “running” to assimilate and leave the old world in the old world. While recognizing, and appreciating, what the US/Canada has to offer, learning about their culture and history – and importantly passing this to their children – is a high priority. It has taken many years for other communal organizations to understand and accept this mindset.
To date, over 40,000 [mostly young] Russian-speaking Jews have participated in Limmud FSU events around the world. From the heart of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Oblast to Kazan to next month’s premiere event on the West Coast (see what Maayim Bialik has to say here), as Limmud FSU gears up to celebrate year 10(!), North America’s young adult Russian-speaking Jewish community surges forward.
As Sandra Cahn and Chaim Chesler, Limmud FSU’s high-energy founders wrote on eJP earlier this year, “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… 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.”
Here’s to continued success for Limmud FSU and all the other programs around the Jewish world engaging the Russian-speaking demographic.
All photos courtesy Limmud FSU Canada 2015