A Conversation With Chaim Chesler

Meeting with President Shimon Peres; (l-r) Matthew Bronfman, Shimon Peres, Aaron Frenkel, Chaim Chesler, Sandra Cahn; courtesy Chaim Chesler.
Meeting with President Shimon Peres; (l-r) Matthew Bronfman, Shimon Peres, Aaron Frenkel, Chaim Chesler, Sandra Cahn; courtesy Chaim Chesler.

[With the fall Limmud FSU schedule in full swing, Asher Weill sat with Chaim Chesler – a long-time advocate for Soviet Jewry and Founder of Limmud FSU.

In 2006, together with Sandra Cahn (US) and Mikhail Chlenov (Russia), Chaim founded Limmud FSU and chairs its Executive Committee. As executive director of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry, he worked in Israel and around the globe to raise awareness of the struggle of Soviet Jews and their right to repatriate to Israel. Chesler headed The Jewish Agency for Israel’s delegation to the former Soviet Union and the United States, and served as treasurer of The Jewish Agency.]

My mother came to pre-State Palestine from Bialystok in Poland in 1933, my father also managed to get out just in time in 1938, but most of their families did not. When the war started and the Soviet Union invaded the eastern part of Poland, some members of the family moved to Siberia. After the war, they arrived in Israel. Those who chose to stay at home disappeared in the crematoria of Treblinka when the Nazis invaded. I grew up very aware of the shadow of those family members who had perished in the Holocaust. I also knew of the Soviet Union and the Jews who, unlike my aunts and uncles, had stayed in the country after the war had ended. It colored my childhood and it seems to have defined my path in life.

I have spent most of my adult life working to strengthen the centrality of Israel to Jews worldwide and the connection between Israeli Jews and those in the Diaspora. In some ways, I am a Zionist of the old school who believes in the overriding importance of aliya. But I also believe that that centrality today takes many forms and aliya needs to be seen in the wider context of recognizing Israel as the Jewish homeland, so as to make it significant for Jews everywhere. This is all the more challenging in the contemporary electronic and global village, when most Jews live without fear of anti-Semitism, although the current wave of anti-Jewish sentiment sweeping Europe is truly alarming.

" I was determined to place Israel firmly at the center of the map of the international campaign for the right of the Jews of the Soviet Union to leave freely." Photo by Chaim Chesler.
” I was determined to place Israel firmly at the center of the map of the international campaign for the right of the Jews of the Soviet Union to leave freely.” Photo by Chaim Chesler.

In the mid-1980s, at the height of the repression of Soviet Jews, I assumed leadership of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry. I was determined to place Israel firmly at the center of the map of the international campaign for the right of the Jews of the Soviet Union to leave freely. Political pressure was particularly strong from Washington, but Israel and the right to aliya was the ideological underpinning of the entire struggle. The human interest angle helped keep the campaign for Soviet Jewry at the center of world Jewish consciousness and activism for 20 years. No foreign government minister or parliamentarian visited Israel without meeting the family of refuseniks, and no major international political gathering took place without our sending representatives to keep the issue in the public eye and to anchor the campaign firmly in Israel.

For years we worked under the assumption that there was no future for Jews in the communist Soviet Union; that they could not live there as free people nor bring up their children with a proud Jewish identity. But as we saw, the USSR imploded, and the past 25 years have seen two dramas of unprecedented scope: nearly one million Jews moved to Israel, with thousands of others emigrating to other countries. Countless thousands became conscious of their Jewish heritage (or no longer worked to repress it) and desired to give it full expression while remaining in the countries that re-emerged when the USSR disintegrated. Some of us imagined that this renaissance would be short-lived, but 25 years later, it is gaining impetus.

Chaim articleWhen I was head of the Jewish Agency delegation in Moscow in the early 1990s, there was fighting in the northern Caucasus between Russia and Chechnya and the Jewish population of Grozny was in serious physical danger. I flew there with some other staff members and we went from house to house, trying to ascertain if anyone there was Jewish. My family’s history and the wider tragedy of European Jewry, occupied my mind as we strove to offer the Jews a passage out to safety and freedom.

The Jewish population of the FSU has undergone a radical transformation over the past 25 years. We were never sure, how many Jews lived there, but the transformation has been dramatic: the more Jews leave, the more Jews seem to remain. The drama is evident in the surge of community life and activities, day schools and Sunday schools, youth movements and summer and winter camps; Jews studying Talmud in the traditional way and Jews learning Israeli folk dancing, academic level study programs, informal study and burgeoning experts in many fields of Jewish history and culture.

Over the years, I had heard a great deal about Limmud, the Jewish educational project established in Great Britain over 32 years ago and had spoken to many people who had attended the annual gathering or acted as presenters there. I visited Limmud in Britain myself for the first time in 2006 and was deeply impressed. I began to wonder if the British Limmud model could not be exported to the countries of the former Soviet Union. As a consequence, I determined to adapt the model for Russian speakers and with the help of my co-founders, Sandra Cahn of New York and Prof. Mikhail Chlenov of Moscow, the first Limmud FSU conference was duly launched in Moscow in April 2006 with over 700 enthusiastic young participants. Matthew Bronfman took part in this founding conference and willingly agreed to serve as Chair of Limmud FSU’s International Steering Committee. Among other attendees were Aaron Frenkel, who is now our President, the then Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, Ze’ev Bielski, and its then Director-General, Moshe Vigdor. Recently Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, World President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has joined our Executive Committee.

Since then Limmud FSU has gone from strength to strength: more than 25,000 people have attended its annual conferences to date: in Ukraine (Kiev, Yalta, Truskovets, Odessa), Russia (Moscow, Birobidjan St. Petersburg,) Moldova (Kishinev) and Belarus (Vitebsk.) In 2009, the first Limmud FSU for Russian speakers in Israel was held in Ashkelon and since then in Jerusalem, Beersheba and Nazareth Illit; and in the USA in New York and Princeton, New Jersey. A significant number of Limmud FSU participants are graduates of Taglit, Masa and other Jewish Agency programs for young Russian-speaking Jews. The continuing active commitment by the young participants to Jewish education and Jewish communal life owes a great deal to the backing and support given to Limmud FSU by JAFI Executive Chair, Natan Sharansky, its Director-General Alan Hoffman and Roman Polonsky, the Director of the JAFI unit for Russian-speaking Jews.

This year will see the first Limmud FSU conference in Canada and in 2015, in Australia. In addition to our top leadership, Limmud FSU is supported by a number of prominent foundations and donors, paramount among them being the Jewish Agency, the Conference for Material Claims against Germany, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish National Fund (KKL), Diane Wohl, the UJA-Federation of New York, the Pincus Foundation, Nativ, as well as the Government of Israel and recently, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Once the journey from Moscow to Israel was uni-directional, but today there are people who move back and forth, and there is a fertile exchange of ideas. Russian-speaking Jewry is no longer the poor cousin of the Jewish world, and while the mindset of Homo Sovieticus, imposed by 70 years of communism, will not disappear quickly, today there are Russian-Jewish philanthropists taking responsibility for the future of their communities, and there are Jews of all ages choosing to make Judaism a central part of their identity – and expressing it freely. Whether this is evolution or revolution, it is certainly very dramatic.

The growth in aliya to Israel in recent years points to two things. Part of it, sadly, is the increase in anti-Semitism and concerns about personal security. This is leading to the threefold increase in the level of aliya from France, for example. At the same time, the growing interest in aliya among young Jews in other countries points, I believe, to the impact of the Jewish Agency’s revised strategy. It is self-evident that aliya is one outcome of a strong Jewish identity. High-quality formal and informal Jewish education that focuses on Israel, not as some mythical, romantic ideal, but as a real place and focus of identification, will encourage Jews to perceive of Israel as a central, but not necessarily the only, pivot of their lives.

With over half of the world’s Jewish population in its shores, Israel is today unquestionably the focus of world Jewish identity. The impact of “Operation Protective Edge” (Zuk Eitan) on Jewish communities around the globe makes this abundantly clear if it was not already. In democracies, free speech is critical and criticism of Israel is legitimate, and while we must be careful not to brand all anti-Israel comments as anti-Semitism, we must stand up and denounce anti-Semitism hiding under the guise of criticism of Israel. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations are turning into anti-Semitic parades; there is anti-Semitic violence on the streets of Europe that are eerily reminiscent of the 1930s. It would be a tragedy if young Jews were turned away from supporting Israel because they are the victims of verbal – or even, heaven forbid, physical, anti-Semitic assaults.

I believe in the centrality of Israel within Jewish life and Jewish identity, and I believe that the Jewish world needs to work together through collective channels, because the challenges we face are too great for us to meet unless we work together and share our resources. The Jewish Agency has served as this central channel since before the establishment of the State of Israel and it is still vitally important that it have sufficient resources to act in the name of the Jewish world on behalf of the whole Jewish world. The support of individual foundations for specific fields of activity are very important and can have significant impact. But there is only one institution that can address real crises or problems wherever they occur. That is why we need a strong Jewish Agency to continue to lead and to provide the united voice of the entire Jewish world, as it has since 1929.

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

[Upcoming: Limmud FSU has five events in five countries coming up in the next few months. Beginning this Friday, Limmud FSU returns to Vitebsk (Belarus), the birthplace of Marc Chagall. In October is the much-anticipated launch of Limmud FSU Canada. In November, Lvov (Ukraine) and St. Petersburg (Russia). The year concludes when Limmud FSU convenes for its annual festival event in Israel.]