A Cultural Treat for the Jews of St. Petersburg

Limmud FSU St. Petersburg concludes after an intensive three days of Jewish culture, study and excitement

by Nathan Roi

Misha Libkin, who works in high-tech in Russia, is a regular participant in Limmud FSU events since the first one six years ago. He listens to as many of the lectures and presentations as he can and is now one of the volunteers working on preparing the program. He is accompanied by his life partner, Anna Zozula, a lawyer who works for a major investment company. One of the owners of the company, Andrei Movchan, attended Limmud in Moscow together with his wife.

Misha and Anna – both in their twenties – were trying to listen to as many lectures as possible. They are not prepared to miss any Limmud event because for them it is a unique opportunity to match people of the same age and background as themselves from throughout the Former Soviet Union.

At the Limmud FSU Moscow program, I had asked Andrei Movchan how he had come to know about Limmud. He told me that several of his employees had told him about its vitality and energy and he decided to try it for himself. Also at that Moscow Limmud festival I had met a top leader of Russian high-tech world who lives in St. Petersburg. This time he arrived together with his wife, children and parents. The children spent their time in a special children’s play area while the adults listened to lectures on different topics in Russian, and translations by Limmud volunteers from English and Hebrew.

And while St. Petersburg played host for this latest Limmud FSU event, participants and presenters came from around the world. Alex Miller, Chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, told me that he sees Limmud as a wonderful opportunity for young Russians to meet up with old friends and to listen to lectures that they could not possibly have heard during the Communist era. He was accompanied by fellow MK Karmel Shama-Hacohen, Chairman of the Economics Committee; Sofa Landver, the Minister of Immigrant Absorption; Steven Schwager, the Executive Vice-President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; Roman Polonsky, head of the Russian-speaking Department in the Jewish Agency; Ben Helfgott, Vice-President of the Conference for Material Claims against Germany; Dr. Nona Kuchina and Dr. Moshe Shneerson of Dr. Nona International; Matthew Bronfman, Chair of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee and his wife Stacey; Dorit Golender, Israel’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation and Eddie Shapira, the Consul-General in St. Petersburg, among many others.

In the proven Limmud model, many sessions took place simultaneously. Among them were: The Internet presented by Gregory Asmolov; Eliezer Lesovoy on Jewish feminism; Natasha Zicer on Jewish folk tales; Dima Zicer on “Answering the Questions;” a master-class with the Jazz piano virtuoso Leonid Ptashka; Ilya Shujskij presented a workshop on Jewish folk dance; Matthew Bronfman spoke about geopolitics in today’s world; Gil Hovav on his grandmother’s kitchen and his great-grandfather Eliezer Ben-Yehuda; and Ben Helfgott on saving Jews during the Holocaust. Nina Mikhoels talked about her illustrious father, Solomon Mikhoels – founder of the famed Yiddish theater in Moscow – who was assassinated by order of the Soviet authorities; and Julia Patrakova spoke on the American-Russian Jewish Nobel prize winner for literature, Joseph Brodsky.

Aharon Weiss, an historian – and veteran of many Limmud FSU events – who told his personal story as a Holocaust survivor, says that its success lies in the fact that the lectures cover a wide range of subjects and the extraordinary atmosphere that prevails. Ben-Dror Yemini, a journalist for Maariv, adds that the level of the talks is exceptional and is proof of the amount of work that has been devoted to choosing the subjects.

As in all Limmud events around the world, behind the scenes there is a veritable army of volunteers who constructed the program in such a way that there is always something for everyone. St. Petersburg was no exception. That may well be the reason why registration had to be closed two weeks before the event because there was no room for all those who wished to participate. The Chief Rabbi of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Menachem Pevsner, said that many would-be participants turned to him in the hope that he could use his influence to be accepted, but the conference was not able to accommodate more than 350 people.

Steve Schwager, of the Joint, told Chaim Chesler, Limmud FSU’s ever-in-motion founder, next time we should have four times the number. Responded Chesler, “We’ll do our best to fulfill your dreams.”

Coming tomorrow, Petersburg Stories.
photos courtesy Nathan Roi
translation Asher Weill