Building, and Teaching, Jewish Identity

Limmud (globally) does it well; so does Moishe House, PJ’s Library and Fishka. In their own way, so do Taglit and some of the many service-learning programs being promoted around the Jewish world. One organization understands the importance and has built an entire strategic plan around the concept (though the jury is clearly still debating the results).

At the opposite end, another organization thinks having a semi-finalist from America’s Got Talent is a “hook” to boost attendance at their annual conference. And, yet another organization – perhaps the largest and most visible grassroots organization in the Jewish world – doesn’t mention the word once in their Centennial Celebration program.

I’m referring to Jewish Identity. And as Yoram Dori so eloquently describes below, it is the glue that holds together a Jewish framework to ones life.

While the op-ed that follows is in response to an opinion piece that appeared earlier this week, the message the writer sends is much more than an explanation of a recent Limmud FSU program in Russia. It speaks to the strength of building Jewish Identity – but not only building, teaching (and also marketing) to their key demographic.

This op-ed should be read with that thought in mind.

Limmud FSU St. Petersburg: Another view
by Yoram Dori

Some 25 years ago, I resigned from my position as spokesman of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

During my years as spokesman, I frequently had to contend with criticism of the agency’s educational emissaries abroad. I would be asked, “Why do they deal with Judaism and Jewish identity rather than concentrate on encouraging aliya? The question would seem to have a great deal of logic behind it – but it is a logic of those who were born in Israel, live in Israel, were educated in Israel.

It is the logic of those who dealt with the mass exodus of Russian-speaking Jews after the breakup of the Soviet Union and do not realize that 20 years have elapsed since then and that reality has changed beyond recognition. For us Israelis, all is crystal clear.

There is one country that is a homeland for Jews wherever they might live in the world. Every Israeli Jew, secular or religious, understands basic Judaism: what Shabbat is; what brit mila is; what a bar mitzva is. We know the history and the heritage; we have absorbed Jewish culture.

Although admittedly, at the same time it should be noted that the degree of ignorance of many young Israelis about the heritage and tradition of their own people is sometimes infuriating. In any event, it is difficult for an Israeli Jew to understand that the situation in the Diaspora is generally different.

When one analyses the situation in the former Soviet Union, one has to remember the historical context. During 70 years of Communist rule, a huge effort was made by the authorities to stamp out every vestige of Judaism (as well as of other religions), any evidence of Jewish culture, Jewish history, Jewish religious ritual, Hebrew – every indicator of Jewish nationhood.

The Jews of the Soviet Union, with the exception of a few who preserved their Judaism clandestinely and at the risk of their lives, were divorced from Jewish life and had to conform to a new religion – that of Communism.

The Limmud FSU project, in which I have become a regular participant, came into being to provide an answer to those many years of estrangement from Jewish values, and to provide a taste of a Jewish path as well as a basic knowledge of the State of Israel that had undergone a process of deep demonization over decades – that country to whose enemies the Stalinist authorities provided unlimited funds and weapons. Limmud tries to overcome all that by its pluralistic, free and nonconventional approach that is undoubtedly the source of its power and attraction. And that is how it was at the recent Limmud FSU festival in St. Petersburg at which 300 young Jews spent a weekend packed with Jewishly related activities.

The St. Petersburg festival tried to provide an answer to a clear basic problem.

The first stage in creating a link between the Jews of the Diaspora and their historical homeland has to be built on knowledge, on awareness. Only afterward can come the feeling of identity. That is why, as is usual with Limmud FSU events, many Birthright and Masa alumni were invited to participate. Such people are not always included in established Jewish organizational outreach.

At Limmud St. Petersburg, they listened enraptured to lectures and presentations on Judaism and Israel, all of which had been selected by the local volunteer organizers.

This time, the St. Petersburg audience astonished me by the degree of interest that they showed in Israel. Lectures by Gideon Meir, the deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Moshe Vigdor, the outgoing director of the Israel Council for Higher Education, speaking about “Israel – Start-up Nation,” and my lecture on politics and communications with the emphasis on Israel, were listened to by overflow audiences, as was a lively altercation between Haaretz journalist Neri Livni and Russian educationalist Dima Zicer, on the Russian origins of Israeli culture. A panel on Russia-Israel relations with the participation of Prof. Mikail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad – The Federation of Jewish Organizations in Russia, Eddy Shapira, Israel’s consul-general in St. Petersburg, and myself, took place in a room that could not accommodate the crowd.

There may be some who contend that at Limmud there is not enough “Israeli content,” nor an emphasis on aliya. So we turn to the rhetorical question, How does one encourage aliya in general and in particular among those who have made a conscious decision to stay in their homes and not immigrate to Israel. The government and the Jewish Agency have long understood that the 1990s are way behind us and that today it is “Aliya by Choice.”

Those Jews who decide to immigrate will take the decision based on a full and consideration of all the issues.

On my flight back home I recalled once again the somewhat banal yet accurate answer that I was wont to give to journalists during my time as Jewish Agency and WZO spokesman. Aliya is a process similar to a relationship between two people, I would tell them. It is not a question of being struck by lightening. It is a process that first of all calls for a meeting, then the acquisition of background knowledge and only then might lead to a love affair and maybe even marriage. The marriage in our case is that of a betrothal to Israel called aliya. Limmud FSU can serve as a marriage broker at more than one stage. Will there or will there not be a wedding is already a much more complex issue. A wedding depends on a multiplicity of factors over which, to my regret, neither Limmud nor Israel has control.

Limmud can provide young adults with some of the tools needed to construct a Jewish framework to their lives. The Limmud model is open and non-demanding and therein lies its attraction. Hundreds participate, the volunteers invest a huge amount of time and energy in building the program, and participants spend a not inconsiderable sum to be there.

If as a result, there will be a wedding, that would be wonderful. But, if not, thanks to Limmud, the Jews are provided with another way of finding a way to their roots and a key to modern Jewish civilization in which Israel lies at the heart. Limmud will help to keep these people in our collective spiritual home – if not always the geographical home, and in so doing provide a partial solution to the issue of assimilation.

Yoram Dori is Senior Advisor to the President of Israel, Shimon Peres.