Expanding Conferences Help FSU Jews Gain Mainstream Communal Acceptance

Despite challenging times, Limmud FSU opened their annual festival in Ukraine today.

Limmud FSU Lvov (Ukraine), November 2014.
Limmud FSU Lvov (Ukraine), November 2014.

By Alina Dain Sharon and Sean Savage

An American Jewish astronaut who learned to speak Russian while training with cosmonauts walks into a lecture hall filled with Russian-American Jews. No, it’s not a priest-and-rabbi-style joke, but a real-life event that exemplifies the spirit of the Limmud FSU educational conferences.

At Limmud FSU’s 2010 conference in New York, former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman addressed the crowd in Russian – to the audience’s delight. Many of the young FSU-immigrant Jews living in the United States still “have a strong cultural affinity for being Russian” and speak Russian when they get together, even though they may live in the same apartment buildings or work in the same businesses as mainstream American Jews, explained Sandra Cahn, one of Limmud FSU’s three founders.

Limmud FSU WestHampton, 2010; photo by Ross Den.
Limmud FSU WestHampton, 2010; photo by Ross Den.

At the same time, Limmud FSU – whose concept is based on the model originally established by the British-Jewish educational nonprofit Limmud  – is “trying very hard to get [FSU Jews] involved in mainstream American Jewry,” Cahn told JNS.org.

Besides its annual conferences in the U.S. and Israel, Limmud FSU is now expanding further around the globe. The organization hosted its first conference in Canada from Oct. 24-26, and an Australia conference is planned for March 2015.

Cahn, Chaim Chesler, and Mikhail Chlenov – who are American, Israeli, and Russian, respectively – cofounded Limmud FSU in 2006. Chesler worked as the executive director of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s and later became the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s FSU branch, at a time when about 70,000 Russian Jews were emigrating daily.

Participants at Limmud FSU Moldova June 2014.
Participants at Limmud FSU Moldova June 2014.

For those Jews who remained in FSU countries, Limmud FSU’s founders sought to create a Jewish experience. The first one-day Limmud FSU event, held in Moscow in 2006, brought together about 1,000 participants from all over the Russian capital, as well as top leaders from major Jewish organizations such as Taglit-Birthright, Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Hillel campus umbrella, and others.

“That was the beginning of the revolution,” Chesler told JNS.org.

Limmud FSU was the first real vehicle for FSU Jews “that welcomed every strain of the Jewish spectrum,” Cahn said. If “you knew nothing about being Jewish, you think you’re maybe Jewish, you’re a quarter Jewish, you found out from your parents a year ago you’re Jewish all of a sudden, or you’re Orthodox – wherever you come in, you’re very comfortable [at Limmud FSU], because there’s no imposition of religion there, and yet we do provide religious services for all the different streams,” she said.

Before Limmud FSU’s founding, “if you weren’t affiliated with Chabad” you had no way of experiencing Judaism in FSU countries, added Cahn.

Limmud FSU Moscow 2014; photo by Nathan Roi.
Limmud FSU Moscow 2014; photo by Nathan Roi.

Limmud FSU’s first four-day weekend event, held near Moscow in 2007, is still remembered fondly. Participants said they “never experienced in their lives being treated as equal” in the Jewish community, Chesler recalled.

This issue of equality is all the more true in countries such as the U.S. and Israel, where Russian-Jewish immigrant families sometimes report feeling separate from the rest of the Jewish population. Chesler and Cahn said that at several New York events planned for a mainstream Jewish audience by the local Limmud, before Limmud FSU’s expansion to the U.S., “there was not one Russian” in attendance. When the eventual Limmud FSU founders asked Russian Jews why they didn’t attend such events, the response was, “We don’t want to feel like second-class citizens. We want to feel like we are equal, and we don’t want to be treated like immigrants.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the crowd at Limmud FSU’s 2010 event in New York was pleased to hear Reisman (the former astronaut) speak in Russian.

Limmud FSU Canada, October 2014; photo by Yossi Aloni.
Limmud FSU Canada, October 2014; photo by Yossi Aloni.

Before Limmud FSU’s recent Canada conference, Canadian-Russian Jews would take 10-hour bus rides just to attend an event in the New York area. Yet the travel pattern was reversed for the event in Ontario, with some attendees flying in from Los Angeles, Moscow, and Israel. Canada had never seen “such a gathering of Russians together for a long weekend for studying Judaism or experiencing Judaism” prior to the Limmud FSU conference, Chesler said.

What makes Limmud FSU events different from those planned by other Jewish groups?

Organizers point to a focus on “haskalah” – meaning enlightenment or education. For instance, a Limmud FSU event this week in Lvov, Ukraine, will feature the screening of the Oscar-nominated film, “In Darkness,” which is about eight people who hid in the sewers in Lvov during the Holocaust. The book’s author, a survivor from the group who lives in Long Island, will participate in the event via Skype. The translator of the book from English to Polish plans to take participants to the place where it actually took place.

Russian cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Mikhail Kornienko with American-Jewish astronaut, Dr. Garrett Reisman.
Russian cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Mikhail Kornienko with American-Jewish astronaut, Dr. Garrett Reisman.

A year after Reisman spoke at the Limmud FSU event in New York, the former NASA astronaut attended another Limmud FSU event in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva along with Alexei Leonov, a former Russian cosmonaut who was the first man to “walk” in space in 1965, and current Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko. Their appearance at the Be’er Sheva event was in honor of the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the Columbia shuttle explosion in 2003.

Limmud participants “feel that they are making a difference,” Chesler said.

Like the original British Limmud model, Limmud FSU works as a grassroots organization. Although there are six paid project managers based around the world, each event is planned by local volunteers using a budget made up of entry fees, major donations, and local fundraising. Limmud FSU has approximately 50 different sponsors, including prominent Jewish philanthropist Matthew Bronfman, chairman of its International Steering Committee; UJA-Federation of New York; the Jewish National Fund; The Jewish Agency for Israel; the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference); and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).

The last organization on that list is a newcomer to Limmud FSU. In March, Limmud FSU and IFCJ launched a partnership to expand efforts to connect Russian-speaking Jews around the world with Judaism and Israel.

Founded in 1983, IFCJ promotes understanding and cooperation between Jews and Christians. The group has raised more than a billion dollars – mostly from Christian donors – for Jewish immigration, social programs in Israel, and struggling Jewish communities around the world.

IFCJ Founder and President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein said his organization sought a partnership with Limmud FSU after working inside the former Soviet Union for almost 18 years. There is a “deep concern” that Jewish life will lose the Russian Jews who are moving to different parts of the world, he said.

The partnership also expands on IFCJ’s decades of existing work to help FSU Jews, including recent efforts to provide emergency assistance to the Jewish community of Ukraine, which has come under increasing hardship due to the instability there.

According to Eckstein, IFCJ has more than 1.4 million Christian donors, who show an interest in assisting Jews in need. This falls in line with IFCJ’s stated vision “that Jews and Christians will reverse their 2,000-year history of discord and replace it with a relationship marked by dialogue, understanding, respect, and cooperation.”

IFCJ is providing Limmud FSU with $400,000 a year for three years, making up about 13 percent of the latter organization’s $3 million annual budget. Eckstein told JNS.org that the funding would go towards creating a “deeper Jewish experience” through a more meaningful Shabbat experience during Limmud FSU’s weekend conferences.

“It’s not an attempt to impose religion on them, but an attempt to give them an experience of Shabbat, like saying Kiddush or Hamotzi,” he said.

Secondly, IFCJ is looking to have education about aliyah become an integral part of the Limmud FSU conferences.

“There is a need for an organization that will work with young Russian Jews and give them a strengthened Jewish identity that will hopefully inspire them to move to Israel at some point in their future,” Eckstein added. “That’s one of our top interests and why we contributed to Limmud, which is an excellent organization that achieves exactly that.”

While IFCJ’s efforts have drawn some skepticism from those who believe that the organization is hyper-focused on aliyah due to Christian fundamentalist theology, which encourages Jews to settle the land of Israel in order to bring the messiah and Christian salvation, Eckstein called that “such a false perception.” He noted that only $20 million of IFCJ’s $140 million budget is dedicated to aliyah.

“We are talking about people who are giving up whatever small things they have in order to help the Jewish people,” Eckstein said, describing IFCJ’s Christian donor base. “There will always be those critics who try to undermine that and give false motivations.” He added that the donors are predominantly Protestant evangelicals whose giving is motivated by the call in Genesis 12:3 to bless Israel and the Jewish people, especially the needy.

In Moscow, Limmud FSU participants now pay between $250 and $600 to attend the organization’s events. In lower-income areas of the FSU, such as Moldova and Belarus, the fee is about $30. The events in New York and Toronto cost approximately $300 to attend, and in Israel admission is roughly $105. There are long-distance travel subsidies available for Limmud FSU conferences.

While Limmud FSU takes into consideration “the economies of where the [host] countries are” in determining prices for conferences, the organization believes participants should pay at least something to attend in order to give Limmud FSU a perceived value and to inspire attendees to become active in their Jewish communities.

Cahn said that both event participants and volunteer organizers “really grow with each Limmud [conference]. … We want them to have respect for themselves and what they produce.”