From ‘Let my People Go’ to ‘Let my People Know’

by Asher Weill

A special meeting of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee convened last Wednesday to consider Jewish education, among young Russian speaking Jewish adults in Israel and the Diaspora, and especially to hear a report on the work of Limmud FSU. The meeting was hosted by the Chairman of the Committee, MK Alexander Miller (Yisrael Beitanu) and was attended by a group of educational professionals and activists associated with Limmud, as well as MK Anastasia Michaeli (Yisrael Beitanu).

In introducing the topic, MK Miller said that Limmud was a project of major educational and cultural significance and that his committee would do anything it could to help advance its activities. He pointed out that he himself had been an active participant.

Chaim Chesler, co-founder of Limmud FSU and chair of its executive, gave an account of its activities since its foundation in 2006, and explained that tens of thousands of young Russian speaking adults have participated in its programs to date, beginning in Moscow in May 2006, in Yalta in 2008 and since then in many venues in Russia, Ukraine, Israel and the United States. Although not a government sponsored project, it enjoys wide support across the political and academic spectrum as a pluralistic, liberal Jewish learning experience. It is supported by several major institutions, including the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Conference for Material Claims against Germany, as well as several foundations and individuals, prominent among them being the US based philanthropist, Matthew Bronfman, who is chair of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee, Diane Wohl, Sandra F. Cahn and others. Based on a model inaugurated in the United Kingdom 30 years ago, Limmud has grown and spread across the world.

Chesler introduced two short video films; one of these – on Limmud FSU in Moscow in April 2010 – was shown worldwide on CNN World Report to an audience of millions. The other was on Limmud Jerusalem in July, an event that was attended by over 1000 people. President Shimon Peres, was scheduled to give a brief two minute greeting as he was to leave for a state visit to Romania the next day. He was so excited by the encounter with hundreds of new immigrant young Russian speakers that he stayed for over an hour.

Limmud is based on the work of hundreds of volunteers, as was enthusiastically explained by 24 year old Nikita Paderin, an immigrant from Southern Russia and a law student at Tel Aviv University who has been involved with Limmud for the last five years, beginning with the first one in Israel – in Ashkelon in 2008. He said that working with Limmud “is like a deep-rooted infection – once you are bitten by it, it is impossible to be cured.”

MK Michaeli was at pains to point out that in a nation where it seems all too easy to criticize, it is refreshing to be able to talk about Limmud, a project which deserves nothing but praise. Israel is plagued with conflicting images abroad, she said, but this is one activity with a totally positive image. She sees Limmud as a breeding ground for a new generation of Israeli diplomats and leaders, especially in a hostile world increasing influenced by the internet, blogs and facebook.

Herzl Makov, Director of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, which was a co-host of Limmud Jerusalem in2010, paraphrased Abraham Lincoln in saying Limmud is “for the people, by the people and of the people.” Ira Dashevsky, co-chair of the Limmud content committee, emphasized that Limmud provides an essential link in the continuum of Jewish identity, culture, education, bound up with practical Zionism, and summed up its work by saying that the resounding slogan of the Movement for the Freedom for Soviet Jewry of the 1980s, “Let my People Go” has become for this new generation, “Let my People Know.”