From WestHampton, New York to Russia’s Far East, Limmud FSU Makes Inroads

birobidzhan_4Seven time-zones from Moscow, about as far east as one can travel in Russia, lies the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, or Region. Established in 1934 “for the Jewish population of the Soviet Union to receive a territory in which to pursue Yiddish cultural heritage within a socialist framework” this out-of-the-way region is today largely forgotten by world Jewry.

But here, last week over 300 [mostly] young Russian Jews gathered in the capital city of Birobidzhan for four days of seminars, workshops, entertainment and just plain fun at the first ever Limmud in Russia’s Far East.

Planned to coincide with the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Oblast’s founding, the attendees were provided a window not only to their own heritage but an opportunity to connect to the global Jewish community.

Taking the Limmud model and tweaking it to appeal to the culture and heritage of its participants, Limmud FSU’s approach to informal Jewish education provided just what the participants were looking for. Built on the principle of free choice, volunteerism, networking, empowerment and leadership development in a pluralistic setting, Limmud FSU offered something for everyone, from the younger children to senior adults. The majority of the participants were 20-something and many volunteers came from the Hillel Khabarovsk community. Their director, Ilya Baru, saw the event “as a unique opportunity to bring sophisticated, high-quality informal Jewish learning to an area that rarely sees such opportunities.”

The program was varied, consisting of sessions as diverse as a “Virtual Tour of Birobidzhan”, “The Economic Crisis and Philanthropy”, “Jews of Modern Russia: Challenges and Opportunities” and “A World Without Newspapers: The Future of Journalism.” Almost half the presenters came from outside the region; many, including this writer, making their first trip to Russia’s Far East.

One participant/volunteer, Anna Nikolaeva, a 26 year old Jewish Agency madricha, traveled from Khabarovsk and brought her 78-year-old grandmother with her. Anna noted that Limmud FSU was filling a huge need, a genuine ‘thirst for knowledge’, for Jewish-related learning in a remote area:

“In the Russian Far East, we are so very far away from centers of thought and so it is hard and somewhat limited to be involved in Jewish life,” she said. “With this conference, the Jewish people who are not involved can understand what it means to be a Jew and learn how to do everything they can to be one. For me, my relatives never told me about my history, so I am very interested in it and here my knowledge and understanding is deepening.”

synagogue-small-300x225Thursday and Friday saw the program, including an incredible concert (more on this tomorrow), hosted on the grounds of Chabad’s recently built synagogue/community center campus. For Shabbat, we traveled about twenty miles outside Birobidzhan to a residential camp, utilized by JAFI during the summer, for a relaxing, and yet intense program. Here, we began with the first Shabbat service at a Limmud FSU event organized and led solely by the participants.

The message of the entire program was accentuated on opening night by Yakov Yavno, a Russian-Jewish entertainer from New York,

“It is more important what is inside you and what you are believing. Never mind where you live, the most important thing is a Jewish soul.”

Limmud FSU has now brought their approach from Yalta, Minsk and Moscow to not only Birobidzhan but Ashkelon, Jerusalem and WestHampton, New York. Their model is different from Limmud Internationals’ country model. But with this demographic, especially outside the FSU countries, it seems programs designed by participants from inside their own communities are the ones most likely to gain traction and help ensure a vibrant and sustainable Jewish future.

Limmud FSU receives funding and logistical support from numerous individuals and organizations including Matthew Bronfman, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee.

The writer, along with journalists from Israel Broadcasting Authority, The Jerusalem Post and Yediot Ahronot were guests of Limmud FSU in Birobidzhan.

images: Birobidzhan’s main square; synagogue building on Birobidzhan Jewish community center campus