Photo by Boris Bukhman

Photo by Boris Bukhman

By Asher Weill

The city of Lviv in Western Ukraine welcomed this weekend an influx of over 750 (mostly) young participants to a Limmud FSU conference. The opening was addressed by the Mayor of Lviv Andrei Sudovey who welcomed the Jewish participants to what was historically a major Jewish city and by Eliav Belotserkovsky, the Israeli ambassador in Ukraine.

Lviv is in itself both a microcosm of Jewish history for better or worse (usually worse) and a small resurgent modern community, reborn on the ashes of the past. The ancient city of Leopolis was occupied by the Polish king Casimir the Great in 1339 and became Lwów. Jews arrived from the beginning. Casimir was favorable to his Jewish subjects and granted them broad civil rights and many of them held key positions in the city’s economy, especially in the export and import of perfumes and silk articles. In 1772, the area became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the name changed yet again – this time to the German Lemberg. By the 1820s, there was a proliferation of Jewish institutions – schools, hospitals, Agnieszka Holland released in 2012. orphanages – and some 90 percent of the city’s shops were owned by Jews.

Photo by Boris Bukhman

Photo by Boris Bukhman

By the 1890s, the city was one of the major centers of Jewish cultural and professional growth in Europe. The Zionist movements became active, Hebrew and Yiddish literature and theater flourished, and there were 97 synagogues. By 1910 and in the period leading up to the First World War, there were nearly 60,000 Jews – a third of the population. In 1914 the city was briefly occupied by the Russians and was called Lvov. After the war a power struggle broke out between Ukrainians and Poles but Poland retained control in 1918 and the city reverted to Lwów.

The outbreak of the Second World War saw an influx into the city of refugees fleeing from the Nazis and the Jewish population swelled to 240,00. Some people managed to escape west into the USSR but the great majority ended their lives in the death camps of Belzec and Auschwitz. When the Soviet army reconquered the city in July 1944, only a few hundred Jews had survived (including one family who spent 14 months concealed in the underground sewer system – a story told in a movie “In Darkness” by the Polish director Agnieszka Holland) and the city became Lvov, a part of the USSR. In 1991, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the city at last became part of independent Ukraine and the name Lviv was added to the list – the name by which the city is known today. Some 30,000 Jews lived there in 1991 but a large number have emigrated meanwhile and the Jewish population has shrunk to no more than 5,000.

Photo by Boris Bukhman

Photo by Boris Bukhman

So it is to Lviv that Limmud has arrived. Three hotels had been taken over in their entirety and during the three-day pluralistic, egalitarian conference, which, like all Limmud FSU events, is entirely planned and run by young local volunteers, the participants had the choice of more than 150 lectures, presentations, discussions, master-classes, workshops and study groups on many different subjects, from Jewish history, prose and poetry, theater and dance, Yiddish and Hebrew languages, the Middle East and the Israel-Arab conflict, musical performances and much more, all planned to widen their Jewish knowledge, pride and identity. A talk was given by Eitan Haber, the chief of staff of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on “The Effect of the Murder of Rabin on the Political and Social Life of Israel,” and another by historian Yoel Rappel on the Jewish history of Lviv. David Yonatan Greenberg, the son of the noted Israeli poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg, who was born in the nearby town of Bilyi Kamin and studied and wrote in Lviv, spoke about his father in a talk, “The Poet and Prophet.” Other speakers included the former “Prisoner of Zion,” Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Gennady Polishuk, the head of Nativ in the Israel Prime Minister’s Office, the poet Igor Irtenev, Zeev Hanin, the Chief Scientist in the Israel Ministry of Absorption, the historian Igor Schupak, the Yiddish scholar, Velvel Chernin, and many others.

Photo by Boris Bukhman

Photo by Boris Bukhman

The closing gala event featured a unique performance of Yiddish jazz with the Russian musical star Andrei Makarevich, who recently received Israeli citizenship.

Volunteering at Limmud

A major feature of all Limmud events, is that all the planning, organization and administration are carried out entirely on a volunteer basis. In the countries of the Former Soviet Union, many of the young volunteers who make Limmud possible come with virtually no Jewish background or knowledge (which is hardly surprising, after 70 years of Communist suppression). There is no “typical” volunteer but it is interesting to trace one such person and try and understand what motivates them.

Photo by Boris Bukhman

Photo by Boris Bukhman

Tanya Abovich was born and brought up in the town of Vinnitsa in western Ukraine (the birthplace among others of the artist Marc Chagall). She grew up in a family that in no way concealed their Judaism (“I knew I was Jewish from my early childhood” she says), although very few consciously Jewish elements marked her family. She remembers hamentaschen at Purim and Hanuka gelt and her grandparents spoke Yiddish (which she understands). Christmas was not celebrated but there was no Jewish observance to speak of.

The stunningly attractive raven-haired 28 year-old graduated from the Pedagogical University of Vinnitsa in philology, linguistics and cognitive science and is currently completing her PhD. The epiphany occurred when she heard about and was invited to join a Birthright visit to Israel. She says, “The person who invented Birthright is a genius. You take a group of some 40 youngsters and they become your own private family. After my first exposure to Israel I realized that I wanted to create my own circle of Jewish togetherness. I felt bigger than the sum of my parts and I wanted to hold onto this connection. It is difficult to love a food before you taste it, but once tasted, never forgotten. Jewish history is embedded in our collective memory. To access it you must taste it even if the taste is sometimes bittersweet.”

Conference organizing committee

Conference organizing committee

Before Birthright she had thought that being a Jewish activist or professional was rather shameful and embarrassing. But back in Vinnitsa with her new found passion, she launched a regular monthly television program called Mishpacha on the local television station, which ran for five years with her as editor and presenter, attracting a large Jewish audience and was very popular with non-Jewish viewers. In 2012, she received a phone call from Osik Akselrud, the regional director of Hillel in Eastern Europe and director of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress. As a result of the call she was appointed director of Hillel in Kiev, the country’s capital, which serves the city’s Jewish population of some 50,000 people. She says, “I wanted to create a unique environment where every student can negotiate his or her own path. It doesn’t matter where the path leads, as long as it is a Jewish path.” Asked the inevitable question leading from that, she says that her own path might take her to Israel. Meanwhile she sums up her priorities differently: “My life’s mission is to be a good mother.”