Limmud FSU is celebrating its first decade of activities. The grassroots volunteer-run organization for young Russian-speakers is an off-shoot of the Limmud international educational movement, which began 35 years ago in the United Kingdom and has now spread across the globe to more than 60 countries in a multitude of languages. Limmud FSU festivals are held all over the world wherever there are substantial communities of Russian Jews – in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and in the USA, Canada, Australia – and of course Israel, with its over one million Russian-speaking Jews.
Last weekend, you could be forgiven for thinking you are at a pleasant resort on the Black Sea, surrounded as you are, by hundreds of young Jews, most of them happily conversing in Russian and many with their families – children, parents and grandparents. But no, you are actually at Kibbutz Ginosar on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. The occasion is the annual gathering in Israel of Limmud FSU. This event, dubbed “ Limmud Kinneret,” is arguably the largest gathering ever in Israel of Russian-speaking Jews. More than 1,300 people – overwhelmingly in their 20s to 40s, have assembled for a three day fiesta of Jewish culture, study, entertainment, Jewish identity and getting together in a fun and vibrant social atmosphere.
The festivities opened on Thursday, 17 December, with a performance in song and dance devoted to the late beloved Israeli song writer, poetess and musician, Naomi Shemer (1930-2004). The event was held appropriately at Kvutzat Kinneret, where Shemer, whose Russian-speaking parents had come from Vilna in the 1920s, was born (and is buried in the nearby Kinneret cemetery on the shore of the lake.) The musical tribute was given by second year students of the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts in Ramat Gan, who delivered a rousing and professional medley of the songster’s top hits which had the audience rocking in their seats and enthusiastically joining in – and finishing with the iconic “Jerusalem of Gold.”
To the extent that Limmud FSU – and the Russian speaking population in general – have become part of the establishment consciousness, is evident from the fact that this time Limmud attracted some stellar guests. They had come to discuss some of the burning issues of the day, which in itself is ample proof of the degree of importance to which politicians and others accord to the Russian immigrants – and possibly the potential Russian vote. One of the country’s leading journalists, Yoav Krakovsky, head of Israel Radio’s Second Channel, interviewed in quick succession, Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Israel Beitanu party, Isaac Herzog, Chairman of the Knesset opposition and the Zionist Union party, Minister of Transport Israel Katz, the up-and coming Zionist Union MK, Ksenia Svetlova – herself of Russian origin and Dani Atar, the recently elected head of the Jewish National Fund.
Herzog and Lieberman, unfortunately each of them separately and not in a head-to-head encounter, dealt with the current issue of a possible rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, which reached breaking point with the infamous Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, when Israeli commandos abseiled into the vessel of that name inside Israeli territorial waters, that was nominally carrying humanitarian supplies but the main aim of which was to break the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip. Herzog welcomed the possible renewal of diplomatic relations which had been abruptly terminated by Turkish president Recep Erdogan, although he maintained the conflict could and should have been resolved two or three years earlier. Lieberman, for his part, said that he was opposed any reconciliation, “Erdogan is the leader of a radical Islamist regime. The deal with Turkey is not yet complete but the damage has been done. Political opportunism is not a substitute for prudent diplomacy.”
A popular speaker was MK Michael Oren of the Kulanu party and past Israel ambassador to Washington, who gave two talks – one about Israel and the international media, and another on the Jonathan Pollard affair. Oren and Pollard knew each other from childhood and went to the same kindergarten. Oren pointed out that there were two very different and conflicting narratives of the Pollard affair – the “official” one that although Pollard was a spy, he was also a patriot who did what he did because he perceived that the US was withholding vital strategic information from its ally Israel, and an alternate narrative, that Pollard was a womanizer, was involved with drugs, was responsible for the death of American agents and did what he did for financial gain.
Dani Atar, who gave up his Knesset seat to run for office as head of the Jewish National Fund (KKL), in his first interview since his election, told interviewer Yoav Krakovsky that his aim was to restore the image of the venerable institution that was damaged by previous administrations, “so that it will be loved as it was during my childhood.” He told the packed audience that in the next few years, he hopes to create 300,000 new rental apartments throughout the country.
During the packed weekend, other prominent speakers included Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, head of the Mifal Hapayis State Lottery and former Deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF and head of the National Security Council; Brig. Gen. (res.) Avi Benayahu, former military spokesman; Rabbi David Stav, head of the Tsohar rabbinical group; Prof. David Bilchitz of the University of Johannesburg and current Chairman of Limmud International; a diplomatic couple, Gideon and Amira Meir, speaking about their personal experiences in representing Israel abroad; David Greenberg speaking about his father, the eminent poet and publicist, Uri Zvi Greenberg. No less important were appearances by popular media figures and entertainers such as Gil Hovav, the virtuoso jazz musician Leonid Ptashka, together with Irena Rosenfeld, a new immigrant and star of the Ukrainian edition of “A Star is Born,” a 90s style disco and film showings, and guided tours in Russian and Hebrew to the Golan Heights and ”In the Footsteps of Naomi Shemer.”
For those preferring some more practical fodder there were workshops on cake-making, Jewish culinary skills, the art of quilling (paper filigree and folding); making ear-rings, a salsa workshop and a master-class on photography. Neither does Limmud ignore traditional subjects. In addition to Kabbalat Shabbat services and Havdala, there were talks on Talmudic logic, codes in the Torah, and a workshop on being a sofer stam – ritual scribe. There was a children’s program divided into five age groups with a staff of trained counsellors and the children even had their own Kabbalat Shabbat.
A special Limmud FSU exhibition of photographs, mounted in cooperation with The Jerusalem Post and curated by Asher Weill, entitled “Opening the Gates,” showing highlights of the world-wide campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry, marking 25 years since the beginning of that exodus. The exhibit had been previously shown at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York, at the Knesset in Jerusalem and will now travel the world to Limmud FSU events.
The event was preceded the day before in the Knesset when the Limmud FSU leadership, led by the philanthropists and entrepreneurs, Matthew Bronfman, Chair of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee, Aaron Frenkel, Chair of Limmud FSU, together with founders Chaim Chesler and Sandra Cahn and Chief Executive Officer, Roman Kogan, met with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who congratulated the organizers and said that Limmud FSU is “doing holy work” among new immigrants. The group also met with Minister of Education Naphtali Bennett and Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Zev Elkin, both of who had recorded video greetings shown at the Limmud opening.
Founder Chaim Chesler said, “This is our biggest event yet in Israel and reflects the exponential growth in our activities. The Festival was over-subscribed eight hours after registration. This proves that our formula of education, culture, entertainment and the opportunity for dialogue and debate is just what our young participants are looking for.”
Co-founder Sandra Cahn added, “Year by year Limmud FSU succeeds in igniting the spark of being Jewish. When I see the young Russian-speakers singing during the end of the Shabbat Havdala service, I know that we are doing our job”
Rina Zaslavsky, Chair of the Organizing Committee of Limmud FSU Israel, summed it up: “The great achievement of Limmud this year is not just in the sheer numbers but as a whole inter-generational dialogue in which many of the participants arrived together with their children and the grandparents. That dialogue continued with the presentations and lectures. I see this as having real importance and as a remarkable phenomenon in itself.”