Limmud FSU Beersheva: Walking in Space, Looking Toward the Future

Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov opening the Festival Gala

by Nathan Roi

In the heart of Beersheva, capital of the Negev, the Limmud FSU Festival opened on 26 May, and hundreds of young adults came to hear lectures on space, science and technology and more, and listen to the words of the first man to walk in space, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Leonov, who was visiting Israel under the joint auspices of Limmud FSU, the Russian Space Agency, the Russian Cultural Center and Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, is a man young in spirit – a scientist and cosmonaut and an artist. His visit was part of the marking of the 50th anniversary of the first flight in space by the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Leonov, who in 1965 exited from the Russian spaceship Voshod 2, spent 12 minutes and nine seconds in space. The flight marked the beginning of the breakthrough in space research throughout the world.

There is a well-known story about the famous space walk. On exiting, his protective suit over-inflated in the vacuum of space so that he was unable to reenter the airlock. In a risky maneuver he opened a valve and was just able to squeeze back inside. It is no wonder that he was mobbed by enthusiastic young people who wanted to touch him.

Leonov, who was twice awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union,” and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, came to the Limmud FSU festival together with American-Jewish astronaut, Dr. Garrett Reisman. The spirit of friendship between them was evident in all their joint presentations as they swapped jokes, mostly in Russian. One of them concerned a conversation between the Director of the American Space Agency, Shaun O’Keefe, and the head of the Russian Space Agency – in a very different era. O’Keefe asked the Russians how they were coping with the fact that in space, it was impossible to write with pens – “we have invested millions of dollars to try and develop a pen that will write in conditions of zero gravity.” The Russian answered, “We write with pencils and get excellent results.” The laughter between the three never stops for a minute and the seriousness when they speak about the future is just as profound.

The Festival itself was launched two days earlier, with a special reception at the Russian Cultural Center in Tel Aviv hosted by the ambassador of the Russian Federation Pyotr Stegniy and Limmud FSU Steering Committee chair Matthew Bronfman. The Ambassador stated this was part of the celebration of  the year of the “Russian Space Odyssey,” as declared by President Dmitry Medvedev. Bronfman praised the combined efforts of Israel, Russia and U.S. Jewry in making the event so special.

The next day the three astronauts met with President Shimon Peres from whom they heard his vision for the future of the world. Peres, who had been part of the story of space development in Israel, such as the Shavit space launching vehicle, gave backing to Israel’s space program as presented by scientist and Minister of Science and Technology, Daniel Hershkowitz. The Minister confirmed that the president had given his full blessing to the project. In the meeting, which lasted over an hour, Peres said that the flight by Yuri Gagarin and other astronauts throughout the world, will lead to a breakthrough to Venus and Mars. “At the same time we must ensure there is a similar breakthrough in the development of the Negev. Advances on the ground and in the air will lead to an improvement in the life of mankind,” said Peres.

As always, Limmud is about the participants, and in Beersheva they were able to choose between some 63 presentations focused on Jewish culture, Jewish education and Jewish knowledge, all taking place simultaneously in a 24 hour marathon at the Lillian and Larry Goodman Theater and Acting School of the Negev.

Limmud FSU co-founder Sandra Cahn commented, “One of the beauties of Limmud FSU is that each festival is entirely driven, planned and executed by volunteers. An army of volunteers had been working for months to mount and organize the Beersheva Festival, and their efforts provided a rich educational feat – for the community, to the community and by the community.”

Among the hundreds attending was a young immigrant doctor, Natalia Kudakeva, 25, from the Russian city of Ulyanovosk. She is currently interning at Soroka Hospital in Beersheva. Speaking about the festival she said, “I came because there are interesting people here and lectures in a very free atmosphere which attracted me.”

In a master class given by the Israeli actress and musician, Marina Maximilian Blumin, young people brought her lyrics they had written and together they devised a melody.

Founder of Limmud FSU, Chaim Chesler said, “The beauty of this meeting is that Limmud FSU is a mixture of the breakthrough in space, and the breakthrough of scientific development in the Negev.” Chesler continued, “At Limmud FSU we also see more and more Russian Israelis interested in learning about their Jewish heritage. Taken together, all these elements complement each other.”

Dan Brown and Asher Weill also contributed to this article.

Photo highlights of Limmud FSU Beersheva can be found here.