Limmud FSU Einstein: A First Look

Singer-songwriter Mira Stroika performing at Limmud FSU Princeton, New Jersey, on motzei Shabbat; photo courtesy Nathan Roi.

Kicking off Limmud FSU’s seventh year, Limmud FSU Princeton opened this past Friday afternoon just a short hop away from Princeton University. This, the first multi-day Limmud FSU event to take place in North America, brought 650 participants (including 50 kids) together for three days of Jewish learning and exploration. The program, geared to all ages and every perspective, was organized by volunteers from the U.S. Russian-speaking Jewish community and reflects the participants’ desire to maintain their Russian Jewish culture while living in the United States.

Speaking erev Shabbat, Rabbi “Shmuley” Boteach – a veteran of many Limmud programs around the world – described the atmosphere as “the warmest of any Limmud program” he has witnessed.

Previous Limmud FSU programs have centered on specific themes – the centenary of Shalom Aleichem; Russian-Jewish Nobel prizewinners; and space exploration with the participation of Russian cosmonauts and a Jewish-American astronaut. This year, fitting the locale, an emphasis was placed on the accomplishments of Prof. Albert Einstein, who was affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton until his death in 1955.

Keynote lectures on Einstein were delivered by Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund who is responsible for the Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University and which recently became one of the first scientific archives in the world to be available on the Internet.

Regarded as the father of modern physics and one of the most prolific intellects in human history, Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. This effect was pivotal in establishing the quantum theory in physics.

Visiting the United States when the Nazis came to power in 1933, Einstein chose not to return to Germany, where he had been a professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences. He settled in the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1940. On the eve of the Second World War, he was one of those who alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany might be developing an atomic weapon, and recommended that the U.S. begin similar research. It was this that eventually led to what would become the Manhattan Project – a research and development program, led by the United States together with the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Einstein was in support of defending the Allied forces by all means possible, but denounced using the new discovery of nuclear fission as a weapon. Later, together with the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, Einstein signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which highlighted the danger of nuclear weapons. In 1922, he traveled throughout Asia and later to Palestine, as part of a six-month excursion and speaking tour. On his return voyage, he again visited Palestine for what would become his only visit to that region. During one reception given to him, the building was “stormed by throngs who wanted to hear him”. In Einstein’s talk to the audience, he expressed his happiness over the event:

“I consider this the greatest day of my life. Before, I have always found something to regret in the Jewish soul, and that is the forgetfulness of its own people. Today, I have been made happy by the sight of the Jewish people learning to recognize themselves and to make themselves recognized as a force in the world.”

After the death of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, in November 1952, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion offered Einstein the position of President of Israel. The offer was presented by Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Abba Eban, who explained that the offer “embodies the deepest respect which the Jewish people can repose in any of its sons”. However, Einstein declined, and wrote in his response that he was “deeply moved”, and “at once saddened and ashamed” that he could not accept it:

“All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official function. I am the more distressed over these circumstances because my relationship with the Jewish people became my strongest human tie once I achieved complete clarity about our precarious position among the nations of the world.”

Albert Einstein’s political views emerged in the middle of the 20th century due to his fame and reputation. His views about religious belief have been collected from interviews and original writings and covered Judaism, theological determinism, agnosticism and humanism.

While traveling, Einstein wrote daily to his wife Elsa and adopted stepdaughters Margot and Ilse. The letters were included in the papers bequeathed to The Hebrew University. Margot Einstein permitted the personal letters to be made available to the public, but requested that it not be done until 20 years after her death (she died in 1986). Einstein bequeathed the royalties from use of his image to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

To this day, Albert Einstein remains a role-model for the Russian-speaking community.