Limmud FSU: Facilitating Identity Around the Russian-Jewish World

They came from twenty-three towns and cities around Israel and from five additional countries. 98 volunteers worked tirelessly for months; 250 presenters led 200 sessions, including 15 round-table discussions. There was clearly glitz and glitter; and there was serious discussion. There was learning around the theme of Jewish Noble Prize laureates. And there was ceremony along with the spontaneous and joyful singing and dancing by 300 IDF soldiers, all new immigrants brought through Nativ, at an event in celebration of 20 years of Russian-speaking immigration. Total attendance: 1890!

Such was  just a glimpse of what you would have caught had you been at Limmud FSU’s recent multi-day gathering in Jerusalem.

This, Limmud FSU’s third event in Israel, was clearly a place to see, and be seen. Israel’s most senior politicians, academics, media and cultural personalities were all there – a testament to the vitality, and viability, of Limmud FSU.

The sessions were rich in content and diversity. As in all Limmud programs, at any one time, participants had numerous activities to choose from. Among the sessions, a discussion among senior advisors to three former prime minister’s – Begin, Peres and Rabin – on the approach of each leader to not only their public speeches, but speech-writing in general. Also, a round-table discussion with seven leading philanthropists (moderated by this writer) on subjects including how they make giving choices.

One of the more interesting stories that came from the sessions was told by Eitan Haber, Yitzhak Rabin’s media consultant:

Israelis remember Rabin’s speech before the United States Congress in July, 1994, when at a certain point he said, “I, military ID number 34703, retired general in the Israel Defense Forces in the past, consider myself to be a soldier of peace today.”

However, the famous phrase almost did not see the light of day!

As Rabin read over the text, he burst one of his famous short fuses and said he was not going to read “such cheap kitsch.” Haber gently pointed out that the speech had already been printed and placed on the seats of all the members of Congress – and of course, distributed to journalists. Not clear as to what was actually going to happen, Haber was on tenderhooks as the passage in the speech neared, especially as he saw that the members of Congress were all putting the paper with the address down. Do they know something he doesn’t? Haber swears that Rabin glared at him from the podium – but duly read out the offending sentence.

Then Haber realized why the Congress members had put the paper down – to make it easier to give a standing ovation.

One of the highlights of this year’s Limmud FSU program was a presentation by a group of young musicians from the former Soviet Union, part of a recent Taglit Birthright-Israel contingent. Playing at the opening reception at Kiriat Moriah, and then again by popular demand at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center the next day, the 12 young musicians blew the crowd away by their musicianship, by their standard of playing, their professionalism and their sheer exuberance and charm.

And, this being Limmud FSU in Israel, children were clearly in the picture; activities such as paper cutting and puppet making along with dance lessons were available. With the youngest attendee at five months, the final morning saw multiple performances by dozens of young children who all did their part to remind us of the importance of planning for multi-generations.

And plan they did – for the lifeblood of Limmud is the grass roots efforts of volunteers creating their own, unique, events. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Jerusalem, Paris or New York; every Limmud program is designed and executed by talented and committed individuals in their own local communities – from the smallest of tasks to long-term strategy.

New at this program, for the first-time, was live-streaming with a continuous selection of events available on several websites, including eJewish, for all three days.

After the Festival was over, Gil Hovav, a leading Israeli television personality and journalist had this to say, “To see all these people with a sparkle in their eyes, thirsty for knowledge, and with an infectious excitement, was a privilege and a moving experience.” Carolyn Bogash representing Limmud International added, “… it was so clear that everyone was having an incredible time. There was such a strong, energetic and enthusiastic feeling around the event, and how wonderful to see so many young people really engaged in their learning.”

Limmud FSU now hops across the Atlantic and this coming Sunday, August 15th, returns to WestHampton, New York. Last year’s premier event was incredible and more of the same is expected. As Feliks Frenkel, a member of New York’s Russian-Jewish community, told us:

“Everything that Limmud FSU represents – Russian-Jewish heritage, community, education, support for Israel and engagement – are values that have shaped my own life and have held such meaning and importance for me.

It is a grand challenge to maintain Jewish and Russian identities in what is a great melting pot. These identities are steeped in generations and centuries, and as we work to maintain them, we become stronger, more unique individuals, and a better and more engaged community.

This is the essence of Limmud FSU. It is a galvanizing force for Russian Jews who are committed to making the transition from immigrants to leaders, from recipients of services to partners in the Jewish community willing to assert themselves and fulfill their obligations to the community. In short, they move from being one of the masses to one of the vanguard.”

For Limmud FSU, whether you live in Brooklyn, Jerusalem or Moscow it’s all the same – connecting, identifying, learning and remembering their culture and applying the lessons to their current lives.

Globally, Limmud FSU operates as just one spoke in a Limmud network that currently has programs in 54 separate locations on six continents. Wherever one goes, one can see impact on a scale quite out of proportion to its size – both on individuals and the broader Jewish community. A belief that it is ‘not about us – but about what is happening.’ Limmud comes with a simple aim – to enable each participant to go one step further on their own Jewish journey by offering a unique blend of formal and informal education, drawing on all sections of the community.

They have succeeded well. Let’s hope the community, the funders and the organizational world, are listening and learning.

images: upper – 2nd evening program with Nativ participants front and center; lower – Limmud FSU co-founders Sandra Cahn and Chaim Chessler with Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinzaltz; both images from Limmud FSU Jerusalem