Limmud FSU Goes Boldly Where No Limmud Has Gone Before

The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming … no wait, they’re here. Or more specifically were there – at the Hampton Synagogue (Long Island) this past Sunday for Limmud FSU’s second U.S. event.

800 strong, up from last year’s 500, participated in more than 60 sessions facilitated by over 100 panelists – they came to collectively explore their Jewish identities, renew friendships, form connections, develop leadership skills and enhance community engagement. In the words of co-chair Yigal Kotler, they wanted to explore “real Jewish Peoplehood”.

Typical was Roman Sidler, a young Ukrainian native living in Brighton Beach, who came to find even more connection to his Russian-Jewish community than he could find in his own neighborhood. “I am trying to find something real here,” said the 26-year-old, who came to the United States just over a decade ago and now works in an engineering firm. “There can be a lot to separate Jews. I am here to find what unites us. Everyone here comes from all over the area, and all over the world, and all of us have different stories and different backgrounds. But we are all Russian-speaking and Jewish and we want to connect with what we have in common and explore that.”

That needed connection was in evidence through-out the day’s programming. John Ruskay, CEO of UJA Federation NY, spoke of it and the needed re-engagement of the Russian-Jewish community as he introduced the day’s keynoter, Garrett Reisman – the “nice Jewish boy who became an astronaut.”

Speaking to sustained applause, Reisman, a native of New Jersey and the first Jewish astronaut to travel to the International Space Station, described his indoctrination into the Russian community, cross-cultural understanding and scientific cooperation offered by the space program and his particular experiences in the space shuttle program, on the space station and as a spacewalker. He returned from his last voyage just three months ago.

“I had no idea that it would involve strengthening my ties and learning a great deal about the people of Russia as well as the people of Israel,” he said, describing his interactions with Russian and Israeli science and space officials. “That was something unforeseen and a very, very welcome addition to my trip to space.”

He described how he called Israeli President Shimon Peres from space during the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state to send greetings and congratulations. And he told tales of living with a family in Russia in order to learn the language before his interactions with Russian cosmonauts.

The vast amount of subject areas offered in one day and the record turnout reflects the growing popularity and strength of Limmud FSU around the globe.

“The young Russian-Jewish community has the energy to look inwards and explore their identity and Jewish roots and share it with the mainstream Jewish community,” said Chaim Chesler, Limmud FSU founder. “Every fourth Jewish-American in the New York area is from Russia and they are happy to give their energy and talent to the entire Jewish community and that is why we are so successful.”

“We are a growing movement across five countries,” said Sandra Cahn, co-founder of Limmud FSU, citing the United States, Israel, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. “Wherever there is a Limmud FSU event, I see increasing numbers and connections being made for lifetimes of Jewish engagement and leadership. These young people are looking to be active and involved in a Jewish way, and we are filling a void for them to be part of the mainstream Jewish community yet at the same time maintain their very individual and special heritage. It is wonderful to see the dream of Limmud FSU develop so successfully in our first five years.”

An all volunteer organizing committee comprised of nearly 50 young adults from the Russian-American community designed the program from logistics to entertainment, underscoring a key value of the global Limmud movement, volunteerism. While Limmud FSU’s global network helped facilitate the participation of senior Israeli government representatives, committee members were instrumental in many others spending the day in WestHampton, including Reisman and Belarusian-born professional boxer Yuri Foreman, who along with artist Elke Reva Sudin spoke on “Drawing the Champ: Wrestling with God”.

The event attracted young Russian Jews not only from the Big Apple, but a bus load from Philadelphia’s Russian-Jewish community also made the trip.

“This is a tremendous event,” said Dmitriy Moverguz, 30, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia who now lives in Philadelphia. “I have a strong Russian cultural identity and the combination of many Russian speakers helps me to be in touch with this identity and to experience the Jewishness within me. It is who I am. I am an immigrant here in the United States and we face questions of how we grow within our identity as Russian Jews and this helps us to see there are others like us on the same journey.”

Having attended Limmud FSU events in four countries, I can say this is an audience keen on exploring their multiple identities – whether as Russian-Jews, Russian-Jewish-Americans or Russian-Jewish Israelis. They are hungry to learn and hungry to participate. In the U.S., several communities are just waking up to the fact that the American-Russian-Jewish community is not only growing, but that the younger members are seeking different outlets than generations past. There is clearly a vacuum as many established organizations engage in conversation and little else. In New York City, like in others, this demographic has taken it upon themselves to develop and nurture their own initiatives; Limmud FSU’s quick success in New York is just one example as is Generation R, an initiative for Russian-Jews created by Russian Jews.

Historically in America, immigrant communities have looked to quickly absorb themselves into a broader American community. This generation of Russian-Jewish-Americans seems to want more – the ability to maintain multiple identities in ways different from the past. The broader community needs to take note, or risk loosing them.

images: top-courtesy Elke Reva Sudin
lower-courtesy Limmud FSU

post title inspired by a Tweet from Andrew Gilbert, founding chair of Limmud International

You can read more on Limmud FSU WestHampton on the Jewish Agency’s website.