Limmud FSU Odessa: The Magic Continues

As Limmud FSU draws to the end of their 5th year of programs, it was only appropriate they concluded the year where they had begun – in Ukraine. For here, at the tail end of winter – in the town of Truskavets, Limmud FSU opened the year of the Nobel back in March. Last week, they wrapped-up a most successful 2010 with an event in Odessa, a gateway city of embarkation to pre-state Israel. In between, Limmud FSU held events in Moscow, Jerusalem and WestHampton, New York.

It’s difficult to even know where to begin – with the program itself, Odessa or the larger story of Limmud FSU’s “coming of age” in 2010.

World-wide, Limmud is known for offering a diverse and continuous range of programming for all ages, beginning early morning and lasting into late at night, and featuring a global cast of volunteer presenters. But, here in Odessa, in-between the usual fare of Jewish history and culture, text discussion, and more, were some real gems: Daniel Blinder, a tenth grade student at the Chabad Jewish Day School in Odessa and winner of the World Bible Quiz, wowed a packed room with a discussion titled, “The Way the World was Created.” Joseph Bachar, Chair of Israel Discount Bank, also to an over-flowing audience, discussed “Macroeconomic Politics of Israel” and Aron Weiss, the chief Editor of Yad VaShem studies, spoke on “Ukrainians During the Holocaust – Saviors of Jews or Nazi Collaborators.”

One of the real session highlights was a roundtable discussion led by five of the most senior media professionals in Israel titled, “Has Israel Lost the Information War?”. This roundtable, like an open press conference with members of the Ukrainian media, showed very clearly that not only the Limmud participants, but the broader media were in complete sympathy with the difficulties Israel was facing in battling an unfriendly media world. As I noticed on a previous trip to Ukraine with Yuval Rabin, Israel as a country is held in high esteem by significant numbers of Ukrainians, a fact clearly apparent.

On arrival, participants were welcomed by Limmud FSU’s strong volunteer community in a lobby filled with a delightful photography exhibit titled “Windows to Israel” by a young Kiev photographer. Fifty volunteers from across Ukraine worked for months planning, co-ordinating, and making certain the week came off without a hitch. And they succeeded.

All of this was set against the back-drop of Odessa – and it was this Black Sea port itself that was both the theme, and the real star, of the week.

The city has a long, and rich, Jewish history, and the population – at its height following WW1 – was about half the total population. According to the Claims Conference, “The Jews were a thriving and vibrant community; there were 60 synagogues and Jewish thinkers and businesses flourished.”

Odessa is famous in the Jewish world as the home city of such luminaries as Zeev Jabotinsky, Chaim Nahman Bialik, Isaac Babel, Menachem Ussishkin, Meir Dizengoff, Shalom-Aleichem, Ahad ha-Am, Shimon Dubnov and many others – including three Nobel prizewinners – Ilya Menchnikov, (medicine 1908), Selman Waksman (medicine 1953), Boris Pasternak (literature, 1958). Odessa has a reputation not only as a hothouse of literary icons and its own inimitable brand of Jewish humor, but also as a breeding ground for Zionism. It was referred to as the “Gateway to Zion” because it served as a major point of embarkation to pre-state Israel.

Chaim Chesler, Limmud FSU’s founding father, tells us, “Odessa was, and is, a cosmopolitan city rich in pluralistic values of the Jewish world; a city where every individual is welcome in the community. A place where those of different opinions can live together. As such, Odessa – with its important place in Jewish history – becomes a perfect setting for Limmud.”

Limmud FSU is known for their cultural events, and here, Limmud Odessa did not disappoint. From the sounds of Toporkestra – a gypsy-punk-panic-klezmer band made up primarily of Moldovan gypsies, Turks and Odessa Jews, to the cabaret style that has made Odessa famous, to performances by Israeli jazz virtuoso Leon Ptashka, there was something for everyone. And with the showmanship that occasionally pops up at Limmud FSU, the closing program featured a special version of the famous Hebrew ballad Mi yivneh beit beTel Aviv (Who will build a home in Tel Aviv?). The actors, in period costumes, took on the role of some of Odessa’s most prominent Jewish citizens. Following their performance at JDC’s Beit Grand, the actors accompanied the 500 participants on a tour of the city’s Jewish sites, paying due respect at the homes of their famous characters and speaking about their lives.

Limmud FSU is a unique creation. Founded in 2005 by long-time activist Chaim Chesler, and modeled after Limmud in the U.K., their explicit purpose is “to provide a widespread pluralistic social and communal educational and learning experience for young Russian-speaking Jewish people wherever they may be.” They’ve run events in the countries of the F.S.U., Israel and the U.S.

In the FSU, Limuuds’s target demographic is the children of those who chose to remain – in other words, those who did not partake in the massive emigration to Israel, the U.S., or elsewhere, during the early 1990’s. Children who may be Jewish according to halakha or the Law of Return. Children who now as young adults and aspiring leaders, have chosen to learn openly and identify with their Jewish heritage. Young adults, who as Michael Wegier – Executive Director of Melitz – who is no stranger to Limmud around the world and traveled to Odessa for his first taste of Limmud FSU, told me are, “thirsty, hungry and inspiring.” In fact, Weiger said he was blown away by the “kids in their 20’s going through conversion or just studying.”

During 2010, Limmud FSU can claim some major success stories. Five highly successful conferences were put together over seven months, all filled to capacity, and reaching about 5,000 participants with their honed in agenda. They’ve successfully developed volunteer teams in every locale they operate – teams that are not only capable, but also want to be engaged.

In Jerusalem this summer, the political elite – including President Shimon Peres – mingled with those assembled. In all the countries they operate, Israel, Russia, Ukraine and the U.S, they’ve nurtured high visibility and and particularly as relates to Russia and the Ukraine has helped make government ministers aware of the short-comings of Jewish education in the former FSU.

And here at Limmud Odessa, four of the most senior editors from Israel’s media world – Yoav Tzur (Maariv), Itzhak Tunik (Galei Zahal), Motti Sklar (Broadcasting Authority director) and Leonid Blechman (Channel 9) – not only came themselves, but engaged participants and engaged the local community. Israel’s Hebrew press has a long-held aversion to publishing anything about the Diaspora Jewish world so there presence here reflects significant understanding of the value being brought to the table.

Limmud FSU has over the years built on a diverse group of funders, both organizations and individuals, from a number of countries. Their founding funders include the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee and the Claims Conference. In addition, the principal funder of Limmud Odessa was The Associated: The Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore with meaningful financial support provided by Vadim Rabinovitch, president of the Ukrainian Jewish Congress. Limmud Odessa donors also included Dr. Nona Kuchina and Moshe Shneerson of “Dr. Nona International” and Diane Wohl of New York, all three of whom were in attendance.

With 2011, Limmud FSU is poised to continue their upward trajectory with events again planned in Israel, Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. So stick around, for both both the organization, and their demographic, will play an increasingly visible, and important, role in our Jewish world.

images: courtesy Limmud FSU; top – Zina Kalay-Kleitman, Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine with special guests at the opening program; lower – visiting Israeli journalists and character actors outside JDC Beit Grand