Limmud FSU Odessa

Andrei Makarevich and Michael Goldovsky; courtesy Nathan Roi

by Yoram Dori

Every time I participate in a Limmud event for young Russian-speaking adults, it is a new experience. Although Limmud FSU in Odessa, which took place this November, was dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ukraine and Israel, it did not mean that the entire festival was built around it. Only one session (which I had the pleasure of attending) was dedicated to this topic and the remainder, in the best tradition of Limmud, were as varied as usual.

Limmud FSU is not just the usual run-of-the-mill Jewish seminar, where it would be difficult to persuade participants to listen to endless debates about the political games of different organizations. Here at Limmud, the whole event pivots around the young participants, most of them originating from the former Soviet Union.

As Chaim Chesler, founder and chair of Limmud FSU, said at the opening ceremony, “Limmud belongs to its participants and not to the organizers. It is a non-affiliated project in which the participants are the key players. We have no hierarchy. All the participants are volunteers who live in the same rooms, eat the same food; each one of them can learn something new in an atmosphere of pluralism; it is totally unimportant if you are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or even atheist – everyone blends together in peace and harmony.

This Limmud in Odessa was perhaps the most successful of all of those I have attended. This too is typical of Limmud – each event tends to be more successful than its predecessor. This time, the European Jewish Union was involved with the festival and brought in new participants from all over Western Europe.

The number of participants was an incredible 600, each of whom had paid a participation fee as well as travel expenses. Bearing in mind the cost of living and the average salary in Ukraine, for most participants this is a substantial amount. Nevertheless, registration for Limmud had to be closed two months before the event because of the overwhelming demand and limited accommodation.

The number of attendees at the sessions is impressive as always: starting from 7.00 (for early-bird yoga, exercise classes and prayers for those who want) in the morning, until at least 1.00 am, the participants packed the classrooms, listening avidly, asking questions, discussing, debating and arguing. The topics varied from Jewish artists in Odessa, to interfaith issues in Judaism, literature, poetry, music, and to the inevitable Arab-Israeli conflict. At the ever-popular session on Jewish humor with Mark Galesnik, an Israeli writer and humorist, there was no room to swing a cat and the laughter could be heard down the hallway.

A session with Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, Vice-president of the Conference for Material Claims against Germany, a former Chief Rabbi of Romania and ex-Knesset member, was not at all easy. The topic was, “Where was God during the Holocaust” and the speaker was bombarded with questions by participants after the session. A former Jewish partisan, Baruch Shub, told his personal story about life in the ghetto, the breakout and joining the partisans. An Israeli group, “The Shuk,” conducted a master-class on contemporary Israeli music and wowed the audience at the Limmud gala opening.

Jews constituted about 45 percent of the population of Odessa before the Second World War, most of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. Limmud held a memorial ceremony devoted to the victims of Holocaust in Prokhorovsky Park in the city center. Chaim Chesler, local Holocaust survivors, Baruch Shub, and Greg Schneider, the Executive Vice-President of the Claims Conference attended the ceremony and Rabbi Hacohen recited the Mourners’ Kaddish.

I was asked to speak at the ceremony and among my remarks: “We are standing at the place where the road to death started. No words can describe the horror. No words can describe the hatred. There are no words to describe the craving of Jewish souls. Modern Israel is a country with a powerful army, a successful economy and a thriving culture: this is our victory! A victory of humanity versus hostility; hope versus revenge. This is the essence of our existence as a nation. This is the secret of our victory as a people. We will never forget and we will never forgive. Our power is in our ability to look forward to our future and to that of our children!”

We visited some local Holocaust survivors, most of them aged 90 and more, who are not able to leave their homes. Their Ukrainian state social benefits cover either food or medicines, but cannot provide a decent standard of living. For such people, the Claims Conference is a guardian angel which invests millions of dollars to make their lives easier and to support them in their hour of need. The Claims Conference, working through the American Joint Distribution Committee, supports about 7,000 Holocaust survivors who receive medicines, food, and home visits. Thanks to the Jewish concept of kol israel arevim ze lezeh (each Jew is responsible for the other), elderly Jews in Odessa live a better life than their Ukrainian counterparts.

Evenings at Limmud are unforgettable! The intellectual energies of the day are transformed into a pulsating musical vibe. “The Shuk” got hundreds of participants to get up and dance, and many of them sang along in Hebrew, even if they did not understand the words. Irina Rosenfeld, a young Jewish singer from Ukraine, winner of the program, “Ukraine’s Got Talent” (similar to the British and American “X-Factor” contest) joined “The Shuk” and sang in Russian and in Hebrew. Everyone was stunned by her wonderful voice. If she comes to Israel, Ninette Taib and Yehuda Sa’ado had better watch out! Andrei Makarevich, a special guest from Russia, sang at the gala. I had been told that he is a Russian edition of our own Arik Einstein and all the participants were listening to his songs, humming quietly along with him.

On the way to the airport I tried to sum up for myself my impressions of this Limmud. Was I satisfied that my session on the current situation in the Middle East when I tried to elaborate more on the issues and the implications of the “Arab spring,” helped the participants see our region as a gateway to initiatives and new opportunities? Or on the contrary, did it open their eyes to the situation and in terms of potential aliya to avoid possible risks and wait? Or should I get excited about possible cooperation between Israel and Ukraine in the field of infrastructure, culture, health services and business. How should I react to the gratitude of representatives of the local Ukrainian authorities who took part with me in the round-table discussion? I am not at all sure. But I did realize that, once again, Limmud contributed to me a lot more than I contributed to it!

And finally, I want to take the opportunity of thanking the organizers of Limmud FSU and especially Matthew Bronfman, Chair of its International Steering Committee, for yet another memorable conference.

Yoram Dori is Senior Advisor to the President of Israel, Shimon Peres.