Limmud FSU Princeton: A Profound Self-Discovery

by Yoram Dori

Limmud FSU is always a special experience for its participants. Limmud FSU Princeton, held from May 11 to 13, at Princeton University, was an especially unique event for me. As usual, I learned more than I taught.

Some 650 young Russian-speaking Jews, originally from the former Soviet Union, paid good money to hear about Judaism, to learn about Israel, to meet their brothers and sisters, all in a pluralistic spirit, without coercion and without pressure. The lecture topics were determined by the young people themselves, and the theme this year was Albert Einstein, the father of modern physics who lived, taught and died in Princeton.

Unlike other Jewish conventions that I’ve attended over the years, since I served as the Jewish Agency chairman’s spokesman in the 1980s, most Limmud FSU discussions are held in classrooms and not in hallways.

At Limmud FSU, there is no “corridor politics” known as Jewish activism. There are no gabbais but only people who pray. There is no one buying or selling positions of power, but only people providing and acquiring knowledge.

This time, I had the opportunity to get away from the Israeli cauldron in which I have been involved in one way or another for decades, and to look at the picture from the outside. There was a debate on the benefits of establishing a national unity government in Israel, a discussion on the increasing disgust among the younger generation with politics and politicians, and even a dialogue on which will be the next team to drop out of the premier soccer league.

I watched the young Jews originating from the former USSR during the day and the night. I watched while they sat and started three discussion groups an hour and a half after midnight and held a debate about the nature of contemporary Judaism, and its connection to Israel. I was surprised to see a packed room when the discussion was on the Iranian nuclear threat or on the Palestinian question – issues directly affecting Israel.

These youngsters demonstrated an enormous interest in the situation in Israel, and one could discern their genuine concern.

When I went to sleep at night, I thought about the process that was happening before my eyes. I thought that the relationship between Israel and American Jews was going through a fundamental change.

The change originated 50 years ago, or maybe even further back, somewhere during World War II. During and shortly after the Holocaust began, many Jews fled Europe. Families and individuals quickly abandoned their homes in Europe and found refuge in various places. Too few left.

Two brothers might have fled Europe, with one coming to the US and the other to Palestine, now Israel. The nature of the relationship between American Jewry and Israelis was, first and foremost, one of blood ties. The closeness of immediate family.

The American Jewish brother was worried about his brother in Israel.

Over the 64 years of Israel’s existence and a lack of massive aliya from North America, the family ties blurred. Among the generations of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there was no more first-degree consanguinity. No more personal acquaintance. No more longing. The common denominator was history and heritage.

Some people sought common ground in science and technology. The relationship got to be based on logic. But at Limmud FSU Princeton, I witnessed a revolution.

The number of former Russian citizens in the United States is estimated at one million, according to some experts. Their influence on the local Jewish communities is growing.

Their economic character is vastly different from the “old” American Jews. This is not the aristocracy of money. This is the proletariat.

Even in science, they are not yet at the top of the pile, but they are a group that is struggling for its place in society and galloping ahead.

It is not at all certain that organized Judaism is enthusiastic about this process, which ultimately might weaken it, but it is an inevitable process.

The interesting part of this process is the return of direct family ties between Russian-speaking Jews in America and the citizens of Israel.

They again have become brothers and sisters who live on two different sides of the world, parents and children, first-degree blood relatives. Once again, it seems that this is not only a partnership in tradition, but one of strong family ties, and once again it seems they are of real concern to each other.

The element of emotion seems to be growing stronger in this relationship. Emotion rather than rationality. The situation today is different. Israel is a strong country.

Its economy is flourishing. This is no longer the rich uncle from America and the poor relative in Israel. But it is once again the relationship between true relatives, blood ties.

This is the reason for the big interest in Israel shown by the young women and men who came to Limmud FSU Princeton.

It concerns their families and their future.

The term Ahim anahnu (We are brothers) is not a dream, but reality. Somewhere in the middle of the night at Princeton, I was exposed to an additional element of FSU citizens that I thought only existed in Israel.

It was at 2 a.m. after an impressive opening night in which singers Mira Stroika and Iryna Rosenfeld, who participated in Ukraine’s version of American Idol, blew us away with their songs in Hebrew, English, Russian and Yiddish.

Hearing Rosenfeld sing “Avinu Malkeinu” was like listening to Barbra Streisand in a young and improved edition.

In the lobby of the Marriott Princeton at Forrestal, a few dozen young people gathered and began to sing. I heard familiar tunes. I saw them circling a young male pianist who played songs in Russian – many of them children’s songs. The dialogue between them was in Russian. You could see happiness on their faces. Finally, they felt at home.

Throughout the day, they were Americans, spoke English and American slang, acted as Americans and appeared to want, with all their hearts, to disengage from their past and become locals. And suddenly, with glasses of wine in their hands, at the piano, they became Russian once again.

I naively thought that this phenomenon existed only in Israel. Perhaps because of the hardships of immigrant absorption, or because the veteran residents were not receptive enough to olim. Suddenly I discovered that it was apparently caused by something else entirely, because they are part of a huge country, an astonishing culture, and because they have no desire to disconnect from their primal version of themselves.

There was another important thing that I learned from Limmud FSU Princeton: the desire among young adults to learn.

This is a common desire among Russian-speaking Jews in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Israel and the United States.

President Shimon Peres, for whom I have served as an adviser for over 20 years, has noted again and again that the largest contribution of the Jewish people to humanity (except for the Ten Commandments) is its dissatisfaction – the need to doubt, to question, the intellectual curiosity that leads to innovation.

The same trait that Albert Einstein’s had, and Limmud FSU Princeton was dedicated to his legacy.

In Princeton, I experienced the president’s perception firsthand – the insatiable thirst for knowledge, the deep desire to innovate.

I thank Matthew Bronfman, the chairman of Limmud FSU’s International Steering Committee, Limmud FSU’s tireless founder, Chaim Chesler, and his colleague Sandra Cahn, for the opportunity they gave me and others to learn and get to know my people.

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

Translation by Moria Dashevsky; photo by Ross Den.