Limmud FSU Princeton: Priceless

by Nathan Roi

Princeton University is considered one of the leading universities not only in the United States but throughout the world. And, for the more than 600 young Russian-speakers who descended there this past Friday to participate in the Limmud FSU conference, it was a priceless opportunity to visit the campus where so many millions of young people aspire to attend but only a few succeed.

It was here that Albert Einstein, on a visit to the United States in 1933, made his home after he decided that as a Jew it would be unsafe to return to his native Germany after the rise of Nazism and the assumption of power by Adolf Hitler. Thanks to wealthy Jewish donors who funded the Institute for Advanced Studies, which Einstein headed, he worked and lived in Princeton until his death in 1955.

The visit to the campus was joined by Matthew Bronfman, Chair of the International Steering Committee of Limmud FSU. The next Limmud conference will take place in June in Kishinev, Moldova, not far from the small shtetl of Ataki from where Bronfman’s grandfather, Samuel, emigrated to Canada at the turn of the century. The Bronfman story is a microcosm of the story of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, that time of pogroms, rampant anti-Semitism and unrest, accompanied by harsh living conditions, repression by the authorities, misery and poverty. Many of the Jews landed up in the United States or Canada, while a small minority arrived in Eretz Israel.

Samuel Bronfman’s son Edgar, Matthew’s father, was born in the United States and was president of the World Jewish Congress for many years. He was instrumental in unveiling the Nazi past of the UN secretary General Kurt Waldheim and forcing Swiss banks to disclose hidden assets of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. In a Sabbath afternoon interview with The Jerusalem Post editor Steve Linde before a packed audience, Matthew Bronfman said “I hope my children will hold me in the same regard as I hold my father. At the age of 50, my father Edgar decided to devote his time and energy to social and community affairs. Among his many other concerns was the fate of the Jews of the Soviet Union. I remember Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz telling me in a meeting that my father was one of the most impressive people he had ever met. Steinzaltz said, “I met him at the age of 50 when he had no idea at all about public involvement and yet, after 25 years, he proved that he could rightfully occupy a place as an internationally recognized leader of the Jewish people.”

In reply to a question as to what influenced the family to engage in philanthropy, Matthew says, “We have no alternative but to look after each other. Klal Israel is not a meaningless phrase, and when I wake up in the morning that is the first thing that concerns me. As an American Jew I am one of the biggest investors in the State of Israel, but that is because I am a firm believer in the strength of the Israeli economy. When I began investing in Israel in 2003 people told me I was crazy. But when Warren Buffet invested in the Iscar machine tools enterprise, people were no longer surprised at my investments in the country.”

What would be your advice to young people?

To study, to study, to study. And aim to succeed. Hard work and hard study will inevitably lead to success.

Does the growth of ant-Semitism disturb you?

I am not conscious of it in New York, but I am seriously concerned when I hear about it elsewhere in the world. That is one of the reasons why I am deeply involved with the American Jewish Committee. The delegitimization of the Jews and of the State of Israel worries me enormously and all means to combat it must be utilized to prevent Judaism from atrophying and ceasing to grow.”

On the Friday evening preceding the interview with Matthew Bronfman, a reception took place with the participation of the President of the World Forum of Russian Jewry, Alexander Levin and Ronnie Vinnikov, who is an Israeli shaliach of the World Zionist Organization for the Russian-speaking Jewish community in the US. Speaking at the reception, Levin emphasized the responsibility that Russian-speaking Jews have for the continuation of the Jewish people. Also joining the conference was Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference.

In the background one could hear the sounds of the onset of Shabbat with the voice of the Reform cantor Maria Dubinsky welcoming the Shabbat with Sabbath songs. There was also an Orthodox Kabbalat Shabbat service led by Rabbi Menachem Hacohen and Rabbi David Goldstein.

After the Sabbath dinner, the lectures and presentations recommenced on a range of cultural topics. Julia Patrakova from St. Petersburg spoke about the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky saying that he was an interesting literary phenomenon that is not uncommon among Russian-speaking American immigrants.

Following her address, an Albert Einstein exhibit was inaugurated that had been brought specially to Princeton at the initiative of the Hebrew University together with Ido Aharoni, the Israeli Consul General in New York.

The theater producer, Micah Lewensohn, the director of the Beit Zvi Academy of the noted Performing Arts in Ramat Gan, gave a talk about the influence of Russian speakers on the Bezalel School, the first arts academy in Eretz Israel. Lewensohn is himself one of the last descendants of Boris Schatz, the iconic founder of Bezalel in 1906, who is still considered the primary architect of the teaching of the arts and design in Israel. Lewensohn is well-known for his role in the film He’erat ShulayimFootnote, which was shortlisted last year for an Academy award for best foreign film and which was screened for the Limmud audience in Princeton.

On his way to Princeton, Lewensohn, together with Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, stopped off to visit the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York which has a special exhibit on the struggle of Soviet Jews to leave the Soviet Union – a struggle in which Chesler, then Director of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, played a leading role. At Princeton another circle was closed when Jews who had been refused aliya and those working for their release met each other. One of them was Leonid Balutzrakovsky, editor of Novostiy Nedelyi who was an activist in St. Petersburg. His library of Judaica was considered on of the most important in the USSR. In Princeton he met many whom he had known before but also some new people such as the Jewish-Ukrainian singer Yulia Rosenfeld who participated in Limmud Yalta in 2008 and subsequently placed second in the Russian version of A Star is Born.

The writer and television celebrity, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, arrived at Limmud Princeton with his six children in tow. He gave two lectures – based on his best-selling books; one on Kosher Jesus and the other on, Kosher Sex. Just recently he announced that he is running for Congress in his home state of New Jersey. His fame and notoriety preceded him and he spoke before overflow audiences.

The close of Shabbat was marked by a Havdalah ceremony led by Rabbi Menachem Hacohen with the young crowd enthusiastically dancing. The Limmud Motzei Shabbat Gala produced a high with the appearance of the Red Elvis group and two wonderful singer-soloists, Mira Stroika and Iryna Rosenfeld.