They came from as far away as Toronto. Just under 1000 strong, across multiple generations, they gathered in Odessa – “The Pearl of the Black Sea” this past Shabbat for Limmud FSU’s 11th Ukrainian festival of culture, creativity and learning.
Many sessions focused on history but also the richness and diversity of Ukrainian Jewish life; others on “very current events.” Sessions included “How the Nazis punished Ukrainians for aiding Jews during the Holocaust” to “The French Presidential Election – how the young Emmanuel Macron came to power” to “Odessa in literature and Yiddish folklore” and so much more.
The Festival, like all Limmud programming around the world, was pluralistic and welcoming, regardless of your observance level.
The weekend also featured a special ceremony and concert celebrating Bob Dylan. Dylan’s paternal mother, Anna Zimmerman, together with her husband Zigman, emigrated from Odessa to the US in 1910. There was also a session on Dylan’s life, “Forever young: behind Dylan’s revolution and legacy,” in cooperation with The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.
According to Chaim Chesler, LImmud FSU’s energetic founder, “Because Russian-speaking Jews spent so many years cut off from their Jewish roots, the tasks and challenges facing Limmud FSU are distinct from those in other parts of the world. Yet as we embark on our second decade, we can already see the huge difference that our work has made. Jews living in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Moldova have a greater awareness of their culture and a stronger sense of identity and national pride.”
This is my fifth Limmud event in Ukraine. And what is the most difficult to capture, and the accompanying photos do not do justice, was the electricity present throughout the four day event attesting to the positive side of Jewish life in Ukraine today.
For whether it be at the highest levels of the Israeli government, the offices of high-profile global Jewish organizations, or deep inside West Bank communities, the message that usually sounds is that Jewish life is dying outside Israel. Be it from anti-Semitism, BDS, intermarriage, or right-leaning governments, you do not hear the positive stories coming from the countries of the FSU, or – for that matter – from Budapest, Krakow, Paris or Warsaw.
Clearly there are challenges in all these countries. But, in Ukraine, the 2014 revolution brought thousands of Ukrainians citizens of different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions together to stand up against corruption and fight for their country’s European future (see here). At present, the country is fairly quiet and all are working together to build a better future.
As for Jewish life in Ukraine? It’s on the upswing. Don’t take my word – or Limmud’s; ask Hillel or Moishe House too. All three organizations will be happy to welcome you and let you judge for yourself.