Limmud Nonstop: Shabbat HaGadol in Moscow

The all women pop group “Tatiana,” one of the best known musical ensembles in Russia.

by Nathan Roi

The frozen river adjacent to the Klyzma Resort Center where we are staying is slowly thawing. It is 14-16 April and we are part of 750 participants at Limmud Moscow, on this “Shabbat Hagadol,” the last Sabbath before Passover.

As Shabbat approaches, dozens of presenters, many of them well-known throughout the length and breadth of Russia are delivering lectures. The presenters include the advisor on communications to the President of the Russian Federation, senior lecturers on history from the Faculty of Jewish Studies at the University of Moscow, heads of some of the most prominent high-tech companies in the Russian economy, Aryeh Levin, Israel’s first ambassador to Russia after the collapse of communism and the restoration of diplomatic relations, and Israel’s current ambassador, Dorit Golander, among many others.

Dorit Golander: “The idea of Limmud, founded by Chaim Chesler six years ago was at first considered here as the notion of a crazy individual who did not know what he was getting into. But he knew what he was doing. He was very familiar with the Jewish world through his long years of service in the United States and Russia and he saw great potential among young Russian-speaking Jews. A new generation comes to Limmud, year after year at their own expense, in ever-increasing numbers. This is abundant proof that Chesler’s ambitious dreams were correct from the outset. When you look around you, you realize that Chesler and the team of volunteers have laid the foundation for the major educational project in the Jewish life of Russia in the 21st century.”

Just a few of the subjects discussed at the festival were: the work of the Israeli playwright, Hanoch Levine; Jews and ballet, Kabbalah on one foot; the history of the Jews of Moscow, Doctor House and Jewish medical ethics; Should we negotiate with terrorists?; the Jewish theater in Moscow; words to actions on the Internet; krav maga – an Israeli system of self- defense; Osip Mandelstam and the Jewish theater, Behind the scenes of the Israeli media; Russian-Jewish poetry; the anti-Semitism of Stalin; Jabotinsky – a liberal Russian revolutionary; and dozens of others.

The festival began with an electric performance by the all-women Russian pop group “Tatiana,” one of the best known musical ensembles in Russia. Although it was the first day of Limmud, the hall was packed with hundreds of participants. Children sat in the front, young people stood in rows behind them and still further back, seated on chairs were parents and older participants who had come at the urging of their children or grandchildren who had attended previous Limmud events. The organizers had spent a year in planning the events and almost all of the sessions were packed with audiences who continued to fire questions at the speakers long after midnight.

As usual, it is a band of anonymous volunteer planners who are the heroes of Limmud: the young chair of the organizing committee, Alexandr Piyatagorsky, Dr Dmitry Maryasis, head of the program committee, Jenya Nemirovsky, director of Limmud Russia, Anna Smolanskaya, head of the public relations committee, Michael Lipkin, responsible for registration, and many tens more volunteers who came from all corners of the Former Soviet Union.

Chaim Chesler: “As one who has attended every Limmud event, I can state with confidence that it was the energy displayed here that melted the frozen ice of the river. Anyone who has not actually attended a Limmud event will find it difficult to grasp the dynamic enthusiasm of the young people. The secret is always the same – an exciting program, brilliant presenters and above all, the depth of interest of the young audience in whatever the subject might be: this is the most significant aspect of Limmud.”

It was lawyer Anna Zozula’s fifth Limmud. “All my friends are here. And I am here because I love the idea of Limmud when people come from all over Russia, irrespective of their occupation and the position they hold, in order to listen, to make their opinions heard and to share in the same intellectual activities. The reputation of Limmud has spread far and wide and even some of my non-Jewish friends want to come.”

What then is the secret that brought 750 participants together for 48 hours at Limmud? Anna Zozula has an answer: “It is difficult to get people together just on the narrow subject of Judaism. But Limmud gives an opportunity for an enormous range of subjects. My parents, for example have little knowledge of Judaism but they are interested in subjects as differing as philosophical issues and Jewish cuisine. My 85 year-old grandmother is here and she takes a great interest at the sight and sound of so many young people interested in Jewish local and international issues. It is all so interesting that it is nearly impossible to decide which lecture to attend.”

One of the presenters, lawyer Matvei Libant, says, “In Russia there are not many intellectual alternatives to Limmud. It is a unique opportunity to meet and communicate with interesting people. It is like a supermarket where all the best produce can be found under one roof.”

Anna Smolanskaya is attending Limmud as a volunteer for the fifth year. “Most of my very best friends are from Limmud because we all have similar aims in life. We are Muscovites who want, once a year, to be together and listen to quality presentations. Of all the activities I do in my free time, I am most attracted to Limmud because it a type of melting pot that demands from you each year anew, to fulfill yourself intellectually.”

Prof. Viktoria Mochelova is an expert in the history of Polish Jewry. Born in Minsk, Belarus, after many years of research on the culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe, today she teaches at “Sefer” an umbrella group of Russian universities teaching Jewish studies which is associated with the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She says, “I arrived at Limmud five years ago. I usually speak to audience specifically interested in the history of Polish Jewry. Here at Limmud I address a different type of audience which has no direct connection with the subject and yet it is wonderful to see their depth of interest.” Prof Mochelova’s son is Anton Nossik, one of the lecturers most in demand at Limmud. He is a blogger renowned throughout Russia who has created some of the country’s best-known internet sites.

When I asked Pyatagorsky what is it that brings so many people to Limmud he answers, “Limmud is an institution that, above everything else, takes prides in sustaining the quality of Jewish communal life. We do this as volunteers every year out of a deep sense of commitment. We bring the best lecturers to speak to the best audiences, in the best surroundings.”

Translation by Asher Weill.

about: Limmud FSU brings together young Jewish adults who are reviving and revitalizing Jewish communities and Jewish culture and identity throughout the former Soviet Union, in the USA and in Israel. Limmud FSU was founded in 2005 by Chaim Chesler of Israel, together with Sandra Cahn of New York and Mikhail Chlenov of Russia.