Regardless of what the future may hold, the conference participants, with their black, almost Israeli humor, were engaged and fully aware of what was unfolding before them, which one would not be remiss in describing as almost a miracle – the resuscitation of Jewish life in the barren Soviet Union, which generations of oppression have not succeeded in stamping out.
by Erica Schachne
Touching down in the grass-lined fields of Moldova’s tiny airport, I had no idea what to expect.
I had come to Chisinau, the capital of this landlocked republic, for the weekend of May 23-25 to attend the Limmud FSU conference, the festival of Jewish learning celebrating the rebirth of Judaism’s foothold in the former Soviet Union.
I had heard great things about this dynamic “Jewish Woodstock,” which rejoices in the unique knowledge and talents of its participants, granting them a platform to deliver presentations on what makes them proud to be Jewish – with sessions on topics ranging from the theoretical to the mystical to the whimsical.
Though the average participant at this particular Limmud was under 30, all ages were well-represented: parents with their young children to the older set and everyone in between, with a high-energy coterie of high schoolers. Many had made sacrifices to take part in an event they had looked forward to the whole year, gathering from the far reaches of the former Soviet Union – with more than 400 people from Moldova, southern Ukraine, Belarus, Moscow and St. Petersburg, comprising academics, entrepreneurs, writers, politicians across the spectrum, artists and entertainers.
Some were first-time attendees, catching the buzz and eager to network and take it all in. Others were Limmud enthusiasts, excited about the second Limmud conference held in Moldova.
Bumping along the outskirts of town in a mini-van, passing communist-era railroad tracks, warehouses and vivid green expanses, I headed to the hotel (a charmingly eccentric holdover from a more Soviet time) with the contingent that had come from Israel to attend – with others making their way over from Europe and the US.
My Israeli counterparts included Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz and Mordechai Haimovich, formerly of Ma’ariv, who later recounted some fascinating journalistic war stories in a joint talk on “More Than Headlines” (Haimovich detailed the long road to getting then-97-year-old Leni Riefenstahl, famed for directing the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of Will, to tell her story); Eli Itin, innovation evangelist at hi-tech giant Amdocs, who gave a master class on “Applied Innovation: Using Ideation Techniques for Defining Our Core Challenges and Generating Creative Yet Practical Solutions;” Eldad Beck of Yediot Aharonot, who skillfully traced “The Rise and Fall of the Arab Spring” and “Western Press Reporting in Israel;” and The Shuk, an internationally acclaimed ensemble of talented musicians who use their vibrant sound to link people to Israeli and Jewish culture, identity and society, and gave a series of rousing concerts that had everyone dancing and singing along.
In the van, I got to talking with Chaim Chesler, the genial former treasurer of The Jewish Agency and founder of Limmud FSU, who thrives on the energy of Limmud, almost seeming to live for the way his vision is revitalizing Judaism in the post-Soviet tundra. Throughout the weekend, the ever-smiling Chesler was to be found warmly welcoming participants, shmoozing and cutting a rug to The Shuk.
Chesler told me he had founded Limmud FSU as a nonprofit eight years ago with Sandra Cahn, a New York philanthropist, and Prof. Michael Chlenov of Moscow, to engage young Russian-Jewish adults, empowering them to take ownership of their identity and connect with their communities – through egalitarian, volunteer-driven conferences of Jewish learning and culture. It piggybacked on the Limmud learning experience started in Great Britain over 33 years ago, which has now spread to over 60 countries.
Featuring a program jam-packed with lectures, workshops, roundtables, creative labs and cultural events, Limmud is built upon core values designed to enrich and enhance Jewish life. The volunteer principle was indeed in full force, as the entire event was organized by a team of local volunteers and a programming committee, in collaboration with Jewish community head Alexander Bilinkis and local Jewish organizations such as the JDC and Chabad of Moldova, co-sponsored by the country’s US Embassy.
The 50-plus sessions ran the gamut of the pluralistic Jewish experience, with something for everyone, including: “The Formula of the Creation of the Universe” with Menachem-Michael Gitik, an Israel-based rabbi and mathematics teacher; “Ironic Poetry as a Means of Survival” with Moscow’s Igor Irten’ev, a poet who has written 20 books; yoga with Alexandra Dunder of Balti (Belz), Moldova; Nellie Smith, also Balti-based, a handmade accessories designer who gave a master class on “Floral World!”; Oleg Melamed, head of Jewish educational programs at the JCC on Nikitskaya Street, Moscow, who led a beit midrash session on “Be My Friend: A Different View of the Classical Jewish Texts;” Vyacheslav Dyachenko of Chisinau, president of the Krav Maga Association of Moldova, who gave a practical session on basic techniques of the martial art; Igor Shchupak of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, director of Tkuma, the All-Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies and Museum of History of Jews of Ukraine, who lectured on “The History of War and the War of Memories,” and Vasilisa Smirnova, owner of Chisinau’s Chili Marketing company, who gave practical pointers on “How Not to Fall for Marketing Tricks.”
Throughout the three day whirlwind, with the opening concert featuring the flamboyant Geta Burlacu, Moldova’s contestant in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest, and the well-attended sessions in the plant-lined hallways (Moldovans seem to have a knack for gardening), I got to know the impressive people who came to be a part of Limmud FSU.
They were, in a word, spectacular: with a thirst for knowledge about Jewish life, optimistic and open, some making financial sacrifices to attend. Thrilled to get together with their fellow Jews, many seemed content with their lives but some, especially the youth, spoke of their desire to eventually move to Israel (where they would be following in the footsteps of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who was born and raised in Chisinau).
One such person was 14-year-old Sandu Kiritsa. The ambitious teenager from Moldova’s capital has, as a fond grown-up would say, “a talent for computers,” already creating a start-up “quote generator” called AnyQuotes. He consulted with Itin of Amdocs about how to actualize its potential, and expressed his desire to eventually make aliya and join the IDF, perhaps in a technology unit.
Kiritsa’s fresh-faced lack of cynicism and vigorous drive were not unusual; it was the uniting thread among the numerous well-dressed and friendly teenagers and young adults I met from the local community. Many spoke of their desire to leave Chisinau and Balti, and make something of themselves where there is more opportunity.
What is their future here in Moldova? I asked Jewish community head Bilinkis.
The businessman, investor and philanthropist, whose own daughter made aliya, acknowledged many are leaving, seeking greener financial pastures due to the tough economic situation in Europe’s poorest country.
However, Moldova, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, now hosts 22,000 Jews. Furthermore, its capital, a city that came to symbolize Jew hatred with the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom – to the degree it became a rallying point for early Zionists such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky, drew condemnation from Leo Tolstoy and was memorialized by Chaim Bialik – now has about 10,000 Jews and two Jewish schools.
With only one active synagogue, it sees the need to expand, attempting to raise $3 million to transform a crumbling synagogue from Soviet times into the new Jewish community center.
There will always be a strong core of people for whom Moldova is home and wants to remain, said Bilinkis. Job prospects are said to be on the up-and-up in areas such as IT, and the country aims to join the EU, implementing a three-year action plan to that end.
Moreover, the Jews of Moldova are not concerned about the volatile situation unfolding in neighboring Ukraine, he said, which has not impacted them financially or otherwise, being that the community is largely self-sufficient.
Regardless of what the future may hold, the conference participants, with their black, almost Israeli humor, were engaged and fully aware of what was unfolding before them, which one would not be remiss in describing as almost a miracle – the resuscitation of Jewish life in the barren Soviet Union, which generations of oppression have not succeeded in stamping out. Some had tears in their eyes as they swayed and sang the words to Kabbalat Shabbat with feeling.
A talented group, which included well-known Moscow-based stage actor Igor Tomilov (who presented an artistic evening on “Acting: Is It a Calling or Diagnosis?” and a vocal master class that proclaimed “Yes! Anyone Can Sing!”), they served as a visual reminder that the former Soviet Union had once been renowned for its intellectuals, scientists, artists and thinkers. I enjoyed meeting each and every one of them.
Indeed, I came out of the experience feeling that my life, as an American who has always openly and proudly been free to practice her Judaism in New York and later Jerusalem, had been enriched by this appreciation and love for all things and people Jewish. In this fast-paced world where things are often taken for granted, what a blessing to be able to dedicate three full days to putting down new roots.
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post; reprinted with permission. Photos added by eJP.