Newcomers Enjoy Limmud FSU in St. Petersburg

photo by Nathan Roie
photo by Nathan Roie

by Larisa Popovskaya

On October 23 Limmud FSU came to St. Petersburg for the third time. Some 400 people attended the conference during three wonderful days packed with educational opportunities and entertainment of all sorts; all in the usual Limmud spirit of pluralism and volunteering, together with like-minded people who had come to celebrate the phenomenon of Limmud in Russia and C.I.S.

The atmosphere of Total Limmud in the city is permeated with stories of St. Petersburg and its history in the conference halls, each bearing the name of a Russian tsar or tsarina from the ancient town of Peterhof, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Staying as we were, not far from the summer residence of Russian monarchs that is often referred to as the “Russian Versailles,” emphasized the disconnect of Jewish history, inasmuch as Jews could never have stayed here just a hundred years earlier. Amazing that a Jewish conference could be held in the historical shadow of Russian royal history!

This year’s Limmud conference in St. Petersburg attracted many newcomers, some of whom had found information about the conference on the Internet and registered without any advice from friends. One of the special features of Limmud is the fact that many people first come as participants and then stay on as volunteers, even if this year, the participation fee had been increased.

Limmud FSU was founded in 2006 by Chaim Chesler of Israel and co-founded by Sandra Cahn of New York USA and Prof Mikhail Chlenov of Moscow; philanthropist and businessman Matthew Bronfman is chairman of the International Steering Committee and Aaron Frenkel [from Monaco] serves as its president.

“St. Petersburg has one of the most vibrant and flourishing Jewish communities in contemporary Eastern Europe and we are thrilled to be part of it”, said Chesler. “We are sure that the conference contributed to the city’s Jewish life and will strengthen the Jewish identity of its participants.” Chesler noted that the vast majority of attendees at the event registered online, representing a dramatic technological and cultural paradigm shift from Russia’s once highly restrictive society.

Sofya Liakhovitskaya, a fourth-year student in clinical psychology, came to Limmud for the first time: “I had heard about Limmud from friends, but had not managed to make it before now. I am interested in Jewish history and literature and Limmud gives me just what I want. I love the atmosphere, the freedom, the pleasant people and the helpful volunteer organizers. It was very comfortable to observe Shabbat and to keep kosher, which are important for me.” At the same time, Sofya and other young participants and volunteers emphasised that high participation fees could become an obstacle for them coming to Limmud next year.

Limmud in St. Petersburg differs from other Limmud conferences in its really intimate nature. Dima Zicer, an educator, presenter and one of the prime movers of Limmud in the city says, “Three years ago, when we first thought about Limmud here, we understood that it was wrong that other cities had a Limmud of their own, but St. Petersburg, a cradle of Jewish culture, did not. We found people who were enthusiastic and it was those people who created a unique style making Limmud St. Petersburg different from the others. We perceived Limmud here as having its own special atmosphere in a blend of Moscow style and our own local cultural heritage.”

One of the organizers, Polina Santarovich, confessed feeling a little selfish for her satisfaction in helping to create the St. Petersburg Limmud. “I adore the atmosphere; all year round I look forward to this time so that I can hang out in the lobby, bump into old friends and always discover something new.”

Yelena Lagutina, first secretary of the Embassy of the State of Israel in Moscow and a former host of Israeli television in Russian says: “This was my first time at Limmud in St. Petersburg, but I have attended many Limmud events both in Israel and in the FSU as a volunteer. This time I am here in the role of a diplomat representing Nativ, a sponsor of Limmud, which is rather different. Limmud appeals to me by its charm that is not easy to explain. It has an atmosphere all its own. It creates a bubble, inside of which there are many people united under one underlying umbrella – children run and play games, adults discuss and argue, smokers get together, drinkers meet at the bar – one happy Jewish family.”

The subjects of the sessions are so diverse that you would need to run from one to another just to catch a glimpse of what is going on. Everyone can find something to meet his or her own special interests: entrepreneurship, leadership, the Holocaust, educational philosophy, history, cinema, fashion, Judaism, the Middle East and, of course, Israel, are just some of the topics that Limmud offers.

Aharon Weiss, a Holocaust survivor and historian, delivered a lecture on Jewish historical memory in the former Soviet Union. He says, “The special nature of Limmud is that it has created a unique platform which provides an opportunity to impart Jewish knowledge to all ages, especially for young people who don’t want to be confined to a rigid framework, but look for relevance to themselves. My lecture underlines the renaissance of Jewish life: Jewish historical memory could not be demolished either by the Holocaust, or by Soviet might. We cannot build our Jewish future without understanding our past.” Other presenters in St. Petersburg included the noted Israeli actress Yelena Yaralova, the poet and philosopher Lev Rubinstein, the historian Ilya Altman from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, Vicky Raveh, Director of the Jewish National Fund in the FSU, Eliezer Lesovoy of the FSU Department of the Jewish Agency and Duby Rodman, local representative of the JDC.

This Limmud also attracted some people from further afield. Kirill Ratmanskiy came specially from Boston after visiting a Limmud for Russian-speakers in New York. “I wanted to hear what people are talking about and to network. As I am originally from the FSU, I wanted to come, enjoy the educational opportunities and to make new connections.”

Time runs out fast at Limmud and it soon comes to its inevitable end. A few more hours and everyone is on the way home, but the message and memories will make participants remember Limmud St. Petersburg for some time to come – and certainly until the next Limmud FSU in the city.

Larisa Popovskaya, 25, is from Kiev (Ukraine) and is currently studying in Moscow.