Russian Jewish Community Begins to “Own” Limmud

Limmud FSU Moscova 2009: Where Future Jewish Leaders of Russia Strive to Overcome “the Madoff Crisis”

by Shimon Briman

mosv1994The world financial crisis and “Madoff” scandal have led to a collapse in Jewish philanthropy, closing many funds and forcing cutbacks in the financing of hundreds charitable projects. For the past 20 years the Jewish community of the former Soviet bloc countries has got used to millions of dollars in donations from the USA, Europe, and Israel, and has suffered most. In the FSU, a special semi-parasitic style of a “communal life” was created, which depended on foreign money almost completely.

In the beginning of 2009, local Jewish organizations found themselves confronting the terrible and inevitable fact: all program budgets were either sharply reduced or disappeared altogether. Post-Soviet Jews are just beginning to pay for communal services – it’s a learning process. In the midst of this crisis in Russia, a growing a class of young and middle aged Jews, who are ready to pay for quality “Jewish product” has gradually emerged.

A unique conference, the 3rd Annual Limmud FSU Moscova, held last week brought together more than 350 participants in “Zvenigorodsky” hotel near Moscow. Joining the Muscovite were volunteers from Nizhni Novgorod, Volgograd, Kursk, and other regions of Russia, eager to learn more about the Limmud FSU paradigm. Each participant paid a registration fee of $120 dollars to participate various seminars, lectures, master classes and creative laboratories, and to share with like-minded peers.

Gaining in strength, currently, Limmud FSU 2009 Moscova is partially self-sufficient, and supported through in kind and financial contributions from thirty major Jewish organizations, foundations, and private philanthropies. Although Limmud FSU lost some of it funding due to the Madoff crisis and economic downturn, visionary funders who understand the mission of the organization have emerged. A $1.2 million dollar operation, Limmud FSU has expanded its successful Limmud FSU Moscova model to many other cities and remote areas, which need total financial support as ‘start-up’ operations, many of which have no local financial backing.

Without strong donor support, Limmud FSU will not flourish in Jewish communities, which badly need young leadership development and communal support to thrive and sustain their Jewish traditions. This year, for example, in addition to Moscow and Jerusalem, there will be strong Limmud FSU conferences and events in Russia’s Far East; Lvov, Ukraine; and Vitebsk, Belarus.

According to organizers of conference in Zvenigorod, this event became the most expensive Jewish program in Moscow. Considerable financial assistance was given by STMEGI fund and by Herman Zaharev, a prominent Russian businessman. Roughly, ninety-eight percent of participants paid the registration fee when the conference was first announced. Due to capacity, there was a waiting list, although hardly any advertising appeared. A young couple, Grigory and Anna  Kegeles, who worked on publishing and recruitment observed, “Payment for participation in such a lively and fascinating Jewish event only strengthens motivation and desire to visit more Limmud programs. And, an amazing fact, some students, who participated in Limmud, has brought their parents along, creating the unique setting for connect generations.

Julia Fidelgolts, 25, first-time participant, was overwhelmed. A human resources director for an IT company in Moscow, Julia explained, “After the first two hours at the conference, I forgot about my work and entered a wonderfully comfortable and interesting world of lectures and people around me. For a long time, I consciously avoided Jewish events, choosing people on different principles. I was totally unprepared for the unexpected and new feeling of being among my people, people of the same level, same interests, who were on the same wavelength with me. I’m waiting for the next Limmud!”

Limmud FSU programs have become such popular brand, with fascinating programming, featuring all branches of the Jewish civilisation. Limmud has appeared first in England 30 years ago. In Russia, Limmud FSU – developed just for Russian-speaking Jewry – is the first and unique Jewish cultural, educational and entertainment program devised for all interested, inquisitive and dynamic people of the  different age and interests. For example, in connection with the Holocaust Memorial Day, Ilya Altman, Ph.D., a leading Holocaust historian in Russia, led a unique interactive seminar on this subject. This intensive informal Jewish learning experience is intended for active and busy members of the Moscow Jewish community.

“Limmud conferences are essential for the life of the Jewish community. They draw boundaries that were unclear before. Limmud gathers together the new people, people who were once or twice at the Jewish events, and those of us, who have been active in the Jewish life. Some of us stopped being actively involved 8-10 years ago and became professionals in different fields. During those years, we built our careers and created families. Now, at Limmud, we’re finding out that Jewish life still exists and has entered the new stage of development. We understand that community involvement is still valuable and Limmud is important way to bring people back to the Jewish community,” said Anna Pivovarova, 33, an experienced Limmud FSU volunteer, is educational director, Hillel Russia, located in Moscow.

The Jewish mysticism, philosophy and history, current issues in the society and politics, secrets of the Jewish kitchen – all of those topics and more were offered during two-day conference. Another series lectures and discussions focused on Israel. The Israeli Ambassador to Russia, Anna Azari, spoke about the newest trends in the Russian-Israeli relations. Yossi Tavor, a well-known expert in the Israeli culture and the first secretary of Israel Embassy in Moscow, lectured on Israeli music and opera. Ira Dashevsky and Michael Kara-Ivanov for the Machanaim Educational Center analysed different solutions to the problem of conversion in Israel. Evgenie Satanovsky, head, Institute of Near East Study, shared ambiguous thoughts on new structure of the Israeli government. Anton Nosik, a well-known personality on the Russian Internet, blamed Russian-speaking Israeli bloggers for creating a negative Russian image of Israel.

A new form of the Jewish life in the FSU is being born right now. It is based on a considerable self-financing and share in the Jewish programsactions, and also on free Jewish grassroots creativity. We will overcome the Madoff crisis with the help of Limmud,” declared the organizer of the project, Alexander Pyatigorsky. As he said, ”Limmud volunteers are the future of our Jewish communities. They will come to power and will build needed local programs, which are really necessary to Jewish communal survival.

“Today’s Limmud activists will head Russian Jewry in 15 years – active volunteerism, personal contribution, interactive programming, religious pluralism, and political freedom are the essence of Limmud FSU, a phenomenon of the Jewish life of Moscow, ” said Chaim Chesler, founder, Limmud FSU.

Sandra Cahn, co-founder, expressed her vision, stating that because the Russian-speaking community is truly a well-connected global enterprise and has gained tremendous international support. The upcoming Limmud FSU in Jerusalem for Russian-speaking Israelis, taking place July 1-3, 2009, at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, demonstrates the depth of energy, passion, and drive the Russian-speaking Jewish community feels in learning about their heritage and roots in a free, open, pluralistic environment.”

Shimon Briman is a Moscow-based Russian Jewish journalist and Limmud participant.