St. Petersburg Stories

Stories about some of the people at Limmud FSU in St. Petersburg

by Nathan Roi

Limmud FSU for Russian-speakers has been taking place for the last six years in many corners of the Jewish world and brings together diverse elements of the Jewish world – from Russia and Ukraine, from Israel and the United States and from all over the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Here are a few stories about some of the exceptional people who took part in Limmud FSU in St. Petersburg.

Matthew and Stacey Bronfman

Matthew Bronfman is the Chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee. He tries to attend as many of the Limmud events as his schedule allows. He and his family have been deeply involved in Jewish culture and philanthropy for many years. He and his wife, Stacey, are participants in Limmud in the full sense of the word, staying in the same tourist facility outside St. Petersburg as all the other participants, young and old, standing in the same lines and sharing the same meals. Most of the participants know who he is but few have any idea of the family background that brought him here. His grandfather, Samuel Bronfman, came to Canada from the small town of Soroki in Bessarabia (now Moldova) as a child in 1891, and accumulated a fortune in the liqueur business, buying and then expanding the famous Seagram company.

Matthew Bronfman inherited his love of Israel and the Jewish people from his father Edgar and has taken a great interest in his family roots. Early in his professional life he began investing in Israel and has extensive business interest in the country. His father, Edgar, was Chairman of the World Jewish Congress and played a leading role in the struggle for the rights of Soviet Jews to leave the USSR, under the slogan “Let my People Go,” as well as helping to uncover the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, who became Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was also active in recovering assets of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust held by Swiss banks.

Matthew and Stacey Bronfman listened avidly to many of the lectures and at the close of the festival, joined the participants in a cruise on the River Neva. He promised that he would be participating again in the next Limmud FSU festival.

Anna Utkina

Twenty-one year-old Lena Utkina has a dream – to become a landscape architect and join in the world’s “green revolution.” She is in her last year of landscaping studies at the University of St. Petersburg and hopes to be able to complete a doctorate at some university in Europe, possibly at Uppsala University, Sweden which has a special arrangement with the University of St. Petersburg.

I ask her how did she hear about Limmud? “A friend told me that it was a wonderful event, and after I read about it, I decided to take part. This is the only place in Russia where I could possibly have the opportunity of listening to lecturers by eminent people such as Ben Helfgott, a Holocaust victim and survivor of the concentration camps, or Ben-Dror Yemini, Nina Mikhoels, Dima Zicer and Mathew Bronfman. The contact with different people and the flow of the energy here is exhilarating.” She has no doubt that she will attend the next Limmud in Russia.

Ben Helfgott

Born in Pabianice, near Lodz, Helfgott was ten years old when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. He was sent to Buchenwald but he survived the Holocaust and was sent to Britain after the war with 700 other youngsters after being liberated from Theresienstadt. He and one of his sisters were the only members of his family to survive; his mother and youngest sister were rounded up and shot by the Nazis.

Helfgott, was a weightlifter in his youth and was lightweight champion of Great Britain. He was captain of the British weightlifting team at the Olympic Games in 1956 and 1960 and won gold medals in the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1950, 1953 and 1957.

Eighty-two year-old Helfgott is Vice-President of the Conference for Material Claims against Germany. He retired from business at the age of 50 because, as he puts it, “I had worked for a living from the age of 12 and now wanted to do something for the [Jewish] community. I see my life as something of a miracle because I escaped from death as a young boy and the time had come to repay the debt.”

During the St. Petersburg festival, which he attended together with his wife, Helfgott made a point of visiting several elderly people (most of them younger than him) who are supported by the Hessed centers of the Joint Distribution Committee, which are largely financed by the Claims Conference.

Dima Zicer

Dima Zicer and his wife Natasha, are well-known educationalists in St. Petersburg and Israel and are among the leaders of Limmud FSU. Their lectures are extremely popular and the audiences fill the room from wall to wall when they are speaking. Dima’s lecture was on “Answering the Questions” and Natashas, “Once Upon a Time” on Jewish folk tales. Dima Zicer is a great believer in the classic Talmudic method of learning in couples or groups (havruta) so as to reinforce the strength of the individual in discussions.

Gil Hovav

For Gil Hovav, this was his second Limmud FSU festival: he had already participated in Limmud FSU Jerusalem in July 2010. He welcomes the opportunity to meet audiences with which he is not familiar and talk about his family. Hovav, born in 1962, is a leading culinary journalist and television personality who comes from one of the most respected families in the Jewish world: he is the great-grandson of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language; the grandson of Itamar Ben-Avi who was a pioneer of modern Hebrew journalism; and the son of Moshe and Drora Hovav, founding spirits behind Israel’s public radio.

With charm and charisma, Hovav tells the story of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who was born in Luzhki near Vitebsk, Bessarabia, now Belarus in 1858. Hovav’s father, Itamar Ben-Avi was the first child to speak Hebrew as his mother-tongue and his grandmother Leah’s parents were born in Morocco. The love story of Itamar Ben-Avi and Leah Abushadid would be a scriptwriter’s dream.

Another closing of a circle: Many of Gil Hovav’s ancestors were born in the Russian Empire and here he is in St. Petersburg telling their story to a new generation of Russian Jews. Annus Mirabilis!

photos courtesy Nathan Roi
translation Asher Weill