Swimming Against the Current

Osik Akselrud at Limmud FSU Yalta, October 2008

by Chaim Chesler

It is said that only dead fish flow with the current. On the other hand, living fish can swim against the current and in so doing can overcome obstacles, break through barriers, discover new frontiers. This is the way I feel about a project that has been created thanks to the work of hundreds of volunteers and donors, called Limmud FSU.

This living fish, ceaselessly swimming upstream is embodied in an enterprise which provides an intellectual feast of educational events for thousand of young Russian-speaking Jews across the globe. If this metaphor seems like hyperbole, I make no excuse for it to describe the program which is now celebrating its fifth turbulent anniversary.

Five years ago, after more than 25 years of working on behalf of Jews in the Former Soviet Union, I was bit by the bug of wanting to attempt to carry out a revolutionary cultural change amongst Russian-speaking Jews. While many people casually dismissed them as being locked in an unchangeable “Russian ghetto,” both with regard to ways of study and the concept of volunteerism, I was convinced that these people, given the right circumstances, would be able to perform miracles of self-renewal.

Historically, Russian Jews have played a significant role in every single revolution during the past 300 years. Beginning with the scholars of the mitnagdim movement (the Vilna Gaon), hassidism (the Baal Shem Tov), and up to the Enlightenment and Zionism (Ahad Ha’am) in the 19th and 20th centuries, citizens of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union played an active role both as theoreticians and activists throughout Europe.

Gala Opening event of Limmud FSU Jerusalem 2010 - President Shimon Peres, Natan Sharansky - Chair of executive of JAFI, MK Tzipi Livni, Yuli Yedelstein, Minister of Information and Diaspora Affairs

Ponder for a moment if you will – what would Russian literature be without Yitzhak Babel, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky? Where would Russian music be without Vladimir Horowitz, Yasha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, or without composers-songwriters such as Vladimir Wissotsky? What would have been chess without world champions Michael Botvinnick, Michael Tal, Gary Kasparov and the new immigrant to Israel, Boris Gelfand? How would the art world have looked without Marc Chagall, Yitzhak Levitan or the sculptor Mark Antopolosky? How would the young city of Tel Aviv, created from the sand dunes in 1909, have fared without the writers Chaim Nahman Bialik, Ahad Ha’am, David Shimoni, Shaul Tchernikhovsky, Mendele Mocher Sefarim, Shalom Aleichem, the historian Shimon Dubnov or Dr Ludwig Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto?

Or perhaps of even more significance, what would have been the face of medicine and the sciences without the Jewish Nobel prizewinners who were born in Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union, such as Roald Hoffman, Igor Tamm, Selman Waksman, Ilya Mechnikov, Vitaly Ginzburg, Alexei Abrikosov and a score of others?

Or consider this: Nechemia, the father of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was born in a small village near Kiev and his mother, Rosa, came from Mogilev in Belorussia. The writer and the Nobel prizewinner for literature, Shai Agnon, was born in the small Galician town of Buczacz in Ukraine. All these people spoke Russian but dreamed in Hebrew. Unlike the so-called “Yekkes” who would not give up on their German tongue, the Jews of Tsarist Russia spoke Hebrew. One of them, Eliezer Ben Yehuda even created the miracle of renewing the language as the spoken everyday vehicle of communication.

Limmud FSU Birobidzhan, September 2009

President Shimon Peres, Nobel prizewinner for peace, who was born in Wiszniewo, then in Poland and now in Belorussia, discovered during a Limmud conference when he met the Nobel prizewinner for literature, Alexander Solzhenitzyn, that Russian Jews and Russian non-Jews share a joint intellectual hunger for culture. It is addressing that hunger that is the kernel of Limmud.

When I first visited the United Kingdom where Limmud began 30 years ago, and asked for their mandate and blessing to launch Limmud among Russian speakers, I was greeted with a certain understandable degree of skepticism regarding the likely success of such a program. They were sure that the attempt was doomed to failure.

In December 2005, a first exploratory group, consisting of twelve young Jews from Moscow and St. Petersburg, accompanied by myself and my two partners, Sandra Cahn from New York, past chairperson of the Women’s Division of UJA in North America, and Prof. Michael Chlenov, Chairman of the Committee of the Jews of the Former Soviet Union, went to Britain in order to understand better what Limmud was all about and whether that framework could indeed be suitable for young Russian-speaking Jews in the FSU.

Openning event of Limmud FSU Moscow, April 2010 (r-l) Yuri Kaner - President Russian Jewish Congress, Chaim Chesler - founder Limmud FSU, Dr. Tzvia Walden-Peres - Beit Berl College and Ben-Gurion University, Matthew Bronfman - Chair Int. Steering Committee, Limmud FSU, Dahlia Rabin - Chair Itzhak Rabin Center, Anna Azari - Israel Ambassador to Russian Federation, Yoram Dori - Advisor to President of Israel Shimon Peres, Eitan Haber - journalist, former chief of staff of Prime Minister Rabin

That pioneering group which participated in Limmud Nottingham, included a young student Alexander Pyatigorsky from Moscow, Dr Shimon Paritzky from St. Petersburg, and Dr Michael Yedovitzky from Jerusalem. A year later a second group participated in Limmud Warwick. This group included Dr Dima Maryasis, from Moscow, Osik Akselrud from Kiev, Galina Rybnikova from Dniepopotrovsk, the architect Galina Levin from Minsk, together with Dr Dima Zicer and Rina Zaslavsky from Israel. These people today, together with many others, still form the backbone of Limmud FSU.

When I approached the philanthropist Matthew Bronfman, and asked him for his assistance he replied that he was prepared to give some modest seed money, but only if anything came of it, should we talk again. Today, Matthew Bronfman’s heart and pocket are open and he is our full partner in everything we do. Moreover, despite the differences in procedures and our admittedly non-conformist approach, we have the constant support of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Conference for Material Claims against Germany, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Federations of New York and Baltimore, the L.A. Pinkus Fund, and the philanthropists Diane Wohl, Dr Nona Kuchina and her husband Dr Moshe Shneerson, Aharon Frenkel, Mark Wilf, Alexander Mashkevitch and Vadim Rabinovich – all of whom deserve our heartfelt thanks.

So we are now entering our sixth year of activities with a solid record of success behind us – the starting point for us to embark on the next 50 years. Limmud FSU holds at least five conferences each year in which thousands of young people pay a not inconsequential sum to participate in tens of lectures, discussions, workshops, presentations, performances, round-table sessions and panels. Over the past five years, more than 15,000 people from Moscow to Birobidzhan, from New York to Jerusalem, from Odessa to Ashkelon, have shared in the Limmud FSU experience. The freedom of choice, together with their own inborn intellectual curiosity brings them to listen to the best of lecturers from the Former Soviet Union, USA, Israel and elsewhere, all of whom give up their time voluntarily. The events themselves are organized by local volunteers and this is as much a quantum leap for FSU Jewry as is the informal peer-led learning framework that is the trademark of Limmud FSU but is antithetical to what was the Soviet mindset.

Matthew Bronfman, Chair Limmud FSU Steering Committee, welcomes a founding group of Limmud FSU volunteers from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, US and Israel, founder Chaim Chesler and co-founder Sandra Cahn at his office in New York, April 2007

The Ukrainian Jewish author, Micha Joseph Berdichevsky, maintained that we Jews were never actually one people, but that we all share in a common heritage. In my understanding that is good enough to create and maintain an unbreakable link between us all: that is how we will remain united and with a common purpose.

An attitude of aloofness and superiority will never be successful. The common purpose of Limmud FSU is to provide the opportunity for young Jews to learn about their heritage and reconnect to their Jewish roots and identity, through subjects that concern them, and by means of a framework that treats all students and lecturers as equal. In Limmud FSU, the attitude to the Diaspora, to Jews across the world wherever they may be, is one of respect and closeness. We are in love with our audiences, we treat them with all the seriousness that they deserve, and we have the feeling that this is reciprocated in full.

That, in essence, is what we have set out to achieve. Limmud FSU is fast swimming upstream and if there are currents to be overcome as our journey continues, I have no doubt that they too will be overcome.

Chaim Chesler is founder of Limmud FSU. He is a former treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization.

The theme for Limmud FSU programs during 2010 was Limmud Nobel, honoring the contribution of 26 Russian (in the widest sense) scientists, writers and thinkers who were recipients of the Nobel prize. Limmud FSU was pleased to have both Dahlia Rabin and Yuval Rabin – children of Israel’s slain Prime Minister and Nobel laureate Yitzhak Rabin, and Dr. Tzvia Walden-Peres, daughter of Israel’s President and Nobel laureate Shimon Peres, join various events taking place in the FSU this year.