The Limmud FSU Phenomenon

The Jewish world will most often develop from the edges, through the entrepreneurship of people who are willing to make sacrifices and build new institutions to serve our community.

Photo courtesy Limmud FSU West Coast
Photo courtesy Limmud FSU West Coast

By Gidi Grinstein

Recently, I had the honor and privilege of participating in and contributing to the Limmud FSU gathering, held in Los Angeles, California for West Coast Jews of Russian descent. This was a most moving and inspiring event, not only because of the opportunity to participate yet again in an inspiring Jewish learning festival and to be a part of one of the most remarkable movements of our current Jewish world, but also because of the celebration marking 25 years since the exodus of the Jews of the former Soviet Union, together with the biggest hero of that period, Natan Sharansky.

A favorite story of mine speaks of three men standing on a scaffold laying bricks. A person walks by and asks them: what are you all doing? The first says, “Can’t you see? I am laying one brick on top of the other.” The second says, “I am building a supporting wall for a big structure.” The third says, “I am building a cathedral.” The moral of the story is obvious: perspective determines outlook, and an identical technical act, viewed differently, can carry radically different meanings. This story is relevant to understanding the power of the Limmud experience.

The first perspective might correspond to the building blocks of Limmud: learning sessions. People get the opportunity to teach and study with others in a highly informal setting about the full scope of Jewish life – history, culture, religion, family life or politics – through a broad range of experiences, including text studies, lectures, group discussions, music and film. Topics in this Limmud gathering ranged from relations between blacks and Jews to sexuality in Judaism; from Yiddish theater to the challenge of the BDS movement; and from the secret of Jewish resilience to the history of Jews in Hollywood.

The second perspective on Limmud would focus on the conferences. Many Limmud events take place from Friday to Sunday and bring together hundreds of Jews who join together to be inspired and educated. It is a festival of learning that offers a myriad of structured and random opportunities every day for enlightenment through engagement with inspiring speakers and co-Limmudniks. It is an immersive experience of ongoing intellectual and sometimes emotional stimulation that continues during meals and in the corridors for 18 hours a day. The menu of options is rich, and the atmosphere is elating.

The third level of perspective is no less exciting: Limmud is a young global Jewish movement that emerged from the United Kingdom more than 30 years ago. Its modest beginnings by a few British Jews have inspired a volunteer-spearheaded movement that has spread around the world to dozens of locations, including across the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia and Israel, embodying the dynamism of the Jewish world and its permanent evolution. Limmud FSU adds a special twist to the story of the global Limmud movement because of its focus on Jews from the former Soviet Union.

The history of this constituency is well-known: For 70 years under the Soviet reign, Judaism was suppressed. Jews were denied the right to exercise their Judaism freely, to build and enjoy their communities and to practice and develop their religion. While many Jews managed to preserve their loyalty to the Jewish people through these difficult times, often in hiding and at great risk, others opted out, intermarrying and eventually assimilating into their local societies.

Consequently, there are hundreds of thousands of people whose sense of belonging to the Jewish people is traced to remote family, often a single grandparent, and stems from vague childhood memories. Thrown into the sink-or-swim world of Western societies, whether in Israel, the US, Germany or other locations, they started from scratch, with no savings or inheritances, cultural context or connections, forced to build a new life and make ends meet. A decade or so later, many of them, better positioned in life, began to seek ways to reconnect with their Judaism in deeper and more meaningful ways.

This is the need that Limmud FSU has been filling since 2006, aiding to rekindle the Jewish spirit within that community and supporting its growth in a welcoming environment. The idea is straightforward and it is working. When I was invited to speak at Limmud FSU in the West Coast, the organizers warned me that it may only be a small event of 300-400 participants. In reality, it was oversubscribed with more than 700 people at attendance, most of whom came with their families. Some drove for hours or flew in from distant cities. I was told that this is the experience of Limmud FSU everywhere every time. Finally, it’s also a story of leadership. Chaim Chesler of Israel and Sandra Cahn of the US, two of the three founders of Limmud FSU, still lead and drive it with passion, dedication and hard work.

They were joined by Matthew Bronfman and others, and that small group, with a few professionals, is making the Limmud FSU reality happen, proving that the Jewish world will most often develop from the edges, through the entrepreneurship of people who are willing to make sacrifices and build new institutions to serve our community. On Saturday night all participants gathered for havdala around an outdoor fireplace in the chilly California night.

Natan Sharansky, the most prominent hero of the refuseniks, held the candle, and standing by him were a handful of the leaders who were so central to the Let My People Go movement that fought for the freedom of Soviet Jewry. Chaim Chesler, Sandra Kahn, Matthew Bronfman, his late father Edgar Bronfman z”l, and Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller are a few of the many people who dedicated their lives to an inspiring and just cause. Their efforts not only brought about the exodus of Soviet Jewry to Israel and other places, but also cracked the shield of one of the most powerful empires in history. For me, it was an unforgettable Am Israel Chai moment.

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of the Reut Institute Group, a Tel-Aviv-based nonprofit societal innovation team.