From the Black Sea to the Red Sea

Photo by Henrik Sendelbach

Photo by Henrik Sendelbach

Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) will mark a decade of educational work with young Russian-speaking Jews with a three-day Jewish festival of learning in Israel’s southernmost city, Eilat. The dynamic and pluralistic event will gather more than 2,000 participants and will run through Saturday night.

440px-avigdor_lieberman_-_2011The ninth Limmud FSU Israel conference will feature hundreds of lectures, workshops, presentations and discussions by leading figures including Israel’s minister of defense, Avigdor Lieberman; Israel’s minister of social equality, Gila Gamliel; Members of Knesset Yehiel Bar, Oded Forer, Zahava Gal-On, Tzipi Livni, Ayelet Nahmias- Verbin, Ofer Shelah, and Ksenia Svetlova; Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi; Jewish National Fund World Chairman Danny Atar; American businessman and philanthropist Matthew Bronfman, who is chairman of Limmud FSU’s international steering committee; and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.

Over the past decade, Limmud FSU has gathered more than 45,000 Russian-speaking Jews, most of whom were aged between 24 and 40, for educational and cultural festivals, conferences and other events in 12 countries around the world.

“Over the past decade, we have made a huge impact in Russian-Jewish communities around the world,” said Limmud FSU Founder Chaim Chesler. “There’s no place we’d rather celebrate our 10th anniversary – with leaders of the Russian-speaking community such as the minister of defense, absorption minister, and the chairman of the Jewish Agency – at one of the world’s most beautiful resort cities.”

“Year after year, Limmud FSU succeeds in igniting the spark of being Jewish, and this is the ninth time we’ll be doing so in Israel,” said Limmud FSU Co-Founder Sandra F. Cahn.

Limmud FSU: An Exercise in Idenity for US Russian Jewry

Participants at the first Limmud FSU conference in the U.S. dance at the conference’s May 12 gala in Princeton, NJ. Credit: Puder PR.

PRINCETON, NJ – A gap remains between young Russian Jews and the larger American Jewish community, even as organizations like Limmud FSU and others work to build bridges between them.

Sandy Cahn, co-founder of Limmud FSU, suggests that the only way to ultimately bring these two communities together is to continue, at least for now, having separate organizations and events for Russian Jews. “There is something very special about Russian culture where they have an affinity of wanting to be together,” she says. “Having their own Limmud empowers them to be stronger and encourages them to enter in a more impactful and empowered way on the American Jewish scene.”

More after the jump.

From right to left, Sandy Cahn, Chaim Chesler, Matthew Bronfman and Alexander Levin at the Limmud FSU conference in Princeton, NJ. Credit: Puder PR.

Alexander Levin, the president of the World Forum of Russian Jewry, agrees, emphasizing the necessity of ultimately uniting American and Russian Jews. “Today the epidemic assimilation rates don’t leave us a choice but to find the ways to join forces and to share our common values of being Jewish and especially for us, Soviet-grown Jews, to keep a strong Israel!”

Limmud FSU-which held its first U.S. conference May 11-13 in Princeton, NJ-takes its name from the volunteer-driven Jewish learning experience that started over 30 years ago in Great Britain and shares the parent organization’s values of diversity, learning, community and volunteerism. It was founded in 2006 to restore the tradition of lifelong Jewish learning and to strengthen Jewish identity in Russian Jewish communities in and from the former Soviet Union. So far, it has reached 25,000 young Jews in six countries and its goal, says Cahn, is “to have them identify in any way they want to with being Jewish through informal Jewish education.”

The Princeton conference’s 650-plus participants-largely secular but also including a group of observant Jews-came to experience the solidarity and comfort of being with cultural compatriots and to learn a little about Judaism in an open, welcoming environment.

The sense of alienation that many young Russians continue to feel toward the American Jewish community has developed for a number of reasons, all growing from the decades their families spent under a Soviet rule that quashed observance of all religions.

Julia Kotlyar of New York, co-chair of the conference’s recruitment and public relations committee, moved with her parents to Ann Arbor, Mich., when she was 5 and a half. She says her own consciousness was shaped both by her parents’ difficulties trying to fit into American society and their experience of oppression in Kiev-for example, her straight-A’s mother Alina, now a biochemist at the University of Michigan, could not attend a first-class university because she was a Jew. “That immigrant experience seeped into my childhood,” says Ms. Kotlyar. “I saw my parents struggle with jobs and friends, and I sat in the back of their ESL classroom. That is an experience that I don’t share with American Jews.”

Genia Kovelman, a Jewish educator trained at the International Solomon University in Kiev, is now working with 18 to 35 year old Russian Jews in Chicago to help them learn about their Jewish roots, to feel a sense of belonging, and to feel part of the Jewish community. The young Russian Jews she sees in her work also carry with them a suspicion and mistrust of institutions, an inheritance from life under Stalinism and Communism. “For Russian Jews, even if they came when they were very little, if there’s something structured and organized and with requirements of membership and belonging, they stay away,” she explains, adding, “If I, with all my study and work for the Jewish community, can’t affiliate, what about those with none?”

From right to left, Chaim Chesler, Matthew Bronfman, Diane Wohl, a Limmud FSU sponsor, Sandy Cahn, and former president of Hebrew University Hanoch Gutfreund at the Limmud FSU conference in Princeton, NJ.

Most Limmud FSU participants interviewed did emphasize their strong Jewish identities, but described them as “cultural” rather than “religious”-an almost the mirror image of strongly identified American Jews. Musing about the source of Russian Jews’ strong ethnic identity, Kovelman concludes that the connection is almost tribal. “The Jews bonded together in the face of anti-Semitism,” she says, noting how Jews helped each other traverse Soviet society.

Although many young Russian Jews do retain a shred of a connection to traditional Judaism, via grandparents who spoke Yiddish or shared stories with them, most have no real knowledge of the Jewish tradition. An almost apocryphal story shared during the conference was that after Rabbi Michael Paley taught a learning session about the Joseph story in the Bible, an audience member questioned him about who Joseph was, asking, “Was he a friend of yours?”

The obvious solution was to begin to create educational organizations wherein Russian Jews and their children, who are usually very successful professionals, can learn about Judaism and the Jewish community without feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or inadequate. Kovelman suggests a tailored approach, with lots of explanation. At her organization’s yearly Russian Shabbaton retreat, she explains everything-the meaning of Shabbat, why we light candles, why we sing songs-to the 100 participants that the event draws. “For many, they are celebrating Shabbat for the first time in their lives,” she says.

Educating Russian Jews, suggests Rabbi Aryeh Katzin, who teaches for the Russian American Jewish Experience (RAJE), is a mission to restore what the Communists took away. “Every time I enter a class, it is a battlefield with Stalin and Hitler,” he says. “Our job is to give this heritage back to this people.”

With the influence and support of the “Russians only” organizations, things may be starting to change. Cahn notes that more Russians in New York are joining the leadership in the Federation and in other organizations. And Kovelman feels that many Russian Jews are looking for spirituality. Additionally, as the younger Russians are having their own children, they are seeing them become more integrated in ways that they themselves couldn’t be. One woman says that her children, who are in day school, are learning at a young age how the Jewish community functions. “Their friends’ parents are on the boards of organizations,” she says. “My mother worked all the time.”

Leonard Petlakh, who teaches an undergraduate class in Russian and Soviet history at Hunter College and co-led a session on Russian Jews and the American Jewish community with Rabbi Robert Kaplan, remembers having to sleep without a mattress when his family first arrived in New York-despite the fact that his father had scoured the neighborhood and requested mattresses from both liberal Jews and Haredim. In the same line, Rabbi Kaplan added that even though thousands of students used to show up at Save Soviet Jewry conferences, only 20 came to a conference he ran whose purpose was to work with Soviet Jews in the U.S.

In response Russian Jews created their own organizations, which are likely to continue providing for their different needs at least into the next decade. But Petlakh and others view this separateness as part of a process toward unity. He says organizations like Limmud FSU and RAJE provide “a means to an ultimate goal-to be part of the American Jewish community. You cannot be a Jew in a vacuum, just with your Russian friends.”

Limmud Philly 2012: You don’t want to miss it!

Limmud Philly 2012, Friday April 27 through Sunday, April 29! PhillyLimmud is a widely acclaimed festival of Jewish learning and culture where 70 amazing presentations are scheduled this year.

Be sure to stop by the Philadelphia Jewish Voice table in the Hall of Community Organizations to express your Jewish media needs and views to members of our editorial team, and to receive a free Philadelphia Jewish Voice bumper sticker. You will also have the opportunity to buy autographed copies of Rabbi Milgram’s new book Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, and just-released decks to Mitzvah Cards, in support of LimmudPhilly and the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram, our Judaism Editor, will be teaching, among more than 70 amazing presentations scheduled:
Mark your calendars for

  • A cooking demonstration by a James Beard Award-winning chef who will talk about Jewish food around the world
  • A talk on the future of democracy in Israel by a past Deputy Speaker of the Knesset
  • A presentation on the Arab Spring by a media maven and co-author with Dennis Ross of a book on America and the Middle East

More after the jump.

  • A play about the history and absurdity of prejudice and the power of diversity performed by two very funny guys, one Jewish and one black
  • A discussion about the role of Jews in the 2012 presidential election led by the former editor of the Forward and the Jewish Exponent
  • A tap dance lesson set to Jewish themes taught by an artist who trained with Savion Glover and performed with Matisyahu
  • A screening of testimonies from the survivors of Rwanda presented by an Emmy Award-winning producer who trained under Ken Burns
  • An opportunity to hear and sing the new Jewish “soul” music with a local cantor who lived in both Austin, Texas, and Israel

It will all begin on Friday evening with Shabbat dinner and services. Havdalah begins at 8:30 Saturday evening, followed by a concert with the always delightful Maccabeats. There will  be multiple non-stop, simultaneous sessions, so you will have to make some tough choices.

Visit the LimmudPhilly website for further information and to register.

We look forward to learning with you!