YALTA, Ukraine (JTA) — The view of this seaside tourist town twinkling precariously in a narrow gulf between black mountains and a black sea would have been enough to halt any attempt at conversation.
But near a top-floor hotel window with panoramic possibilities, Efi Lahav and Katya Milinkaya paid Yalta no mind as they wrestled with the finer points of Judaism in the Diaspora, conversing in English stilted with Hebrew and Russian accents.
"When I returned from Israel and I talked to people at home about my trips and the things I learned there, they listen to me but they don’t understand the nuance of what I say," confided Milinkaya, an 18-year-old student from Donetsk, Ukraine.
Their heart-to-heart came in the final night of Limmud in the former Soviet Union, which has emerged as an immense opportunity for Russian-speaking Jews to plug in to world Judaism during a three-day rush of frenetic networking and increasingly polished confab culture.
Limmud began in London with a conference that now brings in more than 3,000 participants annually. The programs focus on Jewish education through conferences built on the spirit of volunteerism.
Here at the second FSU-wide Limmud, more than 1,000 participants came to learn from an array of speakers — Soviet-era refuseniks, well-known American Jewish philanthropists, Russian-speaking oligarchs, a horde of Hillel devotees and Birthright alumni as well as Israeli politicians.
Schmoozing is the law of the land in Russian-speaking countries, where deals are often sealed with a handshake and most people prefer novel-thick address books of handwritten contacts. Limmud FSU has tapped into that and taken it global.
In feedback surveys from the first Limmud held last year near Moscow, participants listed the opportunity to meet with the elite of the Jewish world on their own turf as their top experience of the conference, said Chaim Chesler, Limmud co-founder and a former Jewish Agency for Israel representative to the former Soviet Union.
"They could meet important people in the Jewish world in the lobby or after a session, and talk to them one-on-one," he told JTA.
If the top-floor conversation between Lahav, with his generations of roots in Jerusalem, and Milinkaya, who just last year awoke to the fact that she wanted to visit Israel, is any indication, foreign visitors to Limmud relish the opportunity as much as the locals.
Lahav, an Israeli-based consultant for a children’s home in Odessa, told his young acquaintance, "It’s a very special situation when I am traveling around the world everywhere. When I meet an Israeli or Jewish person, after we are covering in a moment that we are Jewish, then we feel like brothers."
Conversations like this one played out thousands of times last week in the sprawling Hotel Yalta, an intimidating stone-faced exemplar of Brezhnev-era architecture built to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.
The irony of more than 1,000 Jews — mixing Chabad and Reform, Orthodox and secular — gathering freely in this monument to Soviet-era repression was not lost on the participants.
Neither was the fact that at this southernmost tip of the Crimean peninsula that extends Ukraine into the Black Sea, the heads of state from the Allied powers met in 1945 to plot the endgame for World War II.
Anatoly Gendin, the chairman of the Crimean branch of the Reform movement, said he had been to many conferences and had ample opportunities to celebrate his Jewish identity in the nearly 20 years since he took to activism.
Still, a Limmud conference on the Crimean peninsula left him struggling to convey his feelings.
"Twenty years ago when we began, what we’re doing now would have been in the realm of fantasy," Gendin said as the hotel lobby buzzed around him. "We stayed in small rooms. We met in apartments, and now we are here in the biggest hotel in Yalta."
Limmud organizers focus on independence as the measure of their success. The first Moscow conference relied almost wholly on funds funneled from the West through private donations, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency.
This year, a sharp-witted and occasionally controversial Ukrainian media tycoon picked up half the $800,000 bill. Vadim Rabinovich committed to the funding after visiting the first Limmud in Moscow.
"This is a person who can make a decision in a few seconds and have it be the right choice," said Osik Akselrud, the chair of Limmud FSU who has worked closely with Rabinovich for the past two years.
Participants from poorer countries paid a $70 to $80 registration fee for the four-day conference, while participants from larger cities such as Moscow paid their travel expenses, Chesler said.
Organizers say they are pressing for more local funding for next year’s conference, possibly through the president of the World Congress of Russian Jewry and Russia’s most prominent Jewish politician, Boris Shpigel. Rabinovich, Shpigel and others met at a highly publicized gathering the day before the conference in Kiev, and Chesler said he had pressed the issue with Shpigel.
The logistics of staging an event for 1,000 people at a remote resort town required a massive effort by 250 volunteers and a year of planning by a host of organizing and fund-raising committees.
Kosher food had to be shipped in. Each night, a gala performance with glossy, pre-produced videos and long speeches went well past midnight. Every hour, participants had their choice of eight seminars on four floors.
Veterans who have played at other Limmuds were brought in for the performances. For the most part, Limmud FSU after two years has started to resemble its predecessors around the world.
The organizers say they will distribute the 2009 conferences throughout the year and spread them across the region to make them more accessible. The next Limmud FSU — in Vitebsk, Belarus — will be dedicated to the Jewish artist Marc Chagall and focus solely on arts issues.
The main event will be next fall in Odessa, dedicated to the Jewish writer Shalom Aleichem.
On the last night in Ukraine, Akselrud made a teary farewell on stage before shifting the tone to a pep rally.
"Who wants to go to Limmud next year?" he asked.
The hands shot up across the room.
"Who would pay even $500 to go to Limmud next year?"
The hands stretched higher.