BIROBIDZHAN, Russia (JTA) — As the maroon bus trundled its way past the collective farms where Yiddish-speaking communists once struggled to tame the muddy earth, a commotion arose from a row of seats in the rear.
“Moooo-shiach!” shouted four teens in the back of the bus.
Their cheers for the Messiah drew the attention of 22-year-old Kristina Faibushenko, a young reporter for a local paper whose masthead is in Yiddish.
When the bus stopped, Faibushenko approached Zhenya Vladykin, a 13-year-old in a kipah and tzitzit, with a question: What does it mean to observe Shabbat?
“It means you can’t do anything,” he said.
The young Russians’ exchange reflects the patchwork knowledge and observance of Jewish traditions that defines Russia’s largely assimilated Jewish community. That is the case even in this strange and unique region of Russia’s Far East known as the Jewish Autonomous District.
But last week some 200 residents of the region converged on the province’s capital city, Birobidzhan, for the most remote Limmud Jewish educational conference held to date in the former Soviet Union — possibly the world.
Nearly 4,000 miles from Moscow, Birobidzhan is the capital of Soviet Union’s agitprop-inspired, semi-autonomous Jewish territory in Siberia. It lies on a spot of land on the Russian border with China to which Soviet leader Josef Stalin sought to lure Jews in the 1930s.
In places like Birobidzhan and Khabarovsk, the most populous city in this region, the disparity in access to Jewish life is stark. Outreach programs reach this remote area only in drips.
Enter Limmud FSU, a traveling show run by a Moscow-based core of young Jewish professionals that has played on three continents from the Chinese border to New York City. The conference seeks to provide participants with a crash course in Jewish education and activity, and a safe haven to make Jewish connections.
Last week’s Limmud conference played host to a large contingent from the Hillel in Khabarovsk, which is two hours away by train. These young Jews provided the backbone for the conference in both volunteer effort and knowledge.
Though they live in what is ostensibly a Jewish district — Yiddish is an official language here — many of the participants from Birobidzhan never had attended any kind of Jewish conference or educational seminar.
Limmud participants spent the first day at the recently completed Jewish community center and neighboring synagogue and the second day at a compound 40 minutes outside the city. Teens in kipahs mingled with old women who remembered the Jewish songs of their youth and completely secular Russians with distant Jewish roots.
In Birobidzhan, nearly everyone claims some Jewish ancestry, but some locals say they have never met a “real Jew.”
Young people in Russia’s Far East have limited access to Jewish life. The Chabad-run Federation of Jewish Communities maintains rabbis in Birobidzhan and Khabarovsk, Hillel is very active in Khabarovsk, and there are some Jewish music groups and other programs. But young Jews interested in their roots must actively seek out Judaism, says Roman Leder, the Jewish community leader in Birobidzhan.
Kirill Sahmanov, 17, bounces around the Limmud in iridescent blue skate shoes with tassels hanging out from underneath his cardigan. Limmud’s only paid employee in Russia, Jenya Malkina, drafted Sahmanov as a volunteer for the conference.
Two years ago, Sahmanov decided that Hillel no longer provided him with all the Jewish fulfillment he wanted. He decided to become observant and sought out the Chabad rabbi in his hometown of Khabarovsk for instruction.
Sahmanov’s descriptions of his Jewish life in Siberia are peppered with the Russian word “klyova,” which means cool.
“It’s klyova that we have Chabad, and the rabbi is definitely klyova,” he said.
Now, Sahmanov says, he wants to travel to Israel for yeshiva, then return to promote Judaism in Khabarovsk.
One purpose of Limmud is to give people that choice — the how for Russians interested in exploring their Jewish identity, said Chaim Chesler, a co-founder of Limmud FSU.
Malkina says the goal of the program is not to compete with other groups seeking to develop life but to bring them all together under one banner for a few days.
Limmud FSU began three years ago on the outskirts of Moscow with sizable contributions from Western funders. The last year has seen Russian-speaking Limmuds in Israel, Ukraine, New York, Moscow, Belarus and now Siberia.
Along with free choice of programming and involvement, Chesler says it is important that the leaders of the Limmud programs in Russia approach participants in their own language.
“They will speak Russian rather than one American rabbi coming to Russia with his bad Russian and telling them what to do,” he said.
Chesler said Limmud FSU’s expansion to Russian speakers beyond the old Iron Curtain ruffled some feathers in the Limmud organization, which is based in London and holds volunteer-led conferences all over the world.
“In America, they gave us hell,” he said.
But he pushed forward, and Chesler now says his outreach to Russian speakers largely has been accepted.
Andrew Gilbert, the chairman for Limmud International, says the Russian-speaking branch headed by Chesler has a contract to operate within the former Soviet Union. There is an “ongoing discussion” about their efforts to reach Russian-speaking Jews outside the region, he said.
Limmud FSU has no analog in the world in that it seeks to target a demographic rather than an area, Gilbert said. Limmud FSU has exceeded expectations, but the ideal would be for it to work with local Limmud bodies already in place outside the former Soviet Union, he said.
While Limmuds closer to Moscow now are partially self-sustaining, Chesler and his organization rely on a litany of donors both Western and local to host far-flung conferences among poorer areas like Birobidzhan. He says he has received donations from Jewish businessmen in Kazakhstan and Ukraine, as well as the support of American donors like Matthew Bronfman.
Jewish welfare groups also have been supportive. In particular, Chesler said the Jewish Agency for Israel has been much more receptive and helpful in recent months under the leadership of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.
“He understands what we are trying to do in Russia,” Chesler said.