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Across the Former Soviet Union Knowledge is Fundamental: Russian Jews Have Day of Learning

May 17, 2006
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The catch phrase on the colorful posters hanging in Jewish institutions across Moscow — “The entire Jewish world in 12 hours!” — was only a slight exaggeration. The organizers of Limmud FSU, an educational daylong marathon, clearly attempted to draw from a variety of Jewish life: “From a rabbi to a rock star,” another slogan on the same poster promised.

Held Sunday at downtown Moscow’s House of Scientists, a club affiliated with the Russian Academy of Science, Limmud FSU was touted by its organizers as the first-ever networking and educational opportunity for Russian Jews.

It was certainly a special event in Russia.

Several hundred people, mostly elderly, attended the event, some 700 people registered for the next Limmud — and 100 more registered to help as volunteers, according to the organizers.

The idea was simple, but rare in Russian Jewish life: to get as many people as possible to learn about anything related to Judaism.

“Everyone with an expertise can come and talk. That’s the beauty of Limmud,” said Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU.

The idea of Limmud FSU was based on another event of the same name, an annual conference in Britain, now in its 25th year, that in recent years has been replicated in other parts of the world.

This week’s event — which the organizers unofficially called “pre-Limmud,” referring to a five-day conference to be held next February — offered eight types of activities, ranging from lectures on Jewish philosophy and Holocaust to arts workshops, kids’ activities and even Jewish karaoke.

One of the most popular sessions was the well-known Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who discussed Jewish mysticism. His “Kabbalah: Is it for Madonna Esther or Is it for Me?” drew 150 participants into a packed room.

Like almost every other new undertaking in the Russian Jewish community in recent years, Limmud is imported from the West.

Conceived by an Israeli and an American, and funded primarily by Western sources, the initiative also involved a group of younger locals who, the organizers hope, will eventually take upon the entire project.

While the impulse came from the outside, the locals mainly selected topics and speakers for this week’s event, said Sandra Cahn, a Jewish activist and philanthropist from New York who headed the organizational committee of Limmud FSU.

The idea of Limmud FSU has already inspired Westerners and Israelis. A host of major Jewish groups and individuals from outside the former Soviet Union helped to fund it: from the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the World Jewish Congress, World ORT or Hillel, to many private foundations and a few local groups.

Like many other Western Jewish leaders who attended Limmud in Moscow, Israel Singer, chairman of the Policy Council at the World Jewish Congress believes Limmud has a chance to provide local Jews “an opportunity to inspire themselves, to invigorate Jewish culture.”

There is irony, Singer told JTA, that “this part of the world, where great Jewish culture came from, is now encountering a tremendous amount of Jewish ignorance.”

The hesitation of a middle-aged Jewish man who was perusing the 50-page program in the club’s lobby exemplified Singer’s point.

“There is a session on the differences between Litvaks and Chasidim,” said Boris Bramberg, an engineer, referring to a session co-hosted by two Moscow rabbis representing the two streams in Judaism. “I would love to go there, but I don’t even know the difference between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.”

An hour later, Bramberg was involved in a lively conversation with a Chabad rabbi.

Those who helped organize the event say several things help Limmud stand out among other projects in Russian Jewish life.

First is the idea of a transdenominational event not organized by a specific organization.

“Nobody owns it, and nobody has a veto,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust studies and Jewish history professor from Emory University who was a member of the project’s advisory group and one of the lecturers at Moscow Limmud.

Then, there is the notion of voluntarism: Some 30 young professionals from Moscow, Kiev, Minsk and other cities made up the team that helped put together the program and invite people.

Finally, those who came to listen, watch and learn had to pay. The $5 entrance fee for the Sunday marathon was a rather modest amount, even by Russian standards. But organizers said those attending next year’s five-day Limmud at a retreat near Moscow will pay $120.

To persuade people to pay for their Jewish education is a step forward for a Russian community used to receiving free Jewish services, said Alexander Pyatigorsky, 25, who coordinated the event on the Russian side.

“This is a step to change the way of thinking in people who call themselves members of the Jewish community. People should give their time, money or both, and for that they can get what they want, not what the organizations have to offer them.”

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