A record 1,000 young Jewish professionals from Ukraine and across the globe gathered last weekend in Ukraine’s historic port city of Odessa for the latest Limmud FSU conference, the largest Jewish education event of its kind in the former Soviet Union.

Featuring a special ceremony and concert celebrating Bob Dylan, whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Odessa to the US in 1910, the latest Limmud FSU conference included an exhibition entitled Forever Young: Behind Dylan’s Revolution and Legacy about his life.

The event also celebrated this year’s 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress of 1897, including a concert and a range of activities related to the ongoing work of the World Zionist Organisation, attended by its chairman, Avraham Duvdevani.

Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler described the 400,000 Jews living in Ukraine as among the world’s most thriving communities, while Odessa, which has 45,000 Jews, is “one of the most important cities” in Jewish history.

“This was the home of Ze’ev Jobitinsky and Meir Dizengoff, so we confidently expect that this 11th Limmud FSU festival in Ukraine will be an important part in the life of the Jewish community here,” Chesler said. “We are especially excited about the celebration of Bob Dylan’s Jewish roots in Odessa.”

Children join in the Limmud FSU fun

Children join in the Limmud FSU fun

Presenters at the conference included Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine Eliav Belotserkovsky, Euro-Asian Jewish Congress executive director Haim Ben Yakov, Tkuma Ukrainian Institute for the Study of the Holocaust director  Igor Shchupak, Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter board member Adrian Karatnycky and Russian satirist and writer Victor Shenderovich.

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Toronto resident Marina Krasner-Geist, who was born in Odessa to a family of Holocaust survivors and refusniks but has returned only once since emigrating at the age of four in 1969, flew to the event with her husband Jon. “I learned about Limmud FSU through friends and when I found there was going to be a conference in Odessa I wanted to go back to see my roots,” she said.

“I was always curious how my family and other Jews had the foresight to leave Odessa, and learned the reasons during an excellent lecture about Jewish history here today.”

Krasner-Geist said she became inspired to learn more about Jewish history when her now-Orthodox adult daughter began asking probing questions at the age of 12, well after her family had emigrated to Canada.

“We knew we were Jewish, but didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “That’s why I’m here and have learned Jewish history in Toronto.”

Mark Vitebskyy, 19, who was born and raised in Odessa but has been studying computer science in New York for the past two years, said he paid to attend the conference to meet other young Jews with a shared history.

“From elementary school I attended Chabad, so I know some Jewish history, but I came here because I love the atmosphere and have a lot of friends and connections here,” he said. “I love the lectures, but it’s the people I meet here who are most precious to me.”

Odessa local Katherine Velikaya, a 33-year-old classical concert director, said she could not miss the conference after attending her first Limmud FSU event in Moscow last April.

“The first conference was very interesting, and I especially like that there are a lot of interesting people here who I can meet,” she said. “I didn’t have a Jewish education, so I’m enjoying going to a lot of lectures, especially about psychology and politics surrounding Israel.”

Echoing Vitebskyy’s sentiments, Velikaya said the highlight of the lecture series had been meeting like-minded young Jewish professionals from the region.

“It is really great just sitting in the lobby and talking with other young Jews from Ukraine,” she said.  “I have made a number of new friends who I will keep in touch with.”

Odessa National University psychology professors Chachko Svitlana and Kremenchutiskaya Mazqarita, both of whom were born and raised in Odessa but did not have a traditional Jewish upbringing due to Communism, said it was their first Limmud FSU conference.

“It’s a great place because the lectures are very professional, and I have already learned a lot about Judaism, Jewish literature and culture, Israel’s geopolitical challenges and other things I didn’t know before,” said Svitlana.

Meanwhile, Mazqarita expressed pride over the disproportionate number of influential Jews who came from Odessa.

“Jobitinski, Dizengoff and many other great Jewish leaders walked these streets together many, many years ago and went on to help create the State of Israel, and this is something to take great pride in,” she said.

“I am more of a secular Jew, because when I grew up we weren’t allowed to observe Judaism, but my son has become religious, and while there are some minor incidents of anti-Semitism, it is a good period to be a Jew in Odessa.”

The conference took place with the support of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG), Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), Nativ, Claims Conference and the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress.