Eleven years after launching its first lecture series in Moscow, Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union) broke new ground last weekend, drawing a record 2,000 Jewish participants to its annual three-day conference.
Founded in 2006 by Chaim Chesler, former treasurer of the Jewish Agency, and Sandra Cahn, a philanthropist from New York City, Limmud FSU has become an unprecedented NGO created to educate Russian Jews about a history once obscured by Communism.
To date, more than 50,000 young Jewish professionals have paid to participate in dozens of conferences featuring world-renowned Jewish academics and professionals in Russia, the former Soviet Union, New York, California, Canada and Australia.
“Limmud FSU engages young Russian-Jewish adults, empowering them to take ownership of their identity, and to connect with their communities through pluralistic, egalitarian, volunteer-driven conferences of Jewish learning and culture,” said Chesler on Friday. “In this way, Limmud FSU strives to foster the next generation of young Russian-speaking Jewish leaders, and to revitalise Jewish communities in the countries of the former Soviet Union, as well as countries with Russian-Jewish people, wherever they may be.”
Aided by philanthropists Matthew Bronfman, Aaron Frenkel, Ronald Lauder, Diane Wohl, the Jewish National Fund (KKL), UJA-Federation of New York, Israel Bonds, the Jewish Agency, the Claims Conference and other institutions, Limmud FSU has become the most successful venue of its kind.
Chesler said the organisation, which now sells out every conference in over eight countries, including Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, initially struggled to populate its inaugural event in Moscow 11 years ago.
“It was difficult to get people to attend, so we promised a free day trip to Moscow to see the city, as well as attend Limmud, and they fell in love with Limmud,” he said. “Now we have participants from all over the world who pay to travel to and attend each conference, and they love it because it is theirs.
“It doesn’t belong to anyone except them, and they dictate who they want to hear, and what subjects interests them.”
Jewish luminaries in a breadth of fields continue to lecture at the conferences without payment to help to reconnect Jews whose identities were once largely unobtainable.
Lectures at the Moscow conference came from justice minister Ayelet Shaked, Israel ambassador to Russia Gary Koren, Chief Russian Rabbi Berel Lazar, Russian-Israeli actress and Habima Theatre member Evgenia Dodina.
Limmud FSU Moscow volunteer Anna Adamskaya, 30, who is also a TV producer, said she had worked with the organisation for eight years. The secret of Limmud FSU’s success, she said, was its pluralistic, autonomous, and grassroots ethos.
“It provides a unique atmosphere of pluralism and learning,” Adamskaya explained. “People have a variety of choices and can find whatever suits them, and no one pushes them to do anything they don’t want to do.”
Noting many religious Jewish events required some conformity, she said the freedom Limmud offers participants of varying degrees of religiosity had helped it grow quickly since 2006.
“Whether religious or secular, they all find something here that they want to discuss and learn about,” she said. “A lot of people who come here knew they were Jewish, but didn’t have a Jewish education, so this helps to reconnect them and provides a sense of pride.”
Adamskaya continued: “This year, I see a lot of new faces, a sign that more and more people are hearing about us; and even if they didn’t participate in the Jewish community before, they come and take their first step here, and Limmud becomes their window to the Jewish world.”
Dodina, who was born in Belarus, and made aliyah 20 years ago from Moscow after being classically trained at the acclaimed Habima Theatre, said she was attending her third Limmud FSU conference.
“I had very little connection myself to Judaism in Belarus, and I come because I think it’s very important because people come with great love to give,” she said after her lecture.
“Also, it was the dream of my father to come to Israel, and now it feels like I have come full circle, and want to share what I have learned.”
Meanwhile, Frenkel, Limmud FSU’s president, who travelled from Monaco for the annual Moscow conference, said the weekend’s record attendance was proof of the relatively nascent organisation’s enduring appeal.
“This is the 11th conference in Moscow, and you cannot argue with success,” he said.
“More than 50,000 people have participated in Limmud FSU through the years, and this great event will surely continue to grow exponentially in the future.”