Limmud FSU San Francisco: Israel urged to help fund festival of learning

Limmud FSU San Francisco: Israel urged to help fund festival of learning

Founder of Limmud FSU Chaim Chesler tells Israeli Minister 'we need more support to continue our work'

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Deborah Lipstadt, left, with former US politician George Shultz and Natan Sharansky
Deborah Lipstadt, left, with former US politician George Shultz and Natan Sharansky

The founder of Limmud FSU, the ground-breaking body aimed at re-establishing Russian Jewish identity, has complained directly to an Israeli government minister about lack of funding for the 11-year-old organisation.

Chaim Chesler, who founded Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) with New York-based Sandra Cahn in 2006, told Israel’s Science and Technology Minister that he had repeatedly tried to get government support for Limmud FSU’s programming, with no success. Ofir Akunis  and Chesler clashed at a session addressed by the minister at this week’s San Francisco conference, attended by more than 800 Russian-speaking Jews.

Chesler told the Israeli politician: “We regularly have 800 to 1,000 participants at every event, and we operate in the former Soviet Union, Israel, Europe, North America and even Australia. Wherever there are Russian Jews, we go there. But we do not get one dollar from the Israeli government – and we are reaching out to diaspora Jews and effectively doing the government’s job for it. We need more support to continue our work.”

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Akunis did not respond directly but it was clear that, as a presenter in the conference, he could see for himself the effect of a Limmud FSU event on the participants. The demographics ranged from tiny children and feisty teens to adults, who included former refuseniks who had fought bitterly to leave the Soviet Union.

But the Russian speakers who have made new lives for themselves in America – many now working in Silicon Valley or hi-tech – still have a strong sense of Russian-ness while exploring their Jewish identity.

Natan Sharansky, George Shultz and Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler

Almost every one of the more than 80 sessions attracted packed audiences; and the sessions – under the generic title of  ‘Inspire’ – reflected the concerns of the participants, with a hefty input of speakers from the social media and technology worlds, including software engineer Eugene Fooksman, who has worked for Facebook and WhatsApp and Jewish founder of WhatsApp Jan Koum, who gave a candid – though off the record – presentation. There was a panel on Silicon Valley start-ups and a close-up examination of the implications of AI (artificial intelligence) on the human race.

Garrett Reisman, the first Jewish astronaut on the International Space Station, was on hand, while an Israeli who asked to be known only as Engineer X untangled the mysteries of American and Israeli missile defence systems.

Lighting shabbat candles at Limmud FSU

Judaism was part of the overall mix, and its offerings with a twist included presentations from former Chasid Abby Stein, who left her community and transitioned from male to female, and “Hollywood Rabbi” Benzion Klatzko, who gave a barnstorming lecture.

And there was, of course, politics, as Zionist Union Knesset Member Yosef Yonah, who belongs to the peace camp, and Hebron settler Yishai Fleisher, went head-to-head over the two- state solution.

The closing words should go to Natan Sharansky, who was separated for 12 years from his wife Avital after their wedding. What had sustained him was the knowledge world Jewry was campaigning for him and other Soviet Jews.

Part of Limmud FSU’s success are the children and grandchildren of refuseniks, who have remade their lives in the west, and now flock to the charity to rebuild their Jewish identity.


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