With Celebs and Money, Limmud FSU Bends the Rules To Win

A New Kind of Learning?: A local musician performs at the
opening of Limmud FSU Odessa in 2010.
boris buchman
A New Kind of Learning?: A local musician performs at the opening of Limmud FSU Odessa in 2010.

By Paul Berger

Published June 22, 2011, issue of July 01, 2011.
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With more than $1 million in funding and with conferences in Israel, America, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and, soon, Moldova, Limmud FSU may have achieved the impossible: a way of making Jewishness attractive to young Russian-speaking Jews around the world.

But in order to succeed, the 6-year-old organization has had to bend Limmud’s rules — some might say alter its identity — as an inclusive, grassroots movement for Jewish learning.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, major Jewish organizations have struggled to engage Russian-speaking Jews. Limmud, which began in the United Kingdom three decades ago, would seem an unlikely solution. But the fact that Limmud FSU has had to tinker with its DNA, has caused some friction within the global Limmud community along the way.

Limmud conferences, which often stretch for two or three days, typically take place in low-profile venues and rely upon attendees who are willing to bear up to 80% of the cost of the conference themselves.

Limmud New York’s frigid January retreat several years ago at a Catskills hotel, where the heat broke down, may have been an exception. But even the flagship Limmud conference in the U.K. is still held in December on a drab university campus, where the shortcomings of the food are as frequent a topic of conversation as the last fascinating seminar.

Most Limmud presenters usually are also participants.

Limmud FSU, which is aimed specifically at the Russian-speaking community, occupies a different plane.

Bursting with pizzazz, the events, which attracted about 5,000 people in half a dozen cities last year, draw big-name presenters and big-name sponsors. Overnight participants often stay in swanky hotels. Philanthropist Matthew Bronfman, the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany are among the regular funders.

Limmud FSU Beersheba, held in May, was headlined by the first man to walk in space, Alexei Leonov. Joining the cosmonaut was Mikhail Kornienko, who had been invited to Israel to be reunited with Garrett Reisman, the American Jewish astronaut with whom he roomed on the International Space Station.

“It was such a spectacle, you cannot even believe,” said Chaim Chesler, the animated founding chairman of Limmud FSU. “We did it in memory of [Israeli astronaut Ilan] Ramon.”

Chesler, who is Israeli, said that subsidized events and big-name speakers are the best ways to get Russian-speaking Jews through the door.

Once they’ve experienced the program, Chesler said, Limmud FSU could start to charge a higher admission. As evidence, he pointed to Limmud FSU Moscow. Six years ago, attendees were required only to make an anonymous donation. This April, 800 people paid an average $300 each for the weekend conference.

Chesler, who works as a volunteer on Limmud FSU, spent about 15 years of his career working with Soviet Jews, including five years as head of the Jewish Agency in the former Soviet Union.

During that time, he said he witnessed firsthand how major Jewish organizations’ top-down approach alienated Russian-speaking Jews. “They felt that they were just following other people’s advice,” Chesler said.

“I said, ‘Limmud is a huge tool to bring them to their roots in the way they want to be — not with the establishment, but with their own will.’”

Sandy Cahn, a co-chair of Limmud FSU, said that while the approximately 55 Limmud communities worldwide are geographically focused, what makes Limmud FSU different is that it unites a people.

Cahn, who is Limmud FSU’s head of fundraising and a volunteer, said that whether Russian-speaking Jews had settled in the United States and Israel or were living in the FSU, they shared a common need to celebrate “the history, the literature, the rich Russian culture.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Chesler, who is an infectious personality with a brash style. Chesler depicts himself as a guide who allows youthful organizing committees in each Limmud FSU community to choose a program and to pick their presenters.

But many events have that extra zing that only Chesler could conceive.

When Limmud FSU made 2009 the year of Sholom Aleichem, Bel Kaufman, his granddaughter, was a guest of honor. Chesler also arranged for Yitzhak Rabin’s son, Yuval, whose family hailed from a nearby village, to attend the most recent Limmud FSU, held June 17-19 in Vinnitsa, Ukraine.

Last year, Shimon Peres was a guest speaker at Limmud FSU Jerusalem.

Such high-profile guests are a rarity at Limmud events elsewhere around the world.

But aside from the issue of funding, Limmud FSU is also viewed warily by some in the global Limmud community because it appears to contradict core Limmud principles, such as diversity and inclusivity.

In Germany, a country that has a sizable Russian-speaking population — about 80 percent of Jews there are from the FSU — a more traditional model of Limmud has been successful.

Limmud Germany, held in early June in a former Communist youth camp near Berlin, attracted more than 500 people, just under half of them from the Russian-speaking community.

Toby Axelrod, an American expat who chairs Limmud Germany, described the mandate of her group as to bring together people from across the Jewish spectrum.

“We just want them to enjoy a long weekend of learning together and to meet each other,” she said.

For now, Raymond Simonson, the London-based executive director of Limmud, said he is thrilled that Limmud FSU had managed to excite so many Russian-speaking Jews around the world.

“So many of them haven’t ever celebrated being Jewish,” Simonson said. “If they can keep building that over the next few years, that is stage one.”

Stage two, he said, would be Limmud FSU integrating with non-Russian-speaking groups.

Chesler said he is not averse to that idea.

“Eventually everyone will be part [of the same group],” Chesler said.

But in the interim, he said, Russian-speaking Jews need Limmud FSU so that they can explore and celebrate their own heritage, language and culture.

Chesler was talking on the phone from Ben Gurion International Airport, having just flown in from Ukraine on his way to Rome for a break after three almost back-to-back Limmud FSU conferences, held in Moscow, Beersheba and Vinnitsa.

“I need to relax after so many Limmudim,” Chesler said. “Look, I am only a human being.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com

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