For more than 1,000 young Jews assembled in Moscow at the end of April, it was just another successful event in a chain of gatherings that has become a magnet for Russian-speaking Jews around the world.
But this year’s Limmud FSU meeting also marked a change: The food served was all kosher for the first time, and organizers led Sabbath services. Unusual for a gathering that caters to the needs of a community characterized by its prevailing secularism, this was just one sign of the changes brought about by Limmud FSU’s new partnership with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. The Fellowship’s leader, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, has stated that his goal is to bring more religious content to the events and to use conferences for building Jewish identity and for encouraging immigration to Israel.
“After all, this is a Jewish, not a Buddhist, event,” Eckstein said in an interview from Moscow.
The alliance between the two organizations, announced on March 29, signals a shift for the Fellowship, as well. The group, which until now has mindfully avoided supporting Jewish educational initiatives because of fears that it would conflict with the values of its Christian funders, is now taking on its first mission of expanding Jewish religious identity. Eckstein, a rabbi and Hasidic singer, is one of the pioneers of Jewish-evangelical relations. He founded the Fellowship two decades ago and has since grown it into a massive charity raising money from pro-Israel Christians and using to fund programs dedicated to the security and welfare of Jews in Israel and Eastern Europe.
Under the new alliance, the Fellowship will become a “key partner” as described in a joint press release, and will work to expand Limmud FSU events to more Russian-speaking communities and to provide scholarships that will allow more young adults to participate.
Eckstein’s group has agreed to provide $400,000 a year for three years, making it the largest single donor of Limmud FSU, which operates a budget of $3 million a year. Under the partnership agreement, Eckstein will carry the title of dean and will be involved in all of the group’s decisions. Limmud FSU also added the Fellowship’s name to its official logo.
Limmud FSU, inspired by the Limmud movement that began in the United Kingdom in 1980, was founded eight years ago. It organizes annual weekend conferences for Russian-speaking Jews in former Soviet Union countries, as well as for Russian-speaking Jews in other communities. Limmud FSU is credited widely with success in reaching out to Russian-speaking young adults who had little connection with traditional community institutions. It now operates in seven countries and has an alumni list of 250,000 participants.
The group’s founder, Chaim Chesler, told the Forward that the newly forged partnership with the Fellowship will help further expand Limmud FSU and help address a growing demand for more events. “The connection with Rabbi Eckstein is very important for me, because he is a Jew who is sensitive to the real needs of the Jewish people and is willing to engage in them,” Chesler said.
The unique character of Russian-Jewish identity has shaped the form that Limmud FSU has adopted in its annual events. Connection to Judaism and Zionism among young adults born at the end of the Soviet-era is loose, and Limmud conferences have not put an emphasis on religious practices. Organizational affiliation in former Soviet Union Jewish communities is also low in comparison with that of the United States and Western Europe.