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Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi who is now based in Israel, aims to use his new investment in Limmud FSU to inject more Jewish content into the conferences. He stressed, however, that adding a religious dimension to the annual conferences should not be viewed as alienating secular or non-Orthodox participants. “It doesn’t matter to me if it is Reform, Conservative or Orthodox,” Eckstein said. “I want our identity to be influenced not only by the secular dimension, but also to give participants a choice of a religious dimension.”
He also intends to increase cooperation between Limmud FSU and Chabad of Russia, an Orthodox group that has benefited throughout the years from funds provided by the Fellowship for Jewish welfare in Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Limmud’s core values, adopted by the international Limmud movement, state the importance of diversity and the creation of “an inclusive environment for all participants, whatever their religious observance practices.” At the same time, the movement encourages keeping the Sabbath and kashrut in public areas.
“Limmud implements its nondenominational approach to Shabbat by facilitating religious services organized by volunteers, and we are pleased that Limmud FSU has volunteers to take responsibility for services at its own events,” said David Hoffman, chair of Limmud International, based in the United Kingdom.
Last year’s British Limmud conference demonstrated the tensions inherent in the credo of egalitarianism that the event has adopted, as several Orthodox rabbis protested chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s decision to take part in the conference. Despite the criticism, Mirvis attended the event.
Religious identity is not the only value Eckstein seeks to add to Limmud FSU conferences; he is also interested in boosting the issue of aliyah, immigration to Israel, as a concept discussed and promoted at conferences. Eckstein noted that since the Jewish Agency for Israel has made a strategic shift from focusing on aliyah to a broader concept of Jewish identity, there is not sufficient advocacy for immigration to Israel among Jews of the former Soviet Union. He would also like to use the annual meetings as a matchmaking arena for Jewish singles. “That’s one of the primary purposes,” Eckstein said.
But the main prospect of Eckstein’s cash infusion is in enabling Limmud FSU to grow. Chesler, who says he “started the organization from zero,” is now marveling at its expansion and has plans to see it grow even more.
A third of Limmud FSU’s costs are covered by participants, and the rest comes from grants from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Claims Conference and from donors, primarily philanthropists Matthew Bronfman and Aaron Frankel. The Fellowship’s funding will allow for launching events beyond the seven countries in which Limmud FSU is currently active.
“There is huge interest,” Chesler said, listing cities across the United States and Canada that have expressed their interest in hosting Limmud conferences. “With Yechiel’s help, we can reach many more places and increase our activity in Ukraine and Belarus.”
Partnering with Limmud FSU has taken Eckstein outside his organization’s comfort zone and could test the Fellowship’s ability to invest in programs that touch directly on Judaism and Jewish identity.
The Fellowship, which distributes $85 million a year, has become one of the largest funders of welfare assistance both in Israel and in the former Soviet Union. Funding has carefully avoided fields that could be seen as problematic for the Fellowship’s 1.3 million-member Christian donor base. Any funding for education was used to provide school lunches, transportation and infrastructure, not teachers and content.
“I didn’t want to be in a position in which we fund Jewish education and our Christian donors come to me and ask why don’t we teach the New Testament, for example,” Eckstein said. Now, he explained, “it is a little bit trickier” to fund Limmud FSU’s Jewish identity work, but Eckstein said he believes he has “certain leeway” to go ahead with the partnership.