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.
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.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.