For the Jewish News Feb 11 2017
Ekaterina Braun, who was born and brought up in Russia, has lived in Germany since 2006. She works as a translator and in her small Jewish community she was the organiser of the family club. But in the last decade, even in Germany, she has never known an event such as last weekend’s Limmud FSU first Europe conference, a groundbreaking gathering for more than 700 Russian-speaking Jews from more than 20 countries. “I was missing this Jewish feeling”, she says. “It’s really a good feeling to be here, you can exchange information with people and meet new friends — and people accept you as you are”.
Ekaterina’s recognition of the unique event, which took place over three days in Windsor, was echoed throughout the conference, which took more than 18 months to plan.
Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU — which works all over the former Soviet Union — was positively fizzing with enthusiasm as he proudly viewed the sold-out conference. “We wanted to attract people who are Russian speakers who have no other Jewish focus,” he said, and in that ambition he certainly succeeded.
The weekend was a full-on packed schedule familiar to anyone who has attended Limmud UK — but this was Limmud with a difference. While the English-language sessions featured American heavy-hitters such as Malcolm Hoenlein, chief executive of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, philanthropist Matthew Bronfman and historian Professor Deborah Lipstadt, that was only the tip of the iceberg.
The Russian-language sessions went far deeper into the culture of the former Soviet Union, offering big names such as artist Erik Bulatov, author Boris Akunin, chess prodigy Igor Selivanov, and actor and theatre director Veniamin Smekhov. Igor Meerson, billed as “the only Russian comedian successfully performing on the English stage”, presented a stand-up show.
Political scientist Marianna Levtov, who lives in Switzerland, was a member of the organising committee. “What we have in common with Western European Jews is the Holocaust”, she said. “But there it stops. Then we had 70 years of repression of Jewish life — and so we Russian speakers are far behind you in the West in terms of our knowledge of our Jewish identity.”
But the very fact that Russian-speaking Jews are no longer confined to the former Soviet Union has had an extraordinary impact on their appetite for expressing their Jewish identity. As Semyon Dovzhik, the chair of Limmud FSU Europe, explained: “Limmud FSU is now a very strong brand in the Russian-speaking diaspora. It has a reputation of being pluralistic, open — and, importantly for Russian Jews, with no-one telling them what to do.
“We have attracted the top scholars, rabbis, and the creme de la creme of Russian culture, and we are showing people that there are many routes to Judaism.”
Mr Dovzhik has lived in London for the last eight years and is one of an extraordinary estimated 8,000 — 10,000 Russian-speaking Jews in the UK. At least 200 worked as volunteers for the Windsor conference and the blue-t-shirted multi-lingual volunteers, switching easily between Russian, Hebrew and English, became the invaluable spine of the event.
The major difference between Limmud FSU and Limmud UK was plain to see — its decision to present only Orthodox Jewish teaching, rather than the multi-denominational strands familiar to anyone attending the annual UK educational conference. And given, by their own admission, the Jewish knowledge gap between the participants and the lecturers was even greater than might be found at Limmud UK, this might be considered an odd decision.
But as Chaim Chesler explained, the heart and soul of Limmud FSU is Rabbi Berl Lazar, the father-of-13 Chabad rabbi who is said to be President Vladimir Putin’s intimate adviser and is styled “chief rabbi of Russia” — a title which not everyone accepts.
“Chabad is the strongest force in Russian Jewish life”, said Mr Chesler, “and many people here don’t have any other address.” Rabbi Lazar, a prominent speaker at the conference, described the participants as “heroes” who had joined the event in spite of coming from “a community which was destroyed by Communism. Limmud FSU Europe has brought the Russian Jewish community to a new level of appreciation, of success, of understanding”.
Britain’s Rabbi Bentzi Sudak, who said he had received permission from the London Beth Din to attend the event, described Shabbat at Windsor as “a miracle of the renaissance of Soviet Jewry. When we grew up, the idea of open Soviet Jewry was something that would be equated with the Moshiach. To see Jews coming out of Russia and approaching Judaism not with apathy, but with passion, is nothing short of miraculous, and a lot of it is testament to the stellar work being done by Rabbi Lazar and the [Chabad] shlichim across Russia.”
Many of the Russian-speaking Jews at Limmud FSU Europe are involved in Jewish life in various communities. Nicole Nairova, who works in financial services, is originally from Uzbekistan and has lived in London for 15 years. She knows the British Jewish community but says that the influx of young Russian-speaking Jews into UK — “and more coming every year” — has highlighted the fact that “there is literally nothing for them. That is why this event is so important”. She thinks that the appetite has now been whetted for more such gatherings — “absolutely, 100 per cent”.
Yoni Gluhovsky, head of the fund-raising committee for the event and one of the volunteers, has lived in Britain since 2000 and says that he and his wife do have British Jewish friends, although he acknowledged that has been unusual. But as more young Russian-speaking Jews arrive in Britain — attracted, Yoni says, by a conviction that “it is the complete opposite of Russia, with due process and not tainted by corruption”, he believes that there is a possibility of formalising the relationship.
“Russians are very cynical by nature,” he says, “and so anything aimed at Russian Jews has to be targeted with a specific purpose and tailored very carefully.” Yoni is unusual among his friends because he took his A levels in Manchester and lived with an Orthodox Jewish family while attending Manchester Jewish Grammar School. “My friends call me the rabbi”, he jokes, “but I am much more the exception than the rule.”
But even for Yoni, Limmud FSU Europe is “the biggest Jewish thing I have ever done”.
On Sunday morning, as they left Windsor, the participants ran feverishly around, pressing last-minute business cards into hands and extracting promises to meet on social media. There was a distinct sense that next year’s event — planned for Berlin — will be even larger.