Sunday, 12 February 2017

Limmud FSU: from Seedlings to a Forrest

They came from Britain and Germany; and from Albania, France and the Netherlands. Israel, Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. too. In all, almost 700 participants (representing 18 countries!) from across the generational landscape disembarked – just a short drive from Windsor Castle – for the first-ever pan-European Limmud FSU Conference. And like the 1st events held in Los Angeles, New York and Ontario over the past decade, it was a smashing success.

When – in August 2009 – Limmud FSU descended on the campus of The Hampton Synagogue in WestHampton, New York, the mindset of the majority of the American Jewish community vis a vis Russian-speaking Jews (RSJ) was still one of resettlement and social services. This despite, in cities like New York, RSJ’s making up 25% of the community. RSJ’s – as a programmatic group – where rarely on the communal landscape. And sadly, young RSJ adults were mostly ignored by the legacy organizations.

In the U.K. – itself the motherland of Limmud – it seems there is a similar lack of awareness. In fact, Jonathan Arkush, president of the influential U.K. Board of Jewish Deputies, said, “I learnt this weekend that we have a Russian Jewish community in London of between 10,000 and 20,000 people. We need to do more to draw them out, make them welcome.”

Like most Limmud programs, there was something for everyone. But, in the style of Limmud FSU, not only were there multiple sessions pulled from the archives of Russian history and culture, but no shortage of presentations by high-profile Israeli politicos and journalists, along with rabbis from across the streams – including Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar (who even sat in on this writer’s erev Shabbat session, “The Art of Giving”).

Over the weekend, current events took an unplanned place in multiple discussions. Days earlier, the Community Security Trust released a report showing anti-Semitic hate crime is at a record high in the U.K. Among many reacting to the report, Conference of Presidents Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein commented: “There is less anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan than there is in Europe right now.”

Discussions of President Trump were everywhere, especially of an assumed change of relationship with Israel’s PM – who was making his own news (besides cigar-gate) – arriving in London as the conference was concluding.

One of the most important panels took place on the last morning: “The Future of the Jewish Diaspora,” featuring Deborah Lipstadt, Jonathan Arkrush and Malcolm Hoenlein, masterly moderated by JTA‘s European correspondent, Cnaan Liphshiz.

Arkush spoke to the significant growth in the Haredi community – expected to hit 50% of the population of Jewish children by 2031 – and how this will affect the communities relationship with the government. He also expressed concern about their relationship to the non-Orthodox community. Hoenlein responded that he was less concerned pointing to examples of the US Haredi community successes in reaching out, and working successfully, with government on both the local and Congressional levels.

Hoenlein did express his reservations about the Jewish community not being active enough in growing Jewish pride and identity, beginning with children. He said, “We’re paying the price for not being pro-active in this area.” Speaking about young people more broadly, he went on the say, “they’re clamoring for opportunities. They want the real thing, not fancy edifices.”

As the discussion turned to antisemitism, Lipstadt remarked that Holocaust denial is a manifestation of antisemitism and racism, referring to the distinction she has made between what she calls “soft core” and “hard core” denial. She said the former, which can be expressed via a “stripping of the Jewish identity of the Holocaust,” had been adopted by the Left in an “extreme fashion.”

The three panelists agreed that in order to tackle antisemitism and other issues, building coalitions with other communities is essential.

“We need people who will be with us and we need to be with them, and that includes people from the Muslim community,” Lipstadt stressed.

Limmud FSU Europe was held in partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group.