Friday, 10 February 2017

Uncovered: Britain's biggest hidden Jewish community

“You can tell the Russian-speakers by their eyes,” I am told at the LLimmud Former Soviet Union event in Windsor.

“They may have been living outside Russia for many years, but their eyes are anxious. They are alert for trouble.”

Boris Schnaidman, a Russian, has plenty of opportunity to prove his point. At the Limmud FSU last weekend, 700 Jews with links to Russia and the former Soviet Union were gathered for three days of seminars, discussions and entertainment.

These people represent a community of Jews living below the radar; shy of acknowledging their roots.

“I am astonished,” says Jonathan Arkush, Board of Deputies president. “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.”

These Jews are hidden because although they integrate with other Russian speakers and the wider British community, they steer clear of synagogues and tend not to live in the most Jewish-populated areas of north-west London.

Sixty years of repression under Communism have left their mark. Very few men at Limmud FSU wore a kippah and some confessed to not knowing what the words “shalom” or “shul” meant.

“Many people here are only beginning to discover their Jewishness,” says Berel Lazar, chief rabbi in Moscow. “It’s an intense experience for them, there’s a lot of energy here. The Russian Jewish community is trying to find its place in the world.”

At the end of one lecture on Saturday, a participant in her 20s stands up and explains she is not involved in Jewish life in her home town of Kiev. “I am a Limmud Jew,” she says.

Another participant, Reuben, who now lives in France and did not want to be identified, says: “Limmud is my synagogue. There are so many people who are similar to me here, we can talk about being Jewish and it feels familiar.”

Here lies the key to Limmud FSU. Many participants do not want to be synagogue members, lack of familiarity makes them uncomfortable with many of the prayers and rituals but there is a Jewishness inside them which they feel compelled to acknowledge.

“They are Jewish in their souls,” says Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU. “Limmud gives them a chance to explore what it means to them.”

Aaron Frenkel, president of Limmud FSU, puts it more strongly. “If they don’t come to Limmud they will eventually assimilate and their Jewish identity will be lost,” he explains. “Limmud is fulfilling an essential role for these people.”

An estimated three million Jews flooded out of the Soviet Union after the collapse of Communism, heading to the United States, Israel and Europe.

“The UK is considered a good place for Russians to do business and it’s also regarded as one of the safest democracies,” says Mr Chesler.

There are four major groups of Russian-speaking Jews in London: students; young professionals working in IT, business and law; families; and wealthy business people.

“The people you see here feel an essence of Jewishness,” says Semyon Dovzhik, the chairman of Limmud FSU Europe organising team, who lives in London and masterminded the event. “They are unlikely to be involved in British politics but they are very pro-Israel. They are secular but they want their children to marry within the faith.”

There are, however, Russian-dominated synagogues in London, including Chabad Belgravia, served by Rabbi Mendel Kalmensen, where attendance is on the rise.

Mr Chesler doubts many Jews would go back to Russia: “They can live openly as Jews but free speech is a problem, they are not allowed to speak against Putin.”

Mr Schnaidman adds: “At least in the UK I know if I’m the target of an antisemitic attack the police will protect me — in Russia the police will do nothing.”

Silent no more

Since its first event in Moscow in 2006, Limmud FSU has become an increasingly significant network for Russian-speaking Jews around the world.

The Moscow conference has become one of Limmud’s largest, with more than 2,000 participants.

The three-day gathering at Windsor was the first for emigres in Europe, attracting people from 18 countries including more than 200 from Britain, 150 from Germany and even four from Albania. Beyond Europe, two visitors pitched up from Kazakhstan.

A group of around 70 came from Russia, including Anna Frolova, 26, who was one of the event’s numerous volunteers. “You have an amazing opportunity to meet old friends you haven’t seen in months,” she said.

Tel Aviv-based Tatiana Pashaeva, project manager for Limmud FSU, said: “When we first started talking about Limmud FSU Europe a year and a half ago, we thought we might get 350.”

The mood of celebration was such, she said, there were “people singing and dancing until six in the morning”.

Before they left the country, Limmud FSU leaders travelled to London to open the organisation’s exhibition on Elie Wiesel at the JW3 centre.

Wiesel’s report in 1965, The Jews of Silence, was instrumental in drawing attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry behind the Iron Curtain.