NEW YORK — It’s 2 a.m. Saturday night at a Jewish conference in New York and some 50 people are gathered around two guitarists, singing. The playlist includes such classics as “Moldovanka,” a patriotic love song about World War II partisans, and “Den’ Pobedy,” sung in honor of Victory Day, the May 9 holiday that commemorates the triumph of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in the “Great Patriotic War.”
One of the guitarists announces he’s playing the latter song “in honor of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, without whom none of us would be here today.”
“Here” is Limmud FSU, a program which creates international conferences for Russian-speaking Jews. With over 1,000 participants in this past weekend’s gathering in New York City, it was the largest of their United States-based meet-ups so far, according to organizers.
Conference highlights included lectures by Jewish-Soviet television celebrities, such as veteran contestant Alexander Drouz from the quiz show “Chto? Gde? Kogda?” (What? Where? When?) and Boris Grachevskii, founder of the children’s comedy series “Yeralash.” The conference also offered a tribute to Leonard Cohen’s Lithuanian roots.
As opposed to “mainstream” Limmud events, based on the British week-long conference of pluralistic Jewish learning founded in 1980, Limmud FSU gatherings give Russian-speaking Jews a rare opportunity to celebrate “their own culture.”
“If I go to an American Jewish event, I feel like a stranger because when they laugh at something, I can’t laugh at it,” explained Menashe Khaimov, 29, chairman of fundraising and development of Limmud FSU.
Khaimov moved to the US from Uzbekistan as a child. “It’s not my movies, it’s not my books, it’s not my poetry, not my points of reference. If we go to a normal Limmud, we feel weird,” he said.
Belarus-born Alex Bukhman, 35, who also moved to the US at a young age, shared the same view.
“If you’re talking about music, cartoons, and movies — they were good in the Soviet era, we grew up very attached to them, and we continue to like them,” Bukhman said.
To fill this vacuum, Limmud FSU was founded nine years ago by Israeli Chaim Chesler, formerly of the Jewish Agency, and American Sandra Cahn, who were both active in freeing Jews from the Soviet Union.
The pair said the reason they created Limmud FSU is because they realized Russian Jews simply weren’t attending American Jewish events.
“We went to Limmud in the Catskills, and the biggie was that there was not one Russian there. Even though there are more than 350,000 Russians in New York!” Chesler said.
So they created a separate event which Russian-Jews organized themselves, deciding which speakers to bring and what activities to have.
“Why is this a success? Because we let the people do whatever they want to do. There are 25 people on the organizing committee and they put it together themselves,” Chesler said.
“Russians do not like to be marginalized. They don’t like to be under, they like to be at the top,” he said.
The majority of Russian-speaking American Jews immigrated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But many at the conference said they still don’t feel “accepted” by American Jewry.
“I don’t want to be accepted, I want to be an equal partner,” said Alina Bitel, a New York resident who moved to America from Odessa, Ukraine, when she was 16. “The American Jewish community has been taking a patronizing approach to the Russian community. Both sides need to treat each other as partners.”
Most Russian Jews, even those who grew up in the US, say they have few close friends among Jewish Americans who are not Russian-speaking.
The differences are not only cultural but also economic and political.
For instance, one of the conference attendees questioned why it costs $4,000 to send a child to a Jewish summer camp for two weeks, while the boy scout camp costs $800 and a Russian summer camp costs $1000.
Asked whether there is an income gap between Russian-speaking Jews and American Jews, Bitel took issue with the question.
“There is a wealth gap, not an income gap between American Jews and Russian Jews,” she said. “American Jews have grandparents who have money to pay for camp, for college loans, to help with the down payment on a house. But Russian Jews often end up supporting their older parents because they end up living beyond the threshold of poverty,” said Bitel.
Russian Jews in America are also said to be more right wing, and pro-Trump – although virtually no attendees were willing to publicly admit supporting President Donald Trump at the conference.
Limmud FSU receives funding from the Jewish community at large and adheres to Limmud International’s guidelines. Namely, the conference must include sessions or talks related to Judaism and Israel. The food at the event is kosher and the gathering allows for Shabbat observance.
Over the course of the weekend, it became clear to this reporter that the premise of Limmud FSU is not only to bring Russian Jews together to celebrate Russian-Jewish culture, but to strengthen their connection to Israel. The food at the event was Israeli, not Russian, as was the entertainment. And one honored guest, Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb, while a celebrity in Israel, is totally unfamiliar to Russian Jews in America.
The schedule, lecture summaries, biographies of the speakers, were all in English rather than Russian
But the Russian spirit was hardly suppressed.
Late into Saturday night, the unscheduled sing-along progressed with songs of Soviet soldiers from the war in Afghanistan and tunes from Soviet films. As the night turned to morning, they even sang some songs in Hebrew and Yiddish. But not a single song was sung in English.