Some 1,000 young Russian-American Jewish professionals paid out of pocket to attend a three-day conference in Rye Brook, NY, to seek knowledge about a shared past once obscured by Communism, learn about Jewish history, network and meet like-minded peers.
There are an estimated 200,000 Russian Jews in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and more than 700,000 throughout the US.
“The New York Russian-speaking Jewish community is thriving and going from strength to strength, and Limmud FSU New York has become an integral part of this exciting growth,” said Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler on Saturday.
“These young leaders have traveled to Israel to learn about their Jewish heritage, but when they returned to America no one is taking care of them as they continue their education,” he lamented. “So Limmud FSU took upon itself the mission, and it has been a wonderful success.”
Sponsored by the Koret Foundation and Blavatnik Family Foundation, Limmud FSU New York features 80 speakers and 120 panels, workshops and discussions on subjects ranging from art, to Jewish culture and tradition, history, politics, academics and business.
Included among the featured presenters are acclaimed Russian animator Oleg Kuvaev; Consul General of Israel in New York Dani Dayan; Stand-up comedians Dmitry Romanov and Igor Meerson; UJA-Federation of New York director of learning and development and Jewish Parent Co-Founder Yelena Kutikova; American rabbi and bestselling author Joseph Telushkin; Muslim interfaith activist Nadiya Al-Noor; and Abby Stein, the first openly transgender woman raised in the Hasidic community.
The New York conference “grows by leaps and bounds each year,” Limmud FSU US project manager Noam Shumakh-Khaimov said. “We sold out for the weekend and had to create a waiting list.” One of the most popular lectures included a standing-room only panel discussion about the damaging implications of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement on college campuses across the country, which was led by Nadya Drukker, executive director at Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College; Ilya Bratman, executive director of Hillel at Baruch College; and Martin Yafe, a Jewish Community Relations Council of New York consultant, who trains Jewish high school students to defend Israel when they enter college.
Citing a lack of resources in California’s Russian-Jewish community, Yehuda Katz, a 35-year-old hi-tech employee, who has attended four Limmud FSU conferences, said he flew from the Bay area to attend the weekend conference.
“There is a lack of programming for young Jewish Russian-American professionals where I live, and this is a conference where young Jews and young professionals can get together and explore many different aspects – from political to religious to historical,” said Katz.
“I think that some of the people who come here have specific speakers and subjects that they are attracted to. And one of the speakers I wanted to hear is Rabbi Pinchas Polonsky, who is bringing something that doesn’t exist where I live now. So I came here to hear him speak.”
Asked what he likes about Limmud FSU, Katz, whose family emigrated from Belarus, cited the social nature of the conferences.
“On the one hand we came to learn, but on the other we come to socialize and meet people,” he said, while sitting next to four young men and women. “I mean, a lot of us are planning on getting married soon and we meet people we wouldn’t normally come across here.”
Indeed, according to Chesler, there have been over 100 “Limmud FSU babies” born to parents who met at the international lecture series since it launched in Moscow 10 years ago.
“We are not only educating about Jewish history, now we are creating new Jewish lives and families,” said Chesler with a wide smile.
Limmud FSU has become the most successful venue of its kind and is aided by – among others – philanthropists Matthew Bronfman, Aaron Frenkel, Ronald Lauder and Diane Wohl; the Jewish National Fund; UJA-Federation of New York; Israel Bonds; the Jewish Agency; and the Claims Conference.
Its conferences are regularly held in 11 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, England, Canada, Israel, Australia and Moldova.