Thursday, 29 June 2017

The man who spread the Limmud vibe worldwide

Early encounters with Britain’s 35s — the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry — ultimately led to the creation of Limmud FSU, the decade-old organisation for Russian-speaking Jews both in and from the former Soviet Union.

Limmud FSU’s founder, Chaim Chesler, is a veteran Israeli civil servant who worked in the UK as a shaliach (emissary) in the early 1970s. When he returned to Israel, after studies at Bar-Ilan University he became involved in the Soviet Jewry campaign, becoming executive director of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry.

As Chesler tells it, during his time at the council, many of the “big beasts” of Soviet Jewry were freed – Natan Sharansky, Yuli Edelstein, Ida Nudel. “I was lucky to be there when that moment came,” he says.

His next move was to lead the Jewish Agency in North America, based in New York, where he served from 1988 to 1991. But he was then approached by Jewish Agency chair Simcha Dinitz and asked to go to the Soviet Union to put his Soviet Jewish expertise to work.

In 1993, Chesler, elected as a member of the Jewish Agency executive, went to Moscow, together with his wife and young family. For his children, he says, it was a huge change to move from comfortable New York to the initial privations of Russia.

“But eventually they loved it; there were only four or five students in each class, so they got a lot of individual attention. And because cultural life was so cheap for us, and because we didn’t understand what was being said on TV, we spent nearly every night at the opera, the ballet or concerts. It was fantastic.”

Working in Russia, Chesler says, “was the greatest time of my life”. He had 110 shlichim working for him and presided over a huge operation of 70,000 emigrants to Israel every year. It was while working in Moscow that he was invited to speak in Nottingham by Limmud UK.

“I did not know what Limmud was about, but when I got there I realised it was something unique,” he says. “I was shocked and amazed –but I made up my mind that I would copy it for Russia, because part of the attraction was that Limmud is not a top-down organisation, where things are imposed on people, but that it works, through volunteers, from the bottom up. And I knew that would appeal to Russians.”

By 1999 Chesler was treasurer of the Jewish Agency and had the power to make things happen. He began speaking to international Jewish organisations to put together a funding base for what would become Limmud FSU.

At the same time, he says, he was aware that while many young Russian Jews went to Israel via the Birthright programme, there was no follow-up and people would return to their home republics in the FSU with no opportunity to enjoy their Judaism.

In 2005, dipping his toe in the water, Chesler took a group of 15 Russians to Limmud UK, wondering how they would respond to the Limmud vibe, particularly its trademark of having different events taking place at the same time. He needn’t have worried: they loved it.

And so in May 2006, Chesler staged a one-day Limmud event in Moscow. “And 1,000 people came. So that was a miracle; and 18 months later we had a full-scale four-day Limmud, which again attracted 1,000 people”. Ukrainian millionaire Vadim Rabinovich then offered to stage a Limmud event in Yalta.

And in 2009 Limmud FSU held its first gathering in Israel, in Ashkelon. Within months, there were Limmud events for Russian speakers in America, on both the east and west coasts; a Limmud FSU in Canada, in Australia, and this year, in another first, a Limmud FSU for Russian speakers from all over Europe, which was held in Windsor, in the UK.

Next year, says Chesler, he hopes to hold a Limmud FSU Europe in Vienna, an ironic touch as Vienna was for years a staging post for Soviet Jews who were leaving and spent time in the Austrian capital en route to Israel or the States.

Almost none of the Limmud FSU events – which Chesler oversees alongside co-founder Sandy Cahn, President Aaron Frenkel and chair of the International Steering committee Matthew Bronfman – attract fewer than 1,000 people. And, says Chesler proudly, “people pay – they don’t get freebies.”

The whole extraordinary calendar of spinning plates – there are gatherings lined up next month in Moldova, in September in Romania, in October in Odessa, in November in San Francisco and in St Petersburg in December – is run by a tiny permanent workforce of just seven or eight people. Everything else, in the spirit of Limmud, is done by volunteers.

Chesler does try to go to almost everything, but even he groans at the schedule these days. However, you can hear both a grin and pride in his voice as he talks about his remarkable creation. The networkers’ networker has built something extraordinary.