Limmud FSU, the nonprofit that organizes conferences for Russian-speaking Jews around the world, is scaling back its activities due to lack of financing.
The Limmud FSU gathering in New York, which attracted more than 1,000 participants this year, will be shortened from a three-day Shabbat weekend to a one day event next year, said Natasha Chechik, the organization’s communications director.
Conferences in Canada, Israel, and Belarus will also be downsized to one day, she said, and plans to bring the Russian-Jewish conference to smaller cities in North America, including Boston and Montreal, have been scrapped.
In addition, Limmud FSU is postponing its conference in Western Europe. Last year, people from 16 countries attended Limmud FSU in London.
“We were planning Limmud Europe in Vienna, but it’s not in the budget right now,” Chechik said. “It’s impossible to do it this year.”
Limmud FSU organizes conferences in hotels and brings in speakers, including Russian-Jewish celebrities, from around the world to run panels and workshops on an array of cultural topics. The events are run by volunteers and none of the presenters get paid — though they do benefit from free travel and accommodation.
Regular participants do pay to attend, but the cost is subsidized heavily by Limmud FSU. The nonprofit currently operates in nine countries with a budget of approximately $3 million per year. But as Limmud FSU expands its activities to more cities, revenue is not keeping pace. Despite demand, the organization, which is supported by private donors, is running out of funds.
“At any moment, we can crash,” says Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler.
No funding from the Israeli government
The organizers of Limmud FSU say the Israeli government promised to support them but has failed to deliver because they consider Russian-speaking Jews a lower priority.
“The Israeli government talks so much about fighting anti-Semitism around the world and fighting intermarriage, but they don’t support Limmud FSU,” Chesler said. “We have brought it to their attention for years. They smile, they say nice things, but we don’t get any money from them.”
He added that Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett is probably not interested in supporting Russian-speaking Jews because they don’t vote for his Jewish Home party.
Bennet’s spokesman Aaron Kalman found these accusations unwarranted.
“We are sorry Limmud FSU, a respected organization, is spreading baseless allegations instead of focusing on educational work,” Kalman wrote in an email. “Minister Bennett believes it is Israel’s moral obligation to strengthen and maintain the connections with all Jewish communities around the world.”
When asked whether the Ministry of the Diaspora has any programs that focus specifically on Russian-speaking Jews, Kalman did not name any, but instead listed programs that also include Russian Jews, such as Momentum, which brings Jewish mothers on a trip to Israel, and Mosaic United, which is an on-campus work project.
“The projects advanced by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs have long-term potential for growth and sustainability, while creating strong and vibrant Jewish communities, without focusing on sponsorship for conferences,” said Kalman.
But Chechik questioned why the Diaspora Affairs Ministry recently gave millions of dollars to Momentum, a group which sends older women on a trip to Israel, as well as programs for other marginal groups.
A Jewish girl wearing a traditional Ukrainian wreath, or ‘vinok,’ stands in the lobby of Lviv’s Dnister Hotel, where Israeli and Ukrainian flags stand side-by-side during the Limmud FSU conference in Lviv, Ukraine, November 6-10, 2014. (photo credit: Yossi Aloni)
“It’s surreal, absurd,” she said. “It can’t be that the most important organization for Russian-speaking Jews doesn’t get even the minimal acknowledgement. It drives us crazy. We try and try and try, and we just can’t win.”
When reached via WhatsApp, Diaspora Affairs spokeswoman Reut Moshonov confirmed that the ministry does not provide any financial support for Limmud FSU.
“Holding conferences, as good as they may be, without any follow-up or ongoing activity, has not yet been proven as an effective way of building Russian-speaking Jewish communities around the world,” reads the statement that Moshonov forwarded to The Times of Israel.
A just cause
Dina Spechler, a Judaic studies professor from Indiana University who focuses on Soviet Jewry, said that while the effectiveness of conferences for strengthening ties to Israel has not been quantified, the conferences for Russian-speaking Jews are probably worth it.
“I think it is very important for Russian Jews to be exposed to the full range of possibilities for living a Jewish life, from the most observant to a secular, cultural Jewish identity. I have the impression that Limmud FSU has the potential to contribute to these goals,” she wrote in an email. “For that reason, even without empirical evidence of their effectiveness, I would think that its weekend conferences are worthwhile.”
One way to ascertain the effectiveness of the conferences is to administer a questionnaire to former participants several months or a year after the event, she suggested.
Meanwhile, at a recent Limmud FSU gathering in San Francisco, Russian-speaking Jews were disappointed when they learned that the annual three-day Limmud FSU conference in New York has been shortened to a one-day event.
“It’s a pity,” said Eugene Kitaynik, a student from Dallas, Texas.
“I don’t think it’s going to have the same impact as a three-day event because the main idea is bonding and making connections,” agreed Anatoliy Kogan, a web developer.
“We hope this is a temporary measure because we really care about this project,” added his friend Arthur Yusupov, an HR specialist from New York.