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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Limmud Diary Part 1: Jews reconnect to heritage at Russian Limmud parley

Limmud FSU 2007 is winding down into its final day. It's been an exhilarating ride so far: three days of what the experts call "informal education" - classes, discussions, interactive art - all centering on Jewish issues and identity.

Limmud isn't exactly about making more Jews, or more Orthodox Jews, or more Jewish marriages. The agenda is hard to formulate because it is a method, not an ideology. Young secular Russians rub elbows with (and even dance alongside) Chabad hassidim, local Jewish intellectuals and Israeli educators in a four-day creative free-for-all of Jewish learning.

Limmud is also frustrating. For almost four full days, as many as 10 sessions can take place simultaneously each hour, reaching upwards of 40 a day. The most dedicated participant can only experience perhaps one-sixth of a Limmud.

Disappointing, but strangely exhilarating.

You walk out of a laughter-filled session on the educational wisdom of the Talmudic sages with the charismatic Avraham Infeld, and you're wondering what other gems you missed. The better the session, the more you wish you could see the others.

This is my first Limmud and my reaction is no different from what I've heard from other participants in other countries. Local Limmud conferences are now held around the globe, including in Canada, Turkey, South Africa, Germany, France, the US, Israel and of course England, where the first one was held in 1981.

But a Russian Limmud, which has successfully attracted 700 participants and fielded 100 volunteers, is something else altogether.

The devastated former Soviet Union Jewish communities, religiously choked under Soviet rule and emptied of most of its population and all its activists when the Iron Curtain collapsed, should not be making a comeback.

Yet young Jews across Russia and Eastern Europe have slowly, tentatively - but with growing gusto and richness - begun to explore the meaning of their Jewish past, often a past that is even for their parents a distant memory.

While Eastern European Jewish billionaire "oligarchs" and American Jewish organizations and philanthropists are part of this phenomenon, supporting educational initiatives, organizations and institutions from Warsaw to Tashkent, they have been responding to the bottom-up awakening that has spread in the FSU in the past few years, unexpectedly taking root like a delicate green growth after desert floods.

The image is not overly lyrical. Russia, and the FSU more generally, is still essentially a spiritual wasteland. Jewish identity here has been defined ethnically rather than religiously even more strongly than in Israel, and most of the young activists at Moscow this weekend were adamant that their newfound excitement with Judaism is "cultural, of course not religious."

The cultural awakening, however, isn't without a religious dimension and the tension inherent in growing religious awareness.

"These days, secular Jewish identity here is in crisis," says educator and presenter Moti Chlenov. "We don't know what to fill it with. In the early 1990s, expressing yourself as a Jew meant going to Israel. Judaism is central to Jewish identity, but still most Russian Jews are secular and really like it."

For Chlenov, Limmud, a British creation that has shown tremendous traction in widely disparate Jewish communities, is just what Russian Jewry needs to work through some of this tension. "Limmud is an attempt to create a meaningful mark on Jewish life that isn't secular, but is outside a religious context."

He corrects himself: "Limmud is even smarter than that," he adds as a pair of elderly Orthodox men walk by. "Religious people have a place here."

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