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A Russian Limmud draws a record crowd
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A Russian Limmud draws a record crowd

For Jews with roots in FSU, an annual festival of culture and laughter

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Limmud participants take part in a Havdala ceremony.     
Limmud participants take part in a Havdala ceremony.     

Russian satirist Victor Shenderovich drew a crowd of hundreds to discuss the state of life in Russia and beyond.

Licensed counselor Victoria Drob discussed how to destigmatize psychotherapy in America’s Russian-Jewish community.

And Igor Irtenyev talked in Russian about his new book of poetry, The Genre of Crisis.

The sixth annual Limmud FSU, held at the Parsippany Sheraton March 27-29, drew a record-breaking crowd of more than 900 people, almost all Russian speaking, to a weekend celebration of Jewish culture for those with recent roots in the former Soviet Union.

With sponsorships from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and UJA-Federation of New York, Limmud featured workshops, classes, performances, and Shabbat celebrations with top artists, writers, teachers, and performers from within and beyond the Russian-speaking community. 

For Michael Gorn of Riverdale, the big draw this year was Shenderovich, who has celebrity status in Russia as a humorist and outspoken critic of the Putin regime. Gorn, who has been to all six American Limmud FSU programs as well as versions in Moscow, Lvov, Ukraine, and Toronto, said that his parents and their friends all came for the day on Saturday just to hear Shenderovich speak. 

Others turned out for a panel on freedom of the press with four Israeli journalists, and for a session on the media and the Israeli election with Chemi Shalev, senior columnist at the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Several attendees told a reporter they were looking forward to hearing Boris Gulko, a Russian-American psychologist and chess grandmaster. 

Vera Belenky of Chicago and Alexandra Bronstein of Los Angeles said they were both enjoying the connection to the Russian parts of their identities. “In my day-to-day working life, I don’t get that,” said Belenky. Friends since they were both 10 in Moscow, they came separately to the United States, Belenky with her parents in 1996 at age 14, Bronstein much later, with her husband in 2003. 

There were older people with thick accents, but also younger people who had emigrated as little children, like Julia Smirnova, who runs a program for Russian-speaking campers at Camp Tel Yehuda. Her parents immigrated in 1991 when she was five years old. “Many of our teens who attend the Tel Yehuda have been born here and much to their parents’ surprise, love connecting back to their roots.” She now lives in Manhattan in a Russian-speaking Moishe House, where young Jews are given subsidies to host Jewish events. 

Some participants came just to satisfy their curiosity. “I had never heard of an organization for Russian-speaking Jews,” said Eric Balsin, 26, a data scientist who lives and works in Manhattan. Born in Odessa, he came to the United States when he was one and grew up in Beverly Hills. As the Limmud weekend, he was full of expectations — not only for the conference but for the woman sitting next to him. Though they had just met, he said, “I think I’ve found a Russian-speaking Jewish wife.” 

For her part, Samantha, who asked that her last name not be used, said she was originally from Basking Ridge and now lives in Brooklyn. She confided that she “has no idea who is speaking, but if there’s one thing about our people, we’re smart.”

Signs were posted all over the hotel in English, Hebrew, and Russian. An opening panel was perhaps less popular than an inspired “Pin your home” board, which, by mid-conference on Saturday night, was dotted with pins from New York, Ukraine, and Moscow, with a smattering from Los Angeles, other parts of the United States, and a few other countries in the FSU.

In the hallways, little English could be heard. With few exceptions, Russian was the lingua franca of the weekend. And numerous participants, seeing a woman with a camera, asked her, in Russian, to take their picture.

Serious sessions were balanced with frivolous ones, like an event on why falafel is better with a shot of vodka.

Limmud FSU also had a decidedly secular flavor, although there were certainly observant Jews among the crowd. On Shabbat one author sold books, groups went outside to smoke, and a crew setting up for Shabbat evening played music as they went about their tasks.

And no one seemed to mind. For this crowd, including people well-integrated into American society and those with more pronounced Russian accents and affects, Limmud offered a rare chance to feel completely at home in America. 

As Kiev educator Lena Kushnir put it, “This is the first time I am seeing American Jews who are Russian-speaking in their full complex identities, Russian, American, and Jewish.”

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