Alina Bitel works at a nationally recognized Jewish not-for-profit agency. She speaks without any accent. She’s as comfortable in American society as among her peers who spent their childhood in the former Soviet Union. And yet, she said, “I haven’t found a way into Judaism on a personal level.”
She was among over 750 people who gathered at the Sheraton Hotel March 28-30 in Parsippany for Limmud FSU, a three-day festival of Jewish learning.
“This is my type of gathering,” she said.
According to organizers, there are an estimated 750,000 to one million Jews in the United States with recent roots in Russia and the former Soviet Union, with about half living in New York and New Jersey. The entire conference and its content were organized by participants from the Russian-Jewish community.
The conference reflected the wide range of their interests, including sessions on Jewish history, innovation, science, and the arts. There were self-referential sessions asking “Is the Jewish Code for Success Written in Russian?” and a screening of Stateless, a documentary about the emigration of Soviet Jews during the late 1980s.
Presenters at the conference included academics, politicians, writers, and artists from the United States, Israel, Russia, and elsewhere. Among them were Israeli author Lihi Lapid, Knesset members Ronen Hoffman and Omar Bar Lev, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, philanthropist Feliks Frenkel, and celebrity rabbi Shmuely Boteach.
There was less of the spiritual programming or Torah-based study typical of other festivals organized under the international Limmud banner; the conversation was less about prayer and spirituality and more about finding portals into one’s Jewish community.
“This Soviet-Jewish thing makes us all similar,” said director Roman Kogan, COO at Limmud FSU. “Many participants came to the U.S. 20 years ago and feel a part of the major American society. But they are less affiliated with the Jewish American community. That’s the reason we have a separate Limmud. Here, we feel at home. It’s a question of belonging. The Soviet-Jewish background is very specific and different from the mainstream American-Jewish community.”
Still, the group was far from monolithic. Participants were from a multitude of countries and regions, including the Balkans, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine.
Bitel was born in Odessa and immigrated to the United States with her family in 1994, when she was 16.
“The way we relate to everything Jewish is very different” from the rest of the American-Jewish community, she told NJJN toward the end of the conference. Bitel serves as chair of Limmud FSU in the United States. (There are Limmud FSU conferences around the world, including in the FSU.)
“We have a personal, intellectual, and cultural connection rather than a religious or institutional connection to Judaism,” she said. “When I talk about being Jewish culturally, it’s literature, art, history — high culture. When other people talk about being culturally Jewish, it’s, as Rabbi Avi Orlow puts it, ‘in the shadow of the synagogue.’ They mean they celebrate Shabbat in some way, and there’s some Hebrew.”
Orlow, her colleague at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, is a Jewish education specialist.
Dina Brevdo and Polyna Berlin came to Parsippany with a delegation of 12 people from Los Angeles. They are hoping to bring Limmud to the West Coast, and were exploring the model — but also enjoying the conference. (A three-year partnership between Limmud FSU and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, announced during the conference, will make the West Coast Limmud FSU conference, as well as one in Australia, a reality in 2015.)
“I wanted to connect with other Russian-speaking Jews on something not religious,” said Berlin. “It’s a way of discovering and exploring our identity, and also a way of self expression,” she said.
Berlin came to the United States in 1991 when she was 10 years old. Berlin said that like many of her peers, “I did not grow up religious. In fact, I didn’t even know I was Jewish until we immigrated.”
Brevdo, who came to the United States in 2001 at age 19, said that she was interested in the social opportunities and learning about Judaism, “but not in a pushy or lecturing way. I feel free to ask questions and I’m not afraid if I don’t know things. That’s incredibly huge. It’s non-threatening and welcoming.”
Both women are part of a grassroots Jewish community in the Los Angeles area known as Ru-Ju-LA that offers programs for Russian-speaking young adults and their families. They consciously resist calling themselves an organization.
“The idea of joining an organization scares the crap out of us, coming from the Soviet Union,” said Berlin. “We’re trying to rebuild the Russian-Jewish community in a way that might be appealing and that will naturally provide an outlet for us in a small, local way,” said Brevdo.
Kogan explained that Limmud FSU, founded in 2006, “enables Russian-Jewish participants to build a framework for their Jewish lives that is flexible, personal, and belongs to them.”
He pointed out that its success in attracting so many people results from giving them “a feeling of belonging.”