For many of the 650 people from across the United States and Canada who came to Princeton the weekend of May 11-13, the Limmud FSU conference was an opportunity to explore their Jewish roots, strengthen their Jewish identities, and just have a good time with other Jews from the former Soviet Union.
The conference, held at the Forrestal Village Marriott, was the first in New Jersey. The 30-year-old Limmud operates in the former Soviet Union, the United States, Europe, Israel, Canada, and Australia.
It offered classes and workshops on Jewish life, culture and arts, Torah, and Israel, often through the lens of those whose perspective had been shaped under oppressive communist regimes.
“It was a fantastic experience, probably beyond what I expected,” Lev Golinkin of East Windsor, a Limmud volunteer, told NJJN a day after the event.
The event also represented a coming-out party of sorts for the young members of the first- and second-generation immigrant community from the FSU. “Russian” Jewish immigrants in the United States number about 750,000 to 1,000,000, with about half living in New York and New Jersey.
It drew an array of notables involved in Limmud from around the world, including Alexander Levin, president of the World Forum of Russian Jewry, who came from Kiev, Ukraine.
Speaking before Shabbat on May 11 at the opening reception, Levin called for “more understanding from our American brothers and sisters” and urged them to “join forces with our Russian-speaking Jewry in order to create one united Jewish force, based on the principles of true partnership, recognizing the importance of values in order to build the strong Jewish Diaspora with Israel at its center.”
Yoram Dori, strategic adviser to Israeli President Shimon Peres, spoke of the importance Limmud has played in helping integrate the many Russian Jews who have immigrated to Israel.
“I am in love with it,” he later told NJJN. He said the international educational organization’s ability to impart Jewish history and tradition while being sensitive toward the needs of the former FSU community members has yielded strong results.
‘Very cool experience’
Golinkin, who was raised in a secular home, came to the United States 22 years ago at age 10 and has only recently begun to connect with his Jewish roots. He has written an as-yet-unpublished book about his life in Kharkov, Ukraine, and as a refugee in America.
“I thought it was a good event for me because my family has never really been a part of the Russian community,” said Golinkin. “We lived in the suburbs with mostly Americans and were very assimilated into American life.”
Despite his unfamiliarity with Jewish life and a less than full immersion into Russian-Jewish culture, he said, “I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all…. There was an air about the conference that made you feel you could explore whatever you were comfortable with, wherever you were religiously.”
Kiev native Jane Panitch of East Brunswick said she attended the gathering both to interact with other Russians and help promote rajemate.com, an on-line dating service for Russian Jews she cofounded.
Angelina Fridman of Marlboro, who came to the United States from Uzbekistan in 1989, told NJJN she was excited “to network professionally and personally with other members of the Russian-Jewish community.”
Acknowledging that many “Russian Jews get to the point where they forget their Jewish roots,” Irina Kreymer of Edison, who grew up in Ukraine, said, “Limmud is a chance to get back to your Jewish roots and your Russian roots. It creates a better bond between the two.”
Golinkin said no event at the conference had more meaning for him than the Havdala ceremony that ended Shabbat. He was unfamiliar with the ritual, he said, but connected with it immediately.
“I could see how people did this for thousands and thousands of years, in the synagogue or even in the desert in Palestine,” said Golinkin. “I could just see them standing in the sand all those years ago, and it really made me feel a part of a long line. It was a very cool experience.”