Some 750 participants, Jews of Russian-speaking origins, from 24 countries – Sweden to Portugal, Spain to Finland, as well as Israel and USA, came together in Berlin at the beginning of April for a celebration of Jewish learning and community at the first-ever Limmud FSU Europe conference in the German capital. Participants included some 50 Limmudniks from Ukraine, some of whom are still living in the embattled country while others have found a, permanent or temporary, respite from the war, in Israel and countries across central and western Europe.
Among them was Olena Kolpakova, a lawyer and Limmud FSU Ukraine volunteer since 2009, who had traveled nearly 48 hours by bus and train with her 9-year-old daughter from Dnipro in eastern Ukraine. “Our house isn’t destroyed, and our city isn’t occupied. But we still have 10 to 12 air-raid sirens a day,” she said, reflecting on her daily life in Ukraine.
“The first ever Limmud FSU conference in Germany is an opportunity to celebrate our rich cultural heritage, learn from one another, and strengthen our connections, said Chaim Chesler, Limmud FSU founder. “We are excited to see the impact that this conference will have on the community, and look forward to many more to come.”
Over the three days of intense learning opportunities, participants could choose from more than 150 lectures, workshops, master classes, film screenings, literary readings and cultural performances on such varied topics as an explanation from former Israel’s vice president of the Supreme Court and former attorney general, Professor Elyakim Rubinstein, about the intense debates raging in Israel on judicial reform. “In my opinion,” said Rubinstein, “the demonstrations taking place in Israel are fully justified and I myself have participated in some of them. I have no reason to disassociate myself from them. I can only hope that they will not end in conflict, and we will not become another Afghanistan.”
Before the start of the conference, the Limmud FSU leadership visited one of the city’s central Holocaust memorial sites. “This is an essential component of any visit to Berlin,” Rubinstein reflected. “Such a visit reminds me of the importance of the State of Israel. In order for the state to survive we need to ensure internal unity. This is neither simple nor easy, but I can only hope that the continuation of the current dialogue taking place on the reform of the legal system will bear fruit. I believe that a compromise position can be achieved. “
Other topics covered in the conference itself included a discussion by world-famous Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, about bringing Nazi criminals to justice; the concept of the afterlife in Jewish thought; how Jewish history is taught differently in different countries; the attitude to war in Jewish tradition. There were equally workshops on creating perfumes, a review of Jewish women who served as the models for masterpiece works of art, the story of Eliezer ben Yehuda and the revival of the Hebrew language, recounted by his great grandson, Gil Hovav, and Israel dancing. The conference was also an opportunity to hear from celebrated Russian-language author, of Jewish roots, Ludmila Ulitskaya, laureate of the Russian Booker Prize, who was nominated for the International Booker Prize and whose works have been translated into 33 languages, and film director and producer, Roman Liberov, who has made films about Joseph Brodsky, Osip Mandelstam, Ilf and Petrov and other writers.
Artistic performances included the Ukrainian hip-hop group, FO SHO, whose members, sisters Betty, Siona and Miriam Endale, are Ukrainian-Ethiopian Jews, originally from Kharkiv, where one of the group’s members even attended Jewish school. Their first single was released in 2019, and in 2020 the group reached the semi-finals of the Ukrainian entry for the Eurovision song contest. The group’s members now live in Germany.
One of the most fascinating testimonies of what the Jews of Ukraine have been facing was given by Sonia Tartakovskaya, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor, who witnessed the Russian bombardment of Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv and who found refuge in Berlin a year ago. “I don’t remember the war because I was born in 1939, and in 1941, I was sent to Tajikistan. But this war of 2022 I remember, I saw the houses burning,” she said.
“The inaugural Limmud FSU conference in Berlin is a momentous occasion for our organization and the entire community of FSU Jews in Europe,” said Matthew Bronfman, Limmud FSU chair. “This conference serves as a symbol of our continued dedication to preserving and celebrating Jewish culture and heritage, while also promoting a sense of unity and connection among members of our community across borders and generations.” This sentiment was echoed by Sandra Cahn, Limmud FSU co-founder and FRD chair, who remarked that, “Despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, we are heartened to see so many participants from the country joining us for this historic event. This conference serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of building bridges between communities and promoting cultural exchange, even in the face of hardships.”
"As we reflect on the success of the conference,” said Marina Yudborovsky, CEO, Genesis Philanthropy Group, “let us remember the power of learning and cultural exchange to unite us all. The resilience and vitality of Jewish heritage were on full display, reminding us that when we come together with open minds and open hearts, there is much we can achieve. Let the spirit of this event inspire us to continue to overcome challenges and create positive change in the world together."
“It was a major, successful and very important event for Russian-speaking Jews in Europe in general and in particular for the hundreds of refugees from Ukraine, said Alex Mershon, director of the Department of Culture and Education in Nativ, part of the Israel government’s outreach to Jews in the FSU. “That is why Nativ is happy to partner with Limmud FSU in such events, and why we were proud to help in the initiation and realization of this event in Germany, which is today home to over 230,000 Russian-speaking Jews.“
Alongside the adult program, there was a special age-appropriate program for children of various ages.
Since Limmud FSU’s first conference 18 years ago, over 80 events have been mounted by 13 volunteer teams, and Limmud FSU events have reached out over the years to some 80,000 Russian-speaking Jews across the globe. In February 2017, Limmud FSU Europe successfully launched in London, the second conference was held in Vienna in 2020.
Among the key sponsors of Limmud FSU Europe are organizations such as Genesis Philanthropy Group, Nativ – Israel’s Prime Minister's office, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael – Jewish National Fund, Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, World Zionist Organization, and others.
In the best tradition of Limmud, the event was made possible by its team of local leaders and volunteers, led by Limmud FSU Executive Director Natasha Chechik, Director of Operations, Gabi Farberov, Limmud FSU Europe project coordinator, Dimitri Mevzos, and a devoted team of EU volunteers.