November 6, 2023: Between November 2nd to November 6th, 150 Jews from Ukraine gathered in Lublin for the second Limmud FSU Ukraine conference of Jewish learning to be mounted in Poland, for it is currently not possible to hold events in Ukraine. The first such conference took place 11 months ago in Warsaw, and brought together 100 Limmud FSU Ukraine volunteers, some of whom traveled over 30 hours to get to the Polish capital from their war-torn country.
This year, 150 Ukraine Limmudniks, most of whom are living in Ukraine, with some participants traveling from their new homes in Europe and Israel, attended a three-day conference of Jewish learning and a celebration of Jewish life in a Polish city that is redolent of Jewish history – at the height of the community’s glory the Jewish population of Lublin constituted fully half of the city’s population.
The conference took place against the backdrop not only of the ongoing war in Ukraine, but also of the war Israel is fighting against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the horror of October 7. This reality not only affected the overall atmosphere of the three days and their more than 40 lectures, workshops, literary readings and artistic performances, but equally their presenters, for several lecturers from Israel were unable to travel, and the program had to be adapted to rely almost exclusively on speakers from within the ranks of the Ukraine Jewish community. “Unity is our greatest strength,” remarked Limmud FSU founder, Chaim Chesler, “and this Limmud is an important symbol of unity.”
“In these trying times for both the State of Israel and Ukrainian Jews, our event in Lublin stands as a testament to the resilience and unity we share,” said Matthew Bronfman, chair of Limmud FSU. “As we convene in this historic city, we renew our steadfast support for one another, transcending the distances that separate us with a shared bond of solidarity.”
The sessions ranged from a photographic presentation of the war in Ukraine to an evening of stories written during that war, from famous Jews of Ukraine to a discussion of the release of hostages in Jewish classical sources, from a presentation of conflict resolution methods to informal opportunities to meet, talk and decompress. Children and adults alike could make bracelets, paint and draw – including with red wine, and learn Israeli dances. Sessions also touched on other timely topics, such as Russian and Ukrainian rewriting of history, and attempts to preserve the material culture of the Jews of Ukraine: much of this was destroyed during the Holocaust, while in many areas of the country, some of what remained is now being destroyed during the war.
Two full half-days were devoted to the history of the Jews of Lublin and Poland: a lecture on the move presented 600 years of the city’s Jewish history – and its destruction during the Holocaust; a tour of the Majdanek Nazi concentration and death camp, which is just outside the city, provided a wider context of the destruction of Polish and European Jewry and the dangers of fanaticism.
Two of the things I love most are history and Jewish culture,” said participant Artem Linnyk, 30, a software developer and a Ukrainian native who has lived in Poland for eight years. “Limmud is a great place to find both.”
Natalia Tolok, a tour guide and Hillel director in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, came to present a session on her favorite hobby: traditional Jewish dance. “Limmud is not just a conference. This is a big family, a kind of separate Jewish world that embraces anyone related to Jewishness,” she said. “We used to have huge Limmuds in Lviv and Odessa, with hundreds of people. But right now, not all who love Limmud can come, for various reasons. They are spread around the world, or in some cases they cannot leave Ukraine.”
Alexei Podorozhnyy, a Limmudnik from Ukraine who currently lives in Germany, noted that he has fled war twice: first eight years ago to Kyiv, and then to Frankfurt, where he has been living since the Russian invasion.
In her welcome message, Raheli Baratz-Rix, head of the World Zionist Organization’s Department for Combating Antisemitism and Enhancing Resilience, urged participants not to remain silent in the face of surging global antisemitism. “Israel is under attack. It’s not just a phrase; it’s our reality right now,” she said. “All around the world, we’ve seen a 500% increase in antisemitism since the war began — in Great Britain, Germany, France, the United States and Canada, as well as in the former Soviet Union. We need you by our side, more than ever, to fight together for the narrative. Israel is a strong country and will win, but no one can stay silent right now.”
Alex Mershon, director of Nativ’s Department of Culture and Education, said, “It is important to emphasize that the Limmud in Lublin is not just a prominent educational event but also a tangible demonstration of solidarity by Jewish communities in former Soviet Union countries with the State of Israel. At Nativ, we actively participate in this important project, particularly during these challenging times for the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.”
Shlomo Voskoboynik, 56, is originally from Malin, a small town near Kyiv. He immigrated to Israel in 1994 and now works as an emissary in Estonia for Israel’s Education Ministry. At Limmud in Lublin he led Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, explained the week’s Torah portion, and led sessions on Jewish culture. “This Limmud was less cerebral and more emotional,” he said. “There’s a war in Ukraine, there’s also a war in Israel now, and people want to feel united.”
“Hopefully next year we can do this conference in Ukraine,” said Natasha Chechik, Limmud FSU’s executive director. “This is one of our main goals for 2024: bringing Limmud back to Ukraine.”
Limmud FSU was founded in 2006; since its first conference, over 85 events have been mounted and Limmud FSU events have reached out over the years to more than 80,000 Jews with roots in the FSU who today live across the globe.
Limmud FSU’s work around the world is supported by individuals, such as the organization’s chair, Matthew Brofman and co-founder Sandra F. Cahn, and organizations such as Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, Nativ-Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, World Zionist Organization, Jewish National Fund – KKL, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Wilf Family Foundation, Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund, Diane Wohl, Bill Hess 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, and the Limmud FSU Ukriane project manager, Galyna Rybnikova, and an entire team of volunteers.
The volunteers and organizing committee members, many of whom are living, permanently or temporarily in countries other than Ukraine, worked together long-distance to mount the event. “We hope,” its leaders remarked at the end of the gathering, “that Limmud FSU gatherings truly serve as a light in these dark times.”