VITEBSK, Belarus – The latest incarnation of Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) took place for the first time in Belarus over the weekend, one of the most storied countries in Jewish history.
Once home to a thriving Jewish community decimated by World War II, Belarus produced nine Israeli presidents, two Nobel Prize laureates and dozens of world-class rabbis, intellectuals and artists. Notable among these figures are President Shimon Peres, former prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, former president Chaim Weizmann, the Soloveitchik rabbinical dynasty, and renowned artists Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine and Nahum Goldmann.
In Vitebsk, a four-hour drive outside the capital of Minsk, over 500 young Jewish men and women converged from Friday to Sunday to learn more about their shared history.
Even Peres’s daughter, celebrated linguist and author Prof. Tzvia Walden, flew in from Israel with her husband, Sheba Medical Center deputy director Prof. Raphael Walden, to speak at the historic conference and to honor her father’s childhood home outside of Minsk.
“I am honored to be here to represent my father,” said Walden when the Belarus government designated his modest childhood home a national monument last week. “I know he would have been so happy to be here with all of you.”
Still, Belarus’s tragic history – shrouded by the mass murder of 800,000 Jews who had lived there for centuries – was never far from the minds of the many participants who traveled from other FSU countries, America and Israel to attend the gathering.
“We must never forget the genocide that took place here,” said famed Belarus architect Leonid Levin, who is chairman of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Organizations and Communities, on Friday at a memorial site where 5,000 Jews were slaughtered. “This is our past. This is part of who we are.”
Prominent philanthropist and businessman Matthew Bronfman, who chairs Limmud FSU’s International Steering Committee, said he had traveled from New York to attend the conference in Vitebsk to help reconnect young Jews with a once-severed history.
“Our conferences embody the very spirit, energy and excitement of a new and young generation who are eager to reconnect with their own rich intellectual and religious heritage, from which they and their parents were cut off during 70 years of Communist rule,” he said.
He added that Limmud was “a revolutionary approach to questions of Jewish identity and education, and has become an inseparable part of the circle of Jewish life for young and not-so-young Russian-speaking adults.”
The volunteer-driven Limmud Jewish education conferences, first conceived in Britain 33 years ago, have since branched out internationally in nearly 10 countries, including Canada, Australia, the US, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, and most recently Belarus.
Limmud FSU was founded in 2006 by Chaim Chelser, of Israel, co-founded by Sandra Cahn, of New York, and Mikhail Chlenov, of Russia, and Aaron Frenkel, of Monte Carlo, is the president. The organization presents world-class Jewish scholars and professionals on topics including Diaspora Jews in the 21st century, Jewish art history, Torah and business, Israeli society, science and the soul, Jewish philosophy and Jewish-themed dance classes.
“We combined Limmud with Vitebsk, the capital of culture of the former Soviet Union – the country of Chagall and many other distinguished artists, as well as the former home to two great Israeli leaders and Nobel Prize winners, Shimon Peres and Menachem Begin,” said Chesler.
He praised the governments of Minsk and Brest, known to be politically restrictive, for having agreed to honor Peres’s childhood home and recognize Begin.
“It is a great achievement for Limmud to work on a joint effort of this kind with these governments, and shows that there is still a future for Jews in this part of the world,” he said.
Yana Osipova, an 18-yearold college student from Belarus, said Sunday that she was attending the conference to learn from world-class professionals.
“I belong to a Jewish club in my city and I live a Jewish life, so this project is interesting to me because many interesting people with different interests are here, and they’re willing to share their experience and knowledge with other people, and they do it with pleasure,” she said.
She added that there was “no problem being Jewish in Belarus.”
“There are some people who sometimes laugh at Jews, but that’s not a problem – especially when you meet and learn from people like this,” she said.
Participants certainly had a breadth of options, with speakers including senior Peres adviser Yoram Dori; Susan Goodman-Turnarkin, senior curator emeritus at the Jewish Museum of New York; Israeli Ambassador to Belarus Yosef Shagal; director, producer and screenwriter Boris Maftsir; and actor and director Shmuel Atzmon, founder of the Yiddishpiel Theater in Tel Aviv.
Vasilisa Smirnova, a cosmetics business developer from Moldova, said this was her seventh Limmud conference.
“I’ve become a Limmud addict,” she said over the weekend. “For me, this is important because I find Jewish culture very deep and very wise, and because I am young and looking for answers. I have found that Jewish culture helps me find answers to questions like, ‘Who I am in this world?’ and ‘What I should do?’” Kate Kozenkova, a 19-yearold college student, traveled four hours from Minsk to attend the conference, even though she is not Jewish.
“It’s a great opportunity to meet new people from all over the world, and I think it’s a good forum for promoting Belarus, which I love,” she said. “I think that the Jewish culture and community are great. I have never seen such close relationships between people who have never met before – they speak and connect with their hearts.”
While Kozenkova said she did not have any Jewish friends in Minsk, she noted enthusiastically that she had made several over the two days of the conference.
“For me, it’s your culture that I love – there are so many unbelievably interesting things about it that inspire me,” she said.
The people, she continued, “are so open and kind….
They smile at each other and are like a big family, and it doesn’t matter where I’m from or what I do…. It’s like an island paradise of Limmud.”
For Julia Davyelava, a musician and English teacher from Belarus, the Vitebsk event was her first Limmud conference.
“I wanted to learn what Limmud was all about because I’m a creative person and have interests in different spheres – philosophy, psychology, religion and literature,” she said. “I attended amazing lectures and now feel like I’m taking with me a little piece of gold from the beauty I saw here.”
While the vast majority of attendees said they were pleased with the lectures at the event, Anastasia Rosenberg, a Jewish Agency employee from Moscow who has attended five conferences, said she was disappointed by Vitebsk’s limited offerings on art history.
“I was an art history major, and I had hoped for more information about art in the sessions, since Chagall is from here, but I felt that the presenters were too broad in their presentations,” she said. “I just wish they offered more details about the art of great Jewish artists like him, and not general facts that I already knew.”
Despite her complaint, though, she said she was grateful for the program’s overall ability to educate her in a number of other areas of Jewish history and culture.
“Every Limmud is a step forward in life because you learn so much every time you attend,” she said. “This is why I keep coming.”
Natasha Lukyanava, a pianist and English translator from Minsk, said Limmud organizers had paid for her to attend the conference when health problems left her short of cash.
“I wasn’t able to pay to come because I was having trouble with my back and was unable to work,” she said. “But I wanted to come because I wanted knowledge – it’s just something from inside me. And Limmud let me come without paying.”
She said organizers had provided her with train and hotel fare so she could meet a friend at the conference, who helped her over the two days.
“I thought, if God wants me here, He will provide for me,” she said with a smile.
“And He did.”
She added that it was her dream to make aliya one day.
“I have been to Jerusalem a couple of times, and I really felt connected to it – like the saying, ‘If I forget Jerusalem, may my right arm wither away,’” she continued. “I felt like [Israelis] were my family, and I hope to come back to see them again soon. I feel like it is my country because the Old City’s Jewish Quarter has an atmosphere like Minsk.”
Meanwhile, Limmud FSU COO Roman Kogan, who has been instrumental in arranging all of the program’s conferences throughout the former Soviet Union, America and Israel, said he was delighted at how well Belarus’s first Limmud panned out.
“We are very proud to launch the Limmud FSU project in Belarus,” he said after the conference concluded.
“We worked very hard for many years to make this happen, and for the first conference here, it was brilliant in terms of the quality of the program.”
He thanked the numerous volunteers and presenters who had contributed.
“For Belarus it’s a huge project, because it gives the young generation of Belarus Jews an alternative platform for building their Jewish community and life, and I hope it will become a regular Limmud destination and continue to grow, because Belarus has a very rich Jewish history.”
Indeed, Kogan said he hoped Limmud would help reestablish a Jewish presence in a land where Jews once thrived and contributed to the world.
“We hope Limmud will contribute its own piece to this colorful mosaic for today’s Jews,” he said.