Jews in Russia balance Jewish culture and Russia’s place in the world

MOSCOW – More than 1,000, mostly young, Russian Jews gathered over the weekend at the Limmud FSU Moscow conference to listen to around 160 sessions highlighting Jewish culture, business and history.

The energetic and talkative crowds had come from Moscow and the surrounding area, with a few flying from as far away as Australia and the US, to witness the main event in the Russian Jewish diaspora that runs from through Sunday.

Anton Nosik, who was born in Moscow, moved to Israel in 1990, and then came back to Russia in 1995, described a Russia that had emerged from the dark period of the 1990s and was economically successful. Walking with a cane, sporting a kippa and a shirt with Mohandas Gandhi splashed across it, he described a tense political atmosphere with the crisis in Ukraine. “A nuclear winter could so away with us all.” He compared the Russian seizure of Crimea to the 1938 conquest of Austria by the Germans. He sees young Jews in Russia as living very disparate lives, without a clear central community. “The only thing that unites Jews in Moscow is this conference, because it caters to the brain,” he said.

What was clear was that the attendees were most fascinated by business leaders. Eugene Kogan, a businessman and financier, was mobbed by people after his lecture who treated him like a rock star. Roman Kogan, the executive director of Limmud FSU, smiled, “This is the way it is; they want to learn about business and how to succeed.”

Shahar Waiser, the founder and CEO of GetTaxi.com, who was sporting what seemed to be the latest Milan fashion, spoke hurriedly about his success in Israel. Like Nosik, he was born in Moscow and moved to Israel. He spent seven years in San Francisco before returning to the Jewish state. “We are one of the 15 fastest growing companies. I am here to share some of the practical advice on how you can take a small idea and become global,” Waiser said. He defines himself as a Jewish Zionist and notes that the Jewish community today in Russia is following in the footsteps of its forebears. “Historically Jews in Russia were very active and achieved a high level of success for a small population.” He hopes the crisis with Ukraine will pass. “I do believe that common sense and economic drivers should be helpful… In the global world economies are tight and those are bigger drivers than ego.”

Zeev Khanin, who lectures at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and is chief scientist for the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, presented a paper titled “A Generation of Desert? Contemporary FSU Jewish Youth: Ethnicity, Religion and the Nation.” In his study he showed that “this new Jewish identity is emerging largely through Jewish schools or community activities.”

Young people, what he termed the “third generation,” were discovering Jewish roots and culture. Based on studies conducted in 2008 and 2010-11, he showed that the Jewish community in Russia, once thought to be primarily one immigrating either to the West or Israel, was not only recovering but thriving.

From speaking to the young people, and seeing many children wandering the halls of the conference, it was clear a phenomenon is taking place in Moscow. Jews are reconnecting, not necessarily with religion, but with Jewish culture.

One crowd stood mesmerized by an explanation of how to make gefilte fish. A large new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center has been inaugurated in a giant warehouse in downtown Moscow. With the latest multimedia interactive presentations, and a quiet stream of people coming and going, it illustrated a rebirth of Jewish Russia.

Israeli Ambassador Dorit Golender attended the first day of Limmud FSU on Thursday.

Born in Lithuania and an immigrant to Israel in 1967 just prior to the Six Day War, she said the event was important to the community.

“We have an opportunity to speak in these discussions and create a dialogue and discussions,” she said.

Golender said it was important for Israel that the Jewish community in Russia remain dynamic.

“In the old days of the Soviet Union, Jews could not learn openly, today it is open; there are schools, kindergartens, many communities and synagogues. A Jew can decide for himself. This generation is new and they don’t want to leave Russia. They don’t want to leave their culture.” As for Ukraine, “we don’t have a stand on this issue,” she said.

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